The current pandemic has reproposed, this time with more acuity than ever, key questions for the media and journalism.
First, the current crisis has reconfirmed that our reality is indeed substantially shaped by media. We live in an era of deep mediatization, as researchers call it (see Andreas Hepp’s Deep Mediatization book published in 2019, among many others), with every aspect of our lives shaped by media technologies. It is likely that reality, society and interpersonal communications will forever be changed by this. As our WhatsApp and Zoom communications continue, we will definitely come out at the other end speaking and communicating differently.
Fake news is also now a staple feature of media production and consumption. It seems though that this virus is worsening the widespread infection of established functions of journalism: the promotion and defence of truth, verification and expertise.
Journalism IS defined, at its core, as a discipline of verification. Social media, citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and the speed of breaking news have already impacted on journalistic practices, our trust in news outlets and our understanding of truth and expertise. The crisis is now asking tough questions about the ways fake news, conspiracy theories and those, whoever you believe they are, behind them, have managed to relativize truth and trust, and have relaxed the rules about who is allowed to speak and with what knowledge and expertise.
However, it is not all bad news. It means we need verified and verifiable journalism more than ever. There is evidence that consumption of local news – not long ago a weakening and on-its-way-out branch of journalism – is increasing, as people are keen to understand the pandemic realities of their local areas.
We have more ‘proper’ experts invited to speak in the media, and that’s good news for scientists and academics too. More people are tuning into public service broadcasters for those old-fashioned qualities; balance and verification. The Advertising Standards Authority is also beginning to crack down on misleading web ads for COVID-19 treatments, as reported by The Drum last week. However, this last piece of news will also add to many liberals’ concerns about the long-term negative impact on democracy of increased regulation, policing and the use of emergency crisis laws to deepen dictatorial tendencies (does anyone care about Hungary?).
Finally, we know that COVID-19 is changing journalism and media production in terms of practice as well: the ways newsrooms operate, the rules of news gathering and interviewing, the screen aesthetics and on location shooting. With home schooling in full swing and likely to continue, the pandemic is also asking the creative industries, more generally, to rethink the way employees are operating. This is particularly acute in an industry where the practice of long shifts has forever disadvantaged women. Will the future of women in journalism and media be better or worse following this crisis? I will gladly leave that baton there for someone else to take up and run with.
Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu, Reader in Communication and ISR Fellow at Edge Hill University.