• OPA UK

Lessons from a Global Pandemic: The media is more than a mirror

This unprecedented pandemic has radically altered our modes of living. In this series, we explore what Covid-19 has taught us about fundamental elements of society, from local communities to the media to mental health. By reflecting on these themes, we hope to consider ways of reimagining our communities moving forwards.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first began, we all looked for information. Information on what it was, where it was, how fast it was spreading, and, most importantly, how to keep safe. In this search, we turned to the media – whether broadcast, print or social.

The immediate reliance on the media in the midst of the global crisis emphasised the crucial role that this sphere plays within our society – globally, nationally, and locally. At a critical moment, journalists became key workers, emphasising their role in communicating vital details and, more widely, acting as a facilitator for the national conversation.

Coronavirus has also brought to light that not only does the media reflect our national narratives, but has a significant part to play in shaping them. It was journalists who pointed out the issues with access to PPE, the increased vulnerability of those from BAME communities, and the crisis in care homes. However imperfectly, the emphasis that the media put on these subjects brought them to the public’s attention, and precipitated change.

Shaping the national narrative, and reflecting the public’s mood, however, is not just evident in the moments where the media sphere holds power to account or exposes injustices. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to how instrumental it is in creating a sense of solidarity and togetherness that does not necessarily require a vilified “other”. This was evident in the move towards reporting that emphasised social connectivity, such as The Telegraph’s launching of its ‘You Are Not Alone’ section, showcasing community spirit, optimism and advice.

Providing a sense of social cohesion does not always need to be earnest – social media exploded with memes, while many outlets grappled with the more mundane elements of ‘the new normal’ like online quizzes and work from home fashion. The Guardian specifically curated articles under the title of ‘The Antidote’, an attempt to offer stories outside of the crisis to provide some relief from pandemic related coverage. During this pandemic, the multifaceted role of the media has become clearer: it is a sphere that acts to facilitate and reflect the wider public discourse, and it also plays a significant role in shaping this discourse -- providing hope, emphasising community, and bringing people together even when they’re apart.

The media facilitates and reflects the wider public discourse, but it also plays a significant role in shaping the conversation.

The media, then, in whatever format it might be, is a powerful force. It plays a vital role in shaping the way that we as a society talk about issues that affect us all, including the environment, race, economics, and social justice. The framework within which the media creates content is also, to an extent, the framework within which the national conversation will fit. As such, a media that is sensationalist, induces fear, and is rife with embedded prejudices, will perpetuate national narratives that thrive within those parameters.

A media, however, with different values at the core, would contribute to a different form of national discourse. Indeed, one that focuses on the dispassionate pursuit of truth would allow society to truly engage with reality. Complementing this disinterested focus with a strong a sense of justice, an understanding of the importance of equality and representation, and the desire to be of service to others, would contribute to reshaping conversations on topics that require profound thought rather than adversarial debate.

Moving forward, perhaps post-pandemic, the media sphere might begin to re-evaluate its role in society again – recalibrating its values so that kindness comes before clicks, solutions are considered before soundbites, honesty is valued more highly than outrage, and representation comes before rancour. In reassessing its values, the media will play a vital and constructive role not just during this crisis, but beyond this acute moment, supporting the health and wellbeing of society as we continue to advance.

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