Three-D Issue 35: A wake-up call, but who’s listening?

Simon Cottle
Cardiff University

As our academic field gears up and sets about interrogating the ways in which media and communications have variously engaged with and communicatively enacted this unprecedented – though in truth long-predicted – global pandemic, it is worth considering what appears to be on the research agenda and, importantly, what seems to be under-recognised and overlooked. It is imperative, I suggest, that scholars and students of media reporting, as well as journalists, citizens and governments, wake up to the reality that Covid-19 is not simply a deadly aberration temporarily wreaking havoc on the world. This is to mistake symptom for cause. Covid 19 is both expressive of and exacerbating today’s multiple, accelerating and mutually compounding global crises. We inhabit a world-in-crisis, that is to say, a world that has spawned synchronous existential threats of its own making – climate change, bio-diversity loss, mass extinctions, food and water insecurity, nuclear weapons. These, for the most part, are underpinned by the seemingly inexorable pursuit of economic growth and unsustainable processes of environmental exploitation – processes that now presage the collapse of human existence as we know it.

There is growing evidence to suggest that Covid-19 cannot be assumed to be yet another unfortunate albeit particularly virulent and deadly virus mutation that will soon pass. Along with other disease outbreaks across recent years, such as Ebola, Avian Flu, and MERS, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, a disease that can mutate and jump species. In this case the probable first host was bats though possibly this was then bridged to humans by pangolins – wild animals caged, killed and sold in the wet markets of Wuhan city, China. Zoonotic diseases, many of them deadly, are thought to be on the increase in today’s world because of the ways in which human society is destructively interacting with animal species and ever encroaching upon natural environments. Capturing and then transporting wildlife to crowded wet markets where animals are caged and then killed in close proximity, enhances the chance of disease spread. The loss of wildlife and habitats with the growth of monoculture agriculture replacing carbon-sink forests, contributes to bio-diversity loss, as does climate change and the unsettling of complexly populated ecologies based on hierarchical food-chains. This biodiversity loss not only threatens the extinction of typically larger predator species, but also grants opportunities for some remaining species to thrive – smaller mammals such as rodents for example, or particular species of insects that can become the carriers of disease. The recent increase in deadly zoonotic diseases, then, far from arriving out of nowhere can be situated within the contemporary world (dis)order, a world based on unsustainable economics and dying ecologies.

When I hear of much of the work currently being undertaken in our field in respect of Covid-19 and its news reporting – whether through conference calls and papers given, special journal editions, research programmes and so on – I find little to suggest that scholars in our community are adopting either the global nature and global inequalities of the pandemic or its ecological underpinning in today’s world-in-crisis as their critical benchmark. Why is this? Is it because research antennae are routinely pointed at national contexts and media, and research agendas are more comfortably conceived and methodologically pursued along single-issue tracks?

Studies that set out to systematically interrogate how news organisations and journalists perform their professed public remit of educating and informing citizens about national government policies and public health initiatives designed to tackle Covid-19 continue, of course, to hold importance. As do those that seek to examine and expose the circuits of information and misinformation propagated by political elites in the public sphere or which attend to the cacophony of contending claims and counterclaims, whether those of government and opposition parties, scientists and experts, or those advanced by front-line workers and survivors, or even anti-vaxxers, that all variously spin, swirl and sometimes spit in today’s media caldron. When some of these communications flows spill over into political scandal and legitimation crises of government and governance, these too are important areas for investigation.

The increased risks experienced by journalists when reporting on Covid-19 around the world are also part of the story that needs to be told, including the increased government censorship and evasion of scrutiny imposed in its name, as well as the increased threats to journalists including imprisonment in disease infected prisons (see: Reporters Sans Frontiers, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International News Safety Institute). And yes, we can also pay attention to how the preceding ‘crisis of journalism’ rooted in the political economy of an increasingly globalized, competitive and digitised media-sphere, along with changing media production technologies, falling advertising revenues, and shifting audience consumption patterns and different demographic uses of media affordances, have all impacted on the communication of the pandemic. Some of us too will want to explore how today’s media ecology, with its different news outlets, news forms and networks of operatives are at work in the mediation of Covid-19, as well as the play of different story-telling narratives, news epistemologies and news values that culturally mediate the pandemic to different publics. More ambitious studies will hopefully also seek to step outside of their particular national media boxes to undertake comparative cross-national or better transnational research exploring how different political regimes in combination with different media systems and journalism fields have performed and with what human costs. These and other akin media and communication approaches to Covid-19, approached for the most part as a major public health crisis, are all important, necessary and … expected. They do not however, begin to situate or examine Covid-19 and its reporting within today’s planetary crisis of economically induced ecological exhaustion and the manufactured risks threatening humanity.

Now is the time to interrogate and better understand journalism’s deafening silence in respect of the combined ecological crises that threaten on a planetary scale the end to human society as we know it, including the emergence of new deadly zoonotic diseases and their migration as globalised and system-disrupting pandemics. To what extent, why and how has news media reporting around the world, both nationally and transnationally, diminished, distanced or entirely dissimulated Covid-19 as an expression of our world-in-crisis and impending planetary emergency? To what extent are environmental externalities investigated, exposed and deliberated in news reporting of ecological collapse and biodiversity loss? To what degree, if at all, has indigenous thinking and traditional environmental practices been recognised in the mediated public debate about how to respond to today’s rapidly compounding crises of environment and ecology? When and where have journalists sought to make the connections and join up the dots between the human-spawned global crises of environmental despoilation, bio-diversity loss, climate change, food and water insecurity, international inequality, population movements and conflicts? Or, if not, why not? And, based on what we already know, how can this communicative deficit be improved upon and changed? How and when will journalism be encouraged to rise to the scale of the impending/unfolding disaster by sending daily dispatches from the frontlines of the climate emergency, biodiversity loss, ecological degradation whilst holding powerholders – along with the rest of us – to account? When will the necessary holistic consciousness of a world-in-crisis begin to inform and shape the moral horizons and norms of journalism story-telling and practice, and in ways that culturally resonate and deliberatively engage? How can journalism’s communicative architecture, including the enhanced connectivity of social media be creatively harnessed and deployed to raise the alarm and publicly debate the necessary responses, both cognitively recognising and culturally affirming the nature, scale and complexity of the tasks ahead and the profound transformations needed?

My concern is not only that it seems that most news media, with few/occasional exceptions only, are institutionally, professionally and culturally disposed to global myopia when reporting on Covid-19, but that too many scholars and students of media communications and journalism may be also? Covid-19 is a wake-up call. Now is the time to recognize the reality of a world-in-crisis and explore both the failings as well as the potential of news media and journalism more widely. We need the world of journalism to cognitively recognise and culturally affirm the reality of the existential threats that now confront us all. As researchers, as well as citizens, we have our part to play in critically engaging with both the deficiencies as well as opportunities for deliberation and democratic deepening inherent to journalism when reporting our world-in-crisis.

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