How are the Nordic and Baltic media coping with their tasks during the COVID-19 crisis?

A short summary of some of the points raised by the panellists at the webinar “How are the Nordic and Baltic media coping with their tasks during the COVID-19 crisis?” on 31 March, 2020. 

The webinar ‘panel’ consisted of:

Brit Stakston (Sweden) - a media strategist, author and co-founder of the crowdfunded media project Blankspot,

Asbjørn Slot Jørgensen (Denmark) – journalist, ass. professor at the Danish School of Media and Journalism and a course leader at the Nordic Journalist Centre in Aarhus,

Guna Spurava (Latvia) – UNESCO Media Literacy Chair at the Latvian University, currently a researcher at Tampere University, Finland.

 

The role and challenges of journalism in the current crisis:

Generally speaking, the role of journalism in a crisis is to cover the pre-impact phase, the acute / impact phase, and the immediate post-impact phase, followed by the recovery phase and long-term reconstruction. Brit Stakston expressed concern, though, that journalism in Sweden might have adopted a questioning tone a bit too early, without even first seeing and appraising the impact of the decisions taken: “I do think that this part of the crisis is too acute for this kind of strategy to be good for society – to have this feeling that you cannot trust anybody.” One should keep in mind that the media’s role is not limited to the questioning and critique but that it also encompasses being trustful and supportive to the public and providing a well-curated general overview of the available material. There is a risk that by solely concentrating on the critique a lot of other perspectives might be missed: “This is really the time for journalism to show why it’s needed. Of course, it’s linked to the questioning, but it’s also linked to the fact of being able to curate and give correct information, and also to be very aware of not using information that is not confirmed.”

Asbjørn Slot Jørgensen reminded that the obligation of questioning and challenging the authorities should be constantly upheld, notwithstanding the stage of the crisis: “Being critical against those in power, and being critical towards power in general, even towards your own decisions, i.e., not acting just out of fear of missing out but [acting] out of your obligations to the audience and the community.” A lot of very drastic and unprecedented decisions are currently being made, putting a lot of issues at stake, which should not be accepted without a proper degree of argumentation and discussion. He also pointed out that media should start looking for other topics to be covered, all the time retaining a balanced sense of perspective and proportions. Constructive and solutions-oriented approach must be in focus.  

Speaking from a media consumer’s perspective, Guna Spurava called for faster and more up-to-date information. In this time, when “our attention and hunger for media support is unprecedented”, media should keep in mind that its audiences are looking for very fast answers. Spurava also pointed out that the topic of physical health should be supplemented with the content related to mental health, which is currently missing.

Asbjørn Slot Jørgensen cited a recent survey, a so-called trust barometer, showing the population’s trust in various sources and authorities. Scientists, doctors and health officials come out on top: It’s a very positive sign, because for decades science has been neglected or ridiculed, and even attacked by some politicians and policymakers – for instance, with regard to climate science.” At the same time, according to Jørgensen, “we are putting all eggs in one basket now” by relying on a very narrow selection of science and authorities, which might present a potential risk. Similarly, to Guna Spurava, he pointed out other aspects which lack our attention: “What about short-term or long-term effects on mental health caused by the isolation, by the fear, by the drastic changes in budget?”

Guna Spurava raised the importance of state’s and government’s role in contributing to the general trust in media. It is of acute importance now to decide on what would be the right ways of supporting the media, also financially. There is a risk that during the crisis the finances might follow those “who scream the loudest”, thus depriving of the necessary support those who need it the most or at least just as much.

The importance of public service media

Asbjørn Slot Jørgensen emphasized that I don’t equal public service with publicly funded, but I do equal public service with the obligation to serve one’s community.” It has been observed over the past years that people increasingly prefer what they label as credible news media – despite the onslaught of the social media and the rising levels of disinformation. Research also suggests that trust in the local news media in particular has been increasing.  

For the journalists themselves, Brit Stakston meant that the current situation called for more thorough and transparent explanation of the journalistic tools used and, in some instances, also ethical reasoning behind the methods chosen.

Fake or not? The responsibility of media users

Guna Spurava underlined that “unfortunately we are not taught to be responsible for what we are creating and what we are sharing, posting and liking. We don’t understand the consequences.”

Another aspect to keep in mind, according to Guna Spurava, is our responsibility toward those society members who cannot easily access the information on social media. This might present an opportunity for inter-generational cooperation, where the younger generation could be of help to the elders in terms of technique usage while the older generation might contribute with critical thinking when evaluating the facts presented.

Brit Stakston added that “what you should always be asking yourself is – who put this information there and why, and be really careful about what information you share.” She underlined, though, that while a certain level of critical attitude towards the sources is necessary, it is also important to define for oneself which sources are trustful and to share only those sources within one’s network.

Brit Stakston also mentioned the important steps currently taken by the social media ‘giants’ in order to combat misinformation and lift fact-based information to the foreground: “The media giants are actually daring to take responsibility for something that has been a problem for such a long time.” While the chosen strategies in terms of political advertising might still differ across the social media channels, public health seems to be the first field where the social media have found a common language in the way they apply their algorithms and filter information flows.

Guna Spurava reminded, however, of the potential danger of relying solely on the goodwill of the social media owners. We should keep in mind that they will always tend to put their business interests first: “The level of uncertainty and the potential for manipulation today is very high, which means that the potential for earning money is very high too.” Policymakers should therefore seriously think about concrete steps to ensure some kind of monitoring or supervision over what the tech companies are currently doing.

Asbjørn Slot Jørgensen commented that I think we, the news media, who consider ourselves being the good guys, are a much larger risk to the public, because our priorities have a much larger impact at the moment.”

 Hopes for the future?

Despite all the uncertainty and bleakness of the given situation, there are glimmers of hope that might turn into long-term positive effects. 

Asbjørn Slot Jørgensen noted that the level of innovative entrepreneurship, flexibility, creativity is just fantastic!” He also discerned a high level of self-reflection in the news media, which was promising.

According to Brit Stakston, the “forced digitisation” that is currently in place in virtually all aspects of life might show the ways of doing things more efficiently. Moreover: “For the journalism’s part, a crisis like this really emphasises what journalism is good for and highlights its role, which is of course very positive in the long run.”

Guna Spurava: “I have seen some good signs of cooperation between generations, so I believe that this critical situation can bring out the best in us as family members and as friends in terms of media usage.”