By JIMIN SEO

In many ways, the Coronavirus allowed New Zealand to come to a profound realisation on many issues; the stress exerted on our fragile health system highlighted both the strengths and flaws of the status quo of our current system. Government leadership was also tested, and in this regard, prime minister Adern’s government passed with flying colours.

According to Dr Catherine Strong, however, the Coronavirus also tested the government’s attitude towards community newspapers. During the level 4 lockdown, the government passed a blanket ban on over 100 community newspapers while allowing large daily newspapers to operate. Dr Strong stressed that this was not only stopping the crucial flow of information for those living in rural communities, but also revealed a fundamentally flawed “city centric” view towards smaller journalistic organisations in Aotearoa.

Dr Strong has always supported community journalism in New Zealand. “Not only do they provide relevant and localised news, such as crime reports, they foster a sense of community cohesiveness,” observes the senior professor. Furthermore, Strong supported the open and transparent nature of local community journalism, which was small enough to be held accountable by the local townsfolk. “[Reaching out to the local newspaper] is as easy as walking over to your neighbour that writes for the paper and giving him a comment about what you thought about yesterday’s editorial or article. The communal intimacy means that you can directly engage with the newspaper. That is what makes community newspapers so strong.”

Strong makes the case for supporting local journalism all the clearer in the coronavirus crisis and points to the rural heartland of New Zealand, where slow internet connections and lower levels of income means that “quite often, the community newspaper is one of the few methods of gaining information on coronavirus data for these people”. An example of a community newspaper that held importance was the Bay of Plenty’s The Weekend Sun, with a relatively large circulation of 60,000 papers weekly. For thousands within that community, their access to reliable data would have been cut off, argues Strong.

In response to this, many are quick to point out that people in rural communities could watch television, or even purchase the still operational ‘dailies’ to acquire the necessary information surrounding Covid-19 to rural communities. However, Strong argues that this argument misses the point entirely: “this means rural communities would get ‘local’ news that really isn’t local. The situation in the small towns of New Zealand is completely different. So the information that the people do get, it isn’t really specific to them.”

By this, Strong is referring to the larger publications such as The Dominion Post, or The Press, which mostly cover the events in the urban areas. This reveals the heart of the issue: the current government’s “city-centric” view that fails to understand the vastly different reality of people in New Zealand’s rural communities.

Although Dr Strong’s criticism of the blanket decision led to more relevant publications regarding droughts and farming to be published, Strong argues that the issue of city-centric decision making is still a fundamental issue. Not only does this reflect a “misunderstanding of how others live”, it has put people living in rural communities at far more risk. “Best practice in crisis communication is to use information flows that people already have and already depend on, not to try to change their news habits in the middle of a crisis,” argues Dr Catherine Strong.

Finally, Dr Strong points to the growing danger of misinformation online, and how rural communities become at more risk of misleading information when there is no reliable source as a point of reference. In a profit driven media landscape, fake news thrives on hype and controversy to steal the attention of readers. As there is no verified and reliable source of information, more people will naturally hear the wrong information, says Strong, “it’s inevitable”.

Although Strong did not hesitate to reveal the government’s disconnected and potentially dangerous “city-centric” approach to the distribution of journalism in rural communities, she mentioned that this “shortsighted” ban of local newspapers did not reflect the government’s attitude to rural New Zealand at large. “I love what [prime minister Adern] is doing for New Zealand. She is doing exceptionally well,” states Dr Strong. “However, it is important to realise that this is an area to be improved”.

Jimin Seo is a student in Auckland with a passion for writing prose and journalism. Hobbies primarily comprise of: hitting that diplomatic woah at MUN events, annoying friends about geopolitics, and binging on the Conan O’brien show.

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