Media dynamics in times of social unrest
The dramatic shifts in the discursive qualities, journalistic processes and motivational factors that now define our collective media horizons raise compelling questions about the corporate and institutional interests that influence the reporting and gathering of news
The astounding speed with which the killing of George Floyd activated the consciousness of a global citizenry brings into sharp focus the manner in which a ubiquitous media device such as a mobile phone can become a catalyst for social change. It was not simply the recording of an event of horrendous brutality that primed the catapult; it was also the capacity to disseminate this incident to a vast public that transformed outrage into an outpouring of demonstrations, marches and, it seems, legislation that will attempt, yet again, to disassemble the structures that can enable similar episodes from taking place.
The catastrophes of the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded in parallel with the agonies of the George Floyd killing. The manner in which these cataclysmic phenomena have been represented in mass and social media and the narratives associated with these occurrences, illustrate the disparate dynamics that define the global media landscape and its flows of information and analysis.
A single brutal incident, propelled by the keen awareness of bystanders, sets off a spontaneous chain of events that ricochets across continents. In contrast, national responses to the worldwide pandemic are rolled out using elaborate forms of media orchestration and manipulation, in many cases mismanaged, resulting in the needless loss of life and extreme forms of social and economic distress.
The dramatic shifts in the discursive qualities, journalistic processes and motivational factors that now define our collective media horizons raise compelling questions about the corporate and institutional interests that influence the reporting and gathering of news. These issues directly affect how a locality’s citizenry becomes capable of, and involved in, making informed decisions regarding pressing social concerns as well as matters of life or death.
Fortunately, the relationships that exist between the media tail that wags public consciousness is not irreversible nor is the debate solely centred on Trumpian notions of ‘fake news’ or the often one-dimensional analyses of BBC news readers or commentators. Broader, persistent issues are at stake, including questions that require thorough public discussion that examine the economic and social consequences of the continuing re-configuring of media practices.
In the short march from the analogue realms of telephones, newspapers, radio and finally television, as our basic information resources are digitally transformed into contemporary communications environments, it is worth considering the motivating factors behind our need to communicate and share information. The necessities of communication, whether on a social or personal level, or the more formal needs for business and commerce, continue to evolve. And, public capacity to access and store vast amounts of information, to consume products globally, to witness an array of events often in real time, and to participate in a panorama of cultural activities is unprecedented.
The opaque digital territories and analogue ‘campuses’ of information harvesters operate largely immune from an ethos of journalism and without accountability to publics that are dependent on their services. Major conversations and discussions now occur in highly commodified media domains. Only a short time ago it was unimaginable for someone to be monitoring our phone conversations to try to discover which laundry detergent we favoured. What’s more, the social spaces of discourse and information exchange have been radically transformed. The time/space dimensions of information flows, the variations in forms of dialogue, ever-evolving collaborative processes, and our capacities to access a seemingly infinite variety of media and consumer products would suggest a form of liberation that would have been impossible at the turn of the 20th century.
Precisely what has changed in the short trek from the dial-up telephone to the smart phone? How do we interpret and digest the expansive terrain of information consumables? What are the, not benign, economic factors that propel the gathering and distribution of information? What innovative forms of media literacies (pedagogical practices) are needed to navigate and decipher this enormous, transnational, digital playing field?
We don’t know when a post-COVID world will arrive or precisely in what form. But what is starkly apparent is that we will continue to be confronted with many of the previously touched-on concerns. In this context, the ramifications of the current upheavals require our policy makers and media institutions to approach these issues in a manner that goes beyond ineffectual ‘business as usual’ commissions or pronouncements.