Ingrid Volkmer, professor of digital communication and globalisation at the University of Melbourne, spoke to Ahram Online about the impact of the pandemic on journalism, which has led her and a group of media scholars to create the Global Risk Journalism Hub, an international research network that works on recommendations for journalists, who Volkmer says have a responsibility to reflect the interconnectedness of world crises. Volkmer also highlights the outcomes of a WHO survey that she directed on the consumption of COVID-19 news by millennials and their level of dependence on traditional media.
Al-Ahram: How did the Global Risk Journalism Hub initiative start?
Ingrid Volkmer: The idea for the project started at the start of the pandemic and was developed in April last year when I was meeting with two media scholars on zoom, Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney Saba Bebawi and Oslo Metropolitan University’s Maria Konow Lund. We were thinking about journalism amid the COVID crises, and we realised that journalists basically covered what is happening in local communities or certain countries. As we live in this globalised age and with the pandemic’s spread across all continents, perhaps there is a new dimension of journalism research, not just comparing how journalists across countries cover the crises, but to think about ways journalists in the future could cover other globalised crises. Based on this, we decided to place calls to leading academic institutions. Although we did not have any funding, I was thrilled that we had a lot of requests for research affiliation from 30 different countries around the world. Based on that, we decided that our hub is an international research network of individual researchers trying to identify new ways for journalism to deal with globalised crises. It does not have to do with risks journalists are facing in covering wars or conflicts.
Our risk term relates to new dimensions of globalised interconnectedness. We feel journalists have a responsibility to reflect this interconnectedness of crises. As we see with the pandemic, there is no point in just covering the crisis in one country when you know that in the neighbouring country restrictions have been lifted and so the virus has spread again.
“We are all in this together,” as we know from the lockdowns. It is a great phrase, but it also means we are all in this together as a world society, and journalists might have a new role in this global risk arena. That is a new space that we are seeing here, but it is a space that we are seeing in other types of risks like climate change, where journalists are used to covering the national implications of climate change, and we need to address humanity at large.
AA: Do you plan to address the media’s role in covering regional or local crises?
IV: In theory, yes. However, the main aim is really to first look at all these emerging globalised risks. It is very different today than 100 years ago, or 20 years ago even, where we still had this sort of an international perception of global crises, meaning nations get together, Europe gets together, Sub-Saharan Africa gets together to deal with certain climate risks. The pandemic has shown that this kind of regional cooperation does not really work. We need to look across the whole globe. There certainly are risk issues on the regional scale. There is a refugee crisis in Europe. We also have refugee crises in other parts of the world. There are also global issues that play a role if we just look at the Middle East, where there are a lot of local conflicts that are also covered in very different ways on a global scale, although they have a larger geopolitical implication as well.
AA: Is the hub interested in the future and sustainability of traditional media? How do you intend to address that issue?
IV: One of the research types we are working on is to produce a snapshot service to map out the key challenges of journalism across 30 countries. A large number of journalists said that with the COVID pandemic, they fear significant financial constraints or losing their jobs at their news organisations, and that is one factor to consider. We also see journalism being deeply challenged by digital media, especially for young citizens who do not turn to traditional media that much anymore. They have their own news sites where they get more personalised news, and stories that have an implication on their lives.
It is a completely different set of news consumption we are seeing among young generations. This also has an impact on the traditional news organisation, which needs to turn around and develop new formats.
The organisational structure of media outlets in this digital world is also a risk factor. It risks disrupting the traditional legitimacy and the traditional public spheres in countries as well. If journalists disappear and journalism is cut back, there will be a big gap within countries where we need new voices and a new fourth estate.
AA: How would journalists, policymakers and media institutions profit from the global risk hub studies?
IV: What is different in our hub is that we have 60 media scholars from 30 countries. Many of them are from the global south and have never been involved in international media research before. I feel it is important, first of all, to conduct joint research to show how a global risk like the pandemic at the moment is viewed differently across the world’s regions, and how journalists – even in small countries – create their own global crisis horizon. A COVID crisis for journalists in Mexico might be very different compared to journalists in Malaysia, Fiji, Australia, or Russia. There are very different ways in which journalists across these regions engage with a global pandemic, and that is something that has never been really addressed in research.
In short, it is important to understand how we make sense of globalisation in a crisis, how we see a crisis within this large transnational spectrum, wherever we are, and to understand the differences in these perceptions.
AA: How would you create a unified list of applicable recommendations for journalists all over the world?
IV: Well, we are including journalism scholars and media outlets in our hub, they could take this back into their universities and newspapers for journalism training. We also hope that we could develop training materials for journalists based on our research on how journalists could develop skills to cover pandemics in the future.
AA: From your perspective, how has digital media affected the production and consumption of traditional media?
IV: I've written a book on the global public sphere, where I explained how digital media is enabling citizens to create their own micro networks to engage with journalists and peers, and to discuss political issues on a transnational scale. These dimensions of discourse and deliberation are really important, and are often overlooked in the way we conceptualise public spheres. Journalism is not just challenged by digital media or news portals, it is also challenged by the fact that citizens create and use their own news spheres (microsystems) to be informed. In other words, when I see certain content in the Australian or German news sites, I keep wondering, why do journalists not cover this issue or focus on that one? Citizens increasingly compare and contrast what they read in the news. That is something to acknowledge and it is also a major challenge to journalism.
For example, in a recent WHO survey that I directed, we found that young people still check their national news media, but when it really comes to sites they deeply trust, they only go to the World Health Organization, science blogs, and science outlets. These responses came from different regions around the world and it reflects the shifting of information access in crises and conflicts.
National news outlets are relevant as a certain information point, but it does not mean they are the final information point, simply because citizens can search for data on different websites. It is a mix-and-match of sources where journalism is no longer the dominant source for information in crises as was the case 120 years ago, or even 30 years ago.
This whole news spectrum that is opening up for citizens needs to be reflected and journalists need to think about new formats of work in the context of the crises.
AA: Would you give us more details about the new WHO study you directed?
IV: This was a global survey that we worked on to figure out how generation Z and millennials get information on the COVID pandemic. The study was conducted in collaboration with the University of Melbourne, the World Health Organization (WHO), Wunderman Thompson (WT) and Pollfish. Between 24 October 2020 and 7 January 2021, we interviewed 23,500 people aged 18 to 40 from 24 countries around the world.
The study just focused on the impact of social media on the digital generations. Results from the survey revealed that 51.9 percent are aware of the misleading information about COVID on social media and could deal with it. 58.3 percent said that they are overwhelmed by information and 52 percent have stopped paying attention to the pandemic news. In addition, 43.9 percent of respondents were likely to share scientific content on their social media networks.
Although mainstream media remains the main go-to news source for youth, we found that they rely on multiple platforms for information on the coronavirus that vary according to their cultural and ethnic background. Also, two-thirds of respondents feel that the media and their government was not giving the full picture on the pandemic.
What is really interesting is that in Nigeria, for example, a country that is hardly included in social media research or journalism studies, youth have access to at least six to seven platforms they constantly use. These are digitally literate generations, and that is what it comes through in this survey. Another interesting outcome is that aside from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, we found that respondents are using smaller, specialised platforms for specific communities, and that is a very interesting field that we need to discuss in the new media studies.