Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Truth telling matter to everyone - journalists, commentators, tweeters and most especially readers - and every misstep by anyone lowers trust


In February 2021 journalist Tom Cowrie wrote an article titled Living for the weekend: infected hotel quarantine worker’s busy itinerary which was published in The Age on Thursday 4 February.

It discussed in great detail the weekend travel of a man who had left his place of work for a three-day break after showing a negative result to a workplace COVID-19 test and had gone about his daily life on days off.

He was doing nothing wrong or unlawful in those three days. However he reportedly became a person of interest because sometime after he returned to work on the Tuesday he began to feel unwell and tested positive for COVID-19 on the Wednesday.

I did not see the alleged responses to this particular article in The Age as I barely registered the piece at the time.

However, it seems that The Age Editor Gay Alcorn and Tom Cowie were very upset by readers’ responses.

Normally I would be most sympathetic to editors and journalists caught up in a sustained negative reaction. Especailly one which allegedly carried death threats.

However, something doesn’t quite compute and the two articles set out below rather explain why.

The first short two paragraph article states that the journalist was taking a short break and implies that the editor is leaving Twitter for good.

Alice Coster writing in the Herald Sun on 6 February 2021 at Page 19:

Age editor GAY ALCORN and reporter TOM COWIE have been badly mauled on Twitter for detailing the travels of the innocent 26-year-old hotel quarantine worker who tested positive for the mutant strain of the virus that could have shut down the city.

Mauled as in a shark attack. Trolls called Alcorn and Cowie “racists and bigots” bent on “going after the working class”. Cowie’s Twitter page says he’s “taking a break” from Twitter and Alcorn says she’s “baffled” and “reluctantly, I’m out of here”.

The reality is that The Age editor’s Twitter account remained active as of 2:27pm on 8 February 2021 and only the journalist has taken a break from his account.

The second longer article implies that The Age editor is removing the newspaper’s Twitter account. 

This was Nick Tabakoff writing in The Australian online on 8 February 2021:

Death threats’: Age editor snaps

Who would have thought a story about a worker visiting a kebab store and Kmart could cause such dramas?

The Age editor Gay Alcorn has stormed off Twitter after she revealed to Diary the paper received “death threats” over its much-debated feature about a Melbourne COVID-19 quarantine worker’s weekend moves.

The story traced every after-hours footstep of the COVID-positive quarantine hotel worker through Spencer Street institution Kebab Kingz (even publishing its “4.5 star” reviews on Google), Kmart, Bunnings and other locations.

But after Alcorn tweeted out the story on Thursday, along with a tongue-in-cheek message about the worker’s “busy” social schedule, Twitter erupted into furious criticism and in many cases, abuse.

Some of the milder tweets accused The Age of both “snobbery” towards the worker, and of blaming him for the outbreak. One that we can print came from ABC News Breakfast host Michael Rowland, who asked: “What are you trying to get at with this story?”. Meanwhile, author and former Age columnist Marieke Hardy sarcastically tweeted: “Fantastic. Great move. Well done Gay.”

After other much less printable messages, Alcorn — in two late-night tweets the same day — finally had enough. She dramatically announced her break-up with Twitter: “(I) am out of here.”

Speaking to Diary on Sunday, Alcorn said her Twitter exit was not an over-reaction, but a response to the fact that the author of the controversial story, Tom Cowie, had received death threats.

People don’t have to like an article,” she tells us. “They can say it was awful or lacked nuance or could have been done better. But the frenzied and increasingly enraged Twitter reaction was totally disproportionate, ending with vile private messages threatening violence against a reporter, threats we take seriously.”

Alcorn says she had tried since becoming The Age’s editor last year to embrace Twitter, and adopted a philosophy that “we must engage with our audiences and think deeply” about criticism.

But in the past few years, Twitter has become so abusive and furious it is all but impossible to have those conversations. The usual response that: ‘It’s only a few people, most Twitter users are great’, no longer feels true.

People have told me that they wanted to respond to the fury but were too nervous to do so for fear of being abused themselves.”

Alcorn is now turning to “ways to speak with our readers and subscribers” that don’t involve Twitter.

They won’t always be comfortable conversations, but hopefully they won’t end with death threats,” she says.

As of 4:51pm on Monday 8 February – four days after the reaction to Cowrie’s article began – the newspaper's Twitter account was still active.

Quite frankly, given the misstatements of fact in the latter two articles and the tenor of the original story it is hard to call The Age editor’s decision to promote the original article in the manner she did on Twitter. Neither were done in the best of taste as the man involved had done nothing to deserve ridicule.

As for the Herald Sun and The Australian – I have to wonder if before they went to print with this story the newspapers even checked whether these alleged death threats and “vile private messages threatening violence” were reported to the police.

A verified complaint made to police would give readers some confidence that parts of these two articles were indeed truthful.

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