The last two years have seen two overlapping epoch-making events, the pandemic and war in Ukraine. What are the similarities and differences of the two events from a media narrative standpoint?
First of all, I would say that the most suitable word that captures the complexities of the current historical juncture is that of the “overlapping” between these two global events. The pandemic and war in Ukraine are completely different events, determined by conditions that cannot be understood from the etiological and analytical approach without considering the effects on media audiences and on national and international public opinion of the processes of representation and self-representation of decision-making functions. You are asking me to identify the similarities and differences in the media narratives of these two events. I will answer your question step-by-step, starting from the most significant similarity, and in my opinion, the only one, that is the emergency communication model applied to both events. In media studies, this expression refers to that type of communication that must grapple with the unexpectedness and unpredictability of events, at least in the initial phase. At the same time, it must manage the “extraordinary” event as well as the cognitive and emotional effects it causes. These are characteristics that apply both to mass communication and institutional or corporate communication. Interpersonal and group communication can be applied to this paradigm. However, it is clear that the macro dimension is the most relevant with respect to the type of analysis we are developing for this interview. When managing an emergency communication, the strategy implemented, typology of the communicative ecosystem, forms of voluntary or involuntary distortion, dangers connected to situations of derailment of meaning, emotionality scale, predictive abilities, use of data, and ability to construct a narrative that overcomes the challenges when involving fragmented information are key elements to consider. The most relevant steps from the emergency communication standpoint are usually: knowledge of the new context, especially when it arises without warning; awareness of the risks related to the situation that has been created unexpectedly; call to action, especially at the request of national and international institutions, to identify the most timely response and, if possible, the most effective response that can exit the state of emergency; evaluation of individual and collective behavior; creation in the medium and long term of a “culture of response” to the state of crisis. It is no coincidence that in the scientific literature there is a conceptual link between the words, “emergency” and “crisis”. “Emergency” indicates the occurrence, the critical moment that requires immediate action. The second word, “crisis”, refers to those negative changes, that can also turn a critical situation into an opportunity. The Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine caught the media off guard, despite the fact that the Russian offensive does not represent an entirely unforeseen and unpredictable event. Given that the Donbass issue had begun to manifest itself as early as 2014, even if without such news having full rights of citizenship in the media and news media offer, with a few exceptions. In this regard, we faced enormous challenges to find a proper place within the public attention. After all, who would have ever thought that in 2020 the whole of humanity would be threatened by a virus and that a conflict could break out in the heart of Europe, evoking specter of World War III, as stated by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on April 25? The gap between collective expectations, at least those of the West, and facts represents an interesting litmus test to grasp the degree of unpreparedness and even the initial sense of impotence of citizens, but in some ways also of those who are responsible for geopolitical balances.
As for the differences, I can identify at least three. First, the pandemic developed specific forms of interactions in the real environment. In fact, Covid provoked consequences on us on a daily basis, forcing us to come to terms on an experiential level with limitations to personal freedom, use of protection devices, and obligations regarding social distancing. Economic issues are an exception to this scenario. The Ukrainian crisis is also beginning to generate effects that can be seen in the real environment, as well as in the symbolic one, as demonstrated by energy prices and the effects of inflation. The second difference is that the war automatically led to an evaluation of political and even ethical responsibilities, generating forms of polarizing narratives between the aggressor and aggressed, good and evil, just and unjust, and, useful and useless. The third and last difference is paradoxically triggered by an analogy represented by the cannibalization force of television and radio programs, homologation of editorial spaces of the press and online newspapers, and wider use of non-verbal meanings (images and sounds) compared to verbal ones (written and spoken words). The above adopted in the name of the emergency.
Several observers found that the infodemic resulting from the Covid-19 crisis has been replaced by another after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How do we avoid the risk that an information glut will eventually generate a crisis of rejection and trust in citizens toward the media?
“Infodemia” is a buzzword of our time. It began to circulate in public discourse at the time of the first lockdowns due to Covid-19, also on the impulse of the World Health Organization. However, its first use dates back to a few years earlier, in 2003, when David J. Rothkopf on the Washington Post referred to the information overload. This condition, that favors quantity over quality, weakens the ability to discern and select the audience in the name of greater credibility and reliability of content brought to the attention of the masses and at the same time of individuals, according to vertical and horizontal dynamics. The effects of infodemics are two. Firstly, it blurs the line between truth and false. Second, it weakens the ability to define the authorship of information on the basis of the principle that what matters most is that the message captures public attention. In order to avoid these risks, social media and instant messaging platforms coexist. It is necessary to act on two fronts. First and foremost, it is necessary to act on the side of greater responsibility of the owners and managers of owned and paid media for the content published, much of which was imagined from the beginning to leverage the logic of virality. From this point of view, tightening criminal sanctions and fines, together with a more structured and efficient action of debunking and fact checking, can make the difference. We must invest in programs to sensitize users in order to prevent them from resorting to what Daniel Kahneman calls, “fast thinking” based on irrational choices, intuition, and renunciation. I would add that improving digital skills is required. This is an urgent issue, especially if our goal is to build a digital culture. Both Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine highlighted these considerations, given that we are confronted with a considerable amount of fake news daily. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is certainly made all the more dangerous by the diffusion of informative or pseudo-informative contents on social media platforms by subjects who produce and consume content. This is why it was crucial to consult experts such as virologists, epidemiologists as well as scholars of geopolitics and military strategies. This occurs in the wider context of information disorder, as referred to by the European Council. The institution provided two application dimensions. The first is that of disinformation, i.e., constructing false news to influence collective behavior after having altered personal ideas and opinions. The second is that of misinformation, that is, the involuntary diffusion of false news that goes viral independently of the action of the content producer. The difference between the two typologies lies in the intentionality of the communicative action, when and if it is aimed at the proposition in the mediated public sphere, as Thompson defines it, of elements capable of altering the democratic dynamic or the functioning of the market. The theme is especially valid in the case of conflict. However, unintentionality in the production of the final effect of manipulation or partial modification of the represented and representable reality, is key to interpreting even the involuntary distortion in the processes of news making by the mainstream media. Distortion occurs in the collection of information, values, and criteria for selecting newsworthy material, news hierarchy, and logic of thematization through which events that could be transformed by newsmakers into real editorial content, that are decontextualized and recontextualized. In response to the challenges regarding the framing of media content and use of stereotypes, the scientific literature proposes to enhance the level of competence of the actors of the entire media ecosystem, according to a precise classification revolving around the concepts of thematic, relational, technical, expressive, and deontological competence, but also exploiting the dichotomy proposed in the literature by Max Weber, who distinguished “value-oriented” objectivity from “purpose-oriented” objectivity. In this second case, reference is made to the identification of precise rules defined by scholars of the sociology of communication as “functions of bureaucratic routines”. Here, we get to the core issues that have to do with the way the information system works.
The pandemic and war have exposed traditional and non-traditional media systems to new risks, but also presented opportunities for change. How are these two events changing the way of news reporting?
The challenge you are referring to has in fact been around for over a decade. The pandemic and war in Ukraine spotlighted what was already evident to media scholars. Risks and opportunities for change are two sides of the same coin. The new communicative ecosystem is based on the co-existence of old and new logics, mass communication strategies, and personal communication. Sociologist Castelles elaborated the mass self-communication formula. This is a hybrid between the “one-to-many” communication of the last century (which still survives, considering TV penetration and the success of radio) and the “one-to-one”, “many-to-many”, and “many-to-one” internet communications. It is as though everyone wants to talk to each at the same time on all topics. Capturing the attention of recipients is the goal. To capture the audience’s attention over time, we work on increasingly explicit forms of interlocutions that tap into their emotions. In this context, on the one hand, it is easier to reach out to and communicate with targeted users. On the other, every tool becomes legitimate in the pursuit of engagement. It is the nature of the web, especially of web 2.0, to create these mixed conditions made of threats and opportunities. Threats are related to ascertaining the truth. Opportunities are those determined by the implementation of the participation level. It is a confusion warning sign regarding the role of the communication and information sector. This recalls a play on words that I proposed some years ago, when I first spoke of the dichotomy of “information” and “journalism”, hypothesizing that you cannot have “information without journalism” and “journalism without information”. In the first case, reference is made to the fact that part of the public perceives information, even that which is not generated by journalism. This is because the source is associated with a legitimate professional organization with a consolidated skillset. In the second case, reference is made to the pursuit of what Schudson called the “market model”, i.e., a model centered on the market in which newsworthiness is grounded on big news values and human interest, rather than the pursuit of a balance between interest and importance. Many of these logics are aimed at attracting public attention, rather than communicating information to television viewers, radio listeners, readers, and Internet users. What has all this translated into in the pandemic phase? The juxtaposition of news that is not always verified and verifiable and accurate work resulting from the ascertainment and reconstruction of information. This work is carried out also thanks to the collaboration of experts, prompted by the need to develop scientific media literature. The war in Ukraine has showed poor management of propaganda by the two factions, with a more pronounced and harmful evidence on the Russian side, starting from the obligation not to use the word “war” but only the expression “special military operation” in the public narrative. The high degree of mediatization of the conflict in Ukraine is empirical evidence. We witness this trend every day. The Ukrainian front is demonstrating tremendous communication skills. A first example is the ability to bring out the horror of mass graves in Bucha and around Mariupol. The second example is that of the systematic interventions of President Zelensky, who on the Orthodox Easter eve held a press conference in the Kiev subway with about two hundred journalists and with a direction worthy of significant television events. The third example is that of a storytelling that is capable of leveraging simple and direct concepts for communications messages i.e., the logic of “David and Goliath” or using the Anglo-Saxon expression of the “underdog” (that provokes sympathy and consensus), and the call to action of the entire international community.
Marshall Mc Luhan stated that “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” What is your view on this transformation process in the social media age?
To answer this question, it is necessary to refer to one of the paradigms of the Toronto School that developed technological determinism. According to this theory, the postmodern society is that type of society in which technology does not merely accompany change, but determines it in all its forms and modes. Sociologist van Dijk rightly referred to a platform society, emphasizing the influence of online platforms on the behaviors, thoughts, actions, and intentions of communities that are hyperconnected for both private and public purposes. Issues such as equality, accessibility, democratic control, accountability, and the interaction between society, markets, and governments are proof that the problem is not the communications means per se, but rather their actual use and strategies for creation and management of information. I argue the adoption of a non-ideological approach to the theme of technology, that strives for widespread awareness and interdisciplinary use where the advantages outweigh the risks. Let’s think about the topic of war. We have seen multiple images from Ukrainian citizens through the use of social media platforms. Citizens have turned into citizen journalists.
Following the terms “Covid” and “war”, the buzzword is PNRR, an opportunity for our country that many have defined as unrepeatable. What can the news do to help Italy overcome this challenge?
The Draghi government’s work with regard to the National Reform Program is commendable, also in terms of communication. This work requires willpower to prevent this enormous opportunity for country reform from becoming a priority of few. It is necessary to set up ad hoc focal points for communication on the Next Generation Eu who can explain the scope and cultural perspective, for example of PNRR, which contains challenging terms such as “recovery” and “resilience”. The former is a word that goes beyond the economic level, referring to concepts such as economic and social sustainability. By adopting Lasswell’s thinking, we must work on raising awareness and informing the public about the core of the various projects, access to funds, and its multidisciplinary effects on the country. A concept that is not limited to knowledge but also comprises an element of “trust”. As John Paul II said, in fact, trust is not obtained by force or declarations alone, but it must be earned with concrete gestures and facts. Finally, the goals. We must work to achieve three goals of public administration (which becomes a prosumer, both producer and consumer), companies, and citizens. In my opinion, this is the most effective way to balance the real and perceived value of the PNRR.
Emidio Piccione, Journalist