School's in: Journalism As Government Public Relations
If one thing's clear about the Australian debate on school safety in the age of Covid-19, it's that so much of what we're told via mainstream journalism appears as little more than thinly-disguised government public relations.
The recent release of an investigation commissioned by NSW Health and the Education Department serves as a perfect example.
Covered by The Sun-Herald, Safe as houses: COVID-19 study clears NSW schools for student return manages to run with a subheading that would feel positively North Korean if it were to adorn an actual NSW Government press release.
(In fact the official release is far more restrained Report: COVID-19 in schools - the experience in NSW - a luxury perhaps of a media eco-system willing to do the messaging work for you.)
The towering assertion of a title wobbles on top of a Government-sponsored study of just 9 confirmed student cases in NSW schools (out of a total of 18) – the kind of evidentiary basis which, in any other context, would be considered interesting preliminary research, requiring further study with greater sample sizes and peer review.
Schools are safe... but only in Australia
Keep in mind this ongoing attempt to prove 'schools are safe' is a peculiarly Australian one, driven perhaps by a political stubbornness emanating from Canberra which believes proving this is necessary.
Search the media of comparable nations and you'll discover a far more considered national debate: an acknowledgement of the risks (both real and unknown) of schools and infection, accompanied by nuanced and often complicated proposals around gradual re-opening of schools.
See for instance discussion in the United Kingdom:
Dr Mike Tildesley, an expert in disease modelling at the University of Warwick, tells The Independent that even if children are less effective vectors for the virus, the fact that so many of them would be crowded into schools could pose a risk.
The problem is there’s still an awful lot of uncertainty, and this is the real concern we have,” he says. “We know from the data coming in that children tend to have much more mild symptoms than the older age groups. Where there is still a lot of uncertainty is how much they transmit and this is a big concern.
Or for instance Israel:
Health officials have cautioned against reopening schools too early, stressing concerns that children may infect each other widely and that while they themselves may be able to weather the virus, their parents and grandparents will have a harder time doing so.
“The reinstatement of the education system will come at the cost of human lives,” Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto warned Thursday during an Army Radio interview.
The official position of health authorities in countries with major outbreaks, such as the US (CDC) and Germany (RKI), is that while children experience milder symptoms, they are infectious and play a role in viral transmission.
Journalism As Government Public Relations
So how safe are schools (and for that matter houses)? Let's work our way through the reporting:
There is no evidence that children have infected teachers with COVID-19 in NSW schools, and half of all confirmed cases at the schools studied were teachers themselves.
A curious thing about data is that the above could partly be restated as "There is evidence that children have infected other children with COVID-19 in NSW schools."
(That's because the study found 2 new student cases that were connected to students from the initial 9 cases.)
It seemed like only last month Professor Murphy was fronting the nation to justify schools remaining open based in part on no evidence that children were infectious.
Now that there is evidence of student-to-student transmission the wider data is subtly used by government to advance a new theory of limited infectiousness in children: "Okay yes, they can be infectious - but the data we have is currently telling us they don't infect teachers."
It's a masterful use of limited data. Data which from one perspective undermines a previous AHPPC position, but from another appears primed for use against the concerns of teachers and their representative bodies.
These are the findings of a thorough investigation the Berejiklian government hopes will reassure educators and parents that it is safe for students to return to the classroom.
We're reminded this is not just an investigation: it's a thorough one, and that for students (at least) the government believes it proves classrooms are safe.
"Schools are among the safest places that we have," lead investigator Professor Kristine Macartney, of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, told The Sun-Herald.
Some may consider this reassuring statement from the lead investigator a slight over-reach based on the study at hand, and one that feels like it has just leapt from the cold confines of scientific rigour and into the warm embrace of political messaging.
It also feels incomplete. As if perhaps some qualifications could be attached? Such as "...except for at-risk students, students who do get infected, and teachers and support staff".
Remember, among the safest places we have is a rather strong claim.
Through the rest of the reporting we learn that the largest international study of student-to-teacher transmission - this one - involves 9 students, and that this is apparently enough to back advice from the AHPPC which 'has not wavered' from its recommendation that schools stay open.
There is no mention that Victoria - and New South Wales itself - has ignored that same advice, or that tensions are driven by personal concerns of parents, teachers and even experts. These are all reduced to a hyper-partisan political framing of "simmering tensions between the teachers unions and governments", as if Peter Dutton himself is dictating the copy from an undisclosed location.
Schools are so safe they close them when a coronavirus case is detected.
At this stage you may feel the intended audience of NSW teachers are not feeling particularly reassured by this ham-fisted attempt to persuade. To remove any doubt the article oddly reminds us of a recent contribution from Morrison:
On Friday Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the risk to teachers "is not in the classroom - their risk is in the staff room".
Safe as houses teachers. Safe as houses.
The rest of the article breezes through the details of the report, making the bold assumption that readers would not be interested in the open question of antibody responses in children, antibody test reliability, or the lack of comprehensive swab testing outlined in the study (with only a third of contacts tested).
More important though, is the assumption readers are not interested in an elimination strategy for Covid-19 in Australia - and how opening schools may impact that goal.
Confirmation bias as far as the eye can see
As is typical of reporting on this topic all contrary expert opinions and overseas evidence related to childhood infection and risks in schools is routinely ignored - only data supportive of the NSW government position appears to make the cut.
Moving beyond the Sun-Herald article, this exercise in confirmation bias (searching only for evidence which supports a position) manifests in much of the reporting and commentary of other prominent media voices on this issue, such as Samantha Maiden, Political Editor at news.com.au, and Peter Collignon at the Australian National University.
Most energy appears to be spent on discovering and amplifying supportive evidence, as if Coronavirus is an anthropomorphised being which just needs to be convinced of the correct course of action, rather than what it is: a new and little-understood infectious disease.
Hostility to (contrarian) thinking and data
A more reassuring pattern of behaviour would be one in which these amplified voices showed at least as much interest in evidence and expert perspectives which refute their out-on-a-limb assumptions about lack of childhood infectiousness. Searching for this kind of contrary evidence in a pandemic is thought by many to be a particularly sensible idea.
Of course that's exactly what Professor Raina MacIntyre demonstrated this week, reviewing the available evidence and sharing her view that it's reasonable to think they might be, but that more data is needed.
However government-aligned voices are so invested in their pet theory of school safety that they see contrarian voices as direct threats.
Take for instance the Twitter account @covid19NSW, which has regularly hinted at insider knowledge, particularly in relation to the NSW government report:
(Assuming the 10-day claim is true, it's uncertain - and curious - why the report release was rapidly brought forward in the media cycle).
When presented with Professor MacIntyre's review the immediate response was to attack her professionally:
Samantha Maiden also attempted to mount a critical review of one aspect of Professor MacIntyre's presentation:
A more aggressive example of her policing the Canberra-approved narrative using a favoured and completely spurious line that this is equivalent to climate change denial:
This reflexive adversarial stance towards discussion which does not faithfully hew to Canberra messaging reflects a kind of groupthink monoculture which should alarm anyone invested in a belief that a vigorous contest of ideas on the national stage is healthy for a democracy and a nation.
However what's ironic about the reaction to Professor MacIntyre's contribution in particular is that a careful reading of her most recent talk suggests she is not making a strident case for keeping schools shut. In fact, she goes as far as to state:
If we relax the interventions, we probably will see an uptick but if we expand the testing with that we can control it.
While she does signal a belief that elimination is possible in Australia (which implies a preference for stricter community measures), she also displays signs of an honest, transparent and cautious scientist laying it all on the table: yes, children are likely transmitters, schools a risk, and outbreaks will occur, but if there is a preference for relaxation it may be manageable, but even so elimination is still preferable.
This trust-inducing behaviour is the reverse of what we see with Morrison's strategy: political messaging totally invested in convincing themselves, and society-at-large, that schools are safe.
The demand to believe in the questionable - backed by little data and less rationality - has an alarming, authoritarian strongman flavour to it and is what erodes trust, not just in decisions around education, but also in the rationale driving all government policy.
And right now, that trust is needed more than ever.
Cover photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash