Leading epidemiologist on what the Australian media got right – and wrong


In the second part of our COVID One Year On series, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws calls out the best and feral worst of the Australian media's coronavirus coverage.

It didn't happen with SARS, MERS or Ebola but the SAR-CoV2 coronavirus pandemic has turned Australian epidemiologists who previously worked in happy obscurity into household names.

UNSW Professor of Outbreak Epidemiology Mary-Louise McLaws is one such phenomenon, an academic now known by name across Australia. Not afraid to contradict the Government or confront journalists, she has developed a reputation for being an expert based in fact with a strong moral centre.

She dials into the virtual interview with Newsworthy from her home office, her face framed by familiar dark-rimmed glasses and blonde bob, set against the backdrop of a white asymmetric bookcase on a peacock blue wall. It's a scene captured in the hundreds of televised interviews she has done since the pandemic upended normal life. "My husband may come in to deliver some tea," she laughs.

From her home office, she has spent the past year educating Australians (and the journalists who carry her message). In doing so, she's experienced, up close, the many facets of the modern media landscape, from the best of old school print journalism, to performative morning television to the "gobsmacking" crudity of social media at its feral worst.

Despite the blips, McLaws has been impressed by the Australian media's willingness to provide information free of a political agenda, always aiming to educate, not inflame or enrage the Australian public. After a year in the COVID media trenches, she sees the journalists as partners in communicating to and educating the public.

"The one area that I can really commend journalists in print, is that they haven't ever tried to manipulate what you're saying or quote you out of context. So, they've been incredibly ethical that way.

With television journalists she has appreciated their willingness to let her talk, as epidemiologists must, in complex numbers. "They often give me an idea of the questions, or even give me the top points of areas they're going to cover. … That's very helpful, so that I don't just give a feeling I give a fact.

Journalists have, she said, given themselves time to learn, to get an idea of what she is trying to help them communicate, "either getting the public on side for something, or for making sure that the authorities aren't trying to pull wool over anyone's eyes".

"First and foremost, is their want to be educated… As I'm talking to them about COVID and answering their questions, it's not always easy to give a yes or no. I'll explain on the television pieces, they are happy for you to give an overview of the particular issue and then say, from that, this is why my position is X. I've had lots of journalists come back saying, 'I really appreciate your giving me time to learn about the complexity of COVID-19'."

'This is how powerful and independent journalists can be. And they always need to remain apolitical and independent, so that you can put a stop to things like that.'

Not everyone was so open to the complexity of the issue. McLaws was interviewed on breakfast television in April last year: "The conversation started by talking about China's responsibility, and it's all China's fault and I was saying, well, we don't know.

"They talked about the wet markets. My counter view was, you can't just shut down a marketplace, because how do people get their food? There could be other explanations as well, but they ceremoniously put the stop sign, just stopped me from talking and I stopped being on television ... And I thought, oh, so really, they just wanted theatre and they got theatre."

Theatrical exceptions aside, McLaws applauded the majority of journalists' resistance to embracing a Trump-style polemic on the COVID issue."They weren't as overtly critical as I am, but they allowed me to be critical … Now I don't know if it was me. (I don't think so, I'm not that important)", but she saw journalists stop responding to Australian political leaders who were responding to US leaders and putting an unhelpful racial polemic on the COVID issue.

"This is how powerful and independent journalists can be. And they always need to remain apolitical and independent, so that you can put a stop to things like that."

McLaws, a self-described "pain in the neck" for government authorities, said she's "very thick skinned" when people don't agree with her opinion because, "and I know this sounds very academically smug, but I know I'm good at my job".

"I make comments after I've done my homework, I do a lot of work before giving an interview, to make sure I am right up there with information. I attend two meetings weekly with World Health Organisation so I know I'm right up there with my information," she said.

She doesn't worry when people don't agree with her but she does read why they don't agree so that she can think about how to sell a message better next time.

All that homework did not prepare her for the blunt force trauma of a social media pile on. In 2020, COVID-19 had created an environment where the Australian public watched newsfeeds with bated breath, with 70 per cent of Australian accessing news multiple times a day, according to theUniversity of Canberra's News and Media Research Centre.

Speaking live on Sky News, McLaws had voiced her support for then Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy's view that they needed to shut down international travel.

"I said 'I do support that view, because it will take us longer than October to vaccinate 21 million people'. The headline was 'McLaws supports closing of the border' and the personal attacks that followed were explicitly sexualised.

"It's the sexualisation and the bullying that was a shock, because I've been protected all these years from anything like that at work. And it came as a surprise that people would think that they could say the most outrageous things," McLaws said of the vitriolic Twitter posts.

Prior to the ugly personal attacks, her historic posts on Twitter revealed an open discussion, brimming with generosity and explanations to questions posed to her by users. She no longer uses Twitter regularly. "I think it's a forum for people to use hate and sexist speech," she said.

She said the personal jabs were "just gobsmacking" in their crudity. The COVID-19 pandemic saw epidemiologists, many of whom were ill-accustomed with maintaining a public profile, thrust into the spotlight. It was completely novel as "even during SARS and Ebola, no one ever interviewed an epidemiologist".

"So, we were never prepared for this sort of public personal attack. [UNSW] certainly wasn't prepared because when I explained it to them, they were surprised and shocked," she says.

"I think it's something new that people and employers need to consider about how they're going to support their employees during these new times of online reporting and online bullying."

A year on from the declaration of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic on March 11, 2020, McLaws is positive about the role the Australian media has played.

"I think the media should be congratulated for ensuring that they were not making political mileage," she said. "That's been very helpful, and I think that has actually then helped keep the community calm."

– Additional reporting by Lara Carlucci

Part 1: It's time for 'good global citizens' to step up


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