Protest and Pandemic: A Polarized Picture

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Oct 02, 2020
by Josh Wilde
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Protest and Pandemic: A Polarized Picture

More than 90 people attend first online Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change workshop Photo by Etienne Godiard on Unsplash

People will remember 2020 for global protests and the devastating impact of COVID-19. With these challenges in mind, and the opportunity to “build back better,” what role can media literacy play in response?

In the first of three workshops designed to explore the dual impact of protest and pandemic, Paul Mihailidis, program director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, asked, “What is the role and potential for media literacy?”

Clare Shine, Salzburg Global’s vice president and chief program officer, welcomed more than 90 international participants, speakers, and Fellows to the online public event.

Five Academy faculty shared short reflections detailing the impact of protest and pandemic on their media and civic systems.

Roman Gerodimos, associate professor of global current affairs, Bournemouth University, UK, urged caution when defining protests as inherently good or bad, instead advocating that judgment should depend on values, ideology, and context.

Gerodimos praised the wave of voluntary activism across the UK, with hundreds of thousands of people mobilizing for the common good. He did, however, highlight the issue of fragmentation between many local initiatives and asked how media literacy can “bridge the divide” to ensure help reaches those who most need it, not just those who are most engaged.

Claudia Kozman, assistant professor of multimedia journalism, Lebanese American University, Lebanon, reflected on whether journalists should be objective during anti-government protests and police brutality incidents in Lebanon.

Kozman described a polarized media where framing is heavily influenced by an organization’s affiliation to the government, to the extent that reports appeared to be describing two different events. She asked when obvious violence is not covered as such, what is the thought process of those reporters?

Donna Chu, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong, spoke about the important role digital media plays as an information source for anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

Chu addressed disinformation, sharing survey results of 2,259 local secondary school students where over one in three would consider sharing “fake news” favorable to their side. She asked how media literacy can teach one to value truth in an environment where edited photos and altered narratives are commonplace.

Pablo Martinez Zarate, professor of documentary film and digital narrative, Iberoamericana University, Mexico, believes the pandemic has highlighted pre-existing divisions that offer media makers challenges and opportunities.

Zarate referred to filmmakers in Mexico as an example of alternative civic protest. They collaborated to ensure a fairer spread of government financial resources in their sector, thus recognizing a wider range of diverse projects. Zarate underlines the chance to reshape horizons and transform communities.

Susan Moeller, professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, USA, divided events in the US into three categories: the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-violence; COVID-19 and natural disasters; and political crisis following the death of Supreme Court Justice and Salzburg Global Fellow Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Moeller asked how the media can cover a crisis while also signaling its importance and the role social media can play.

Participants were then divided into seven virtual breakout rooms to share their own experiences.

Two of the discussions’ key themes were the value of truth in building trust through transparency and media literacy’s ability to create a listening space for empathy across polarized ideological and generational borders.

It was reasoned that with trust in authority and media declining, teaching must focus on approaches to reporting news and ways to verify information.

Participants see social media as an opportunity to increase awareness through unfiltered bystander videos while also contributing to polarization.

There were calls for greater action by social media companies to tackle “fake news” and give users the ability to report misleading content directly.

Mihailidis praised how the workshop explored the impact of protest and pandemic on communities. He said, “It was wonderful to see familiar faces and learn more about how this time is impacting media and civic systems in places like Hong Kong, Mexico City, Beirut, London, and beyond. Participants were able to share experiences and learn from each other, which is what the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change is all about.”

Mihailidis encouraged everyone to join the conversation with the second workshop on Thursday, October 22, 2020, titled: “Protest and Pandemic: How can Researchers Document Unrest on the Front Line?

Registration is free, and you can sign up here.