Protest and Pandemic: Researchers Leading the Way

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Nov 03, 2020
by Josh Wilde
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Protest and Pandemic: Researchers Leading the Way

Researchers present pioneering projects in second Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change online workshop  Image: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash

COVID-19 and global protests continue to affect our media and civic systems. As more people spend longer periods working and learning in an online environment, Salzburg Global Seminar recently explored if this pandemic is changing the way people interact with each other and the media.

The second of three Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change workshops created to examine the dual impact of protest and pandemic considered, How can Researchers Document Unrest on the Front Line? Three distinguished researchers presented innovative projects to 75 participants in the online public session before dividing into groups for open discussion.

Program Director Paul Mihailidis began by dedicating the event to Academy faculty member and friend Moses Shumow on the first anniversary of his death.

Stephen Reese, Jesse H. Jones professor of journalism, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin, USA, introduced the three panelists and described how the pandemic had shone a light on existing practices.

He said, "COVID has not so much caused but revealed some of these structural issues in the global community: adequacy of health care, the social safety net, political institutions, press performance, and networks of information. All the things which are so close to our subject matter with the Academy. The question then is how can we conduct research that takes into account these global connections which have been highlighted by the pandemic".

Sangita Shresthova, director of research, @CivicPaths, University of Southern California, USA, explained the importance of protecting researchers who themselves are experiencing the pandemic they wish to study. The Civic Imagination Project analyzes 'people's vision for a better world tomorrow. Forced to move workshops online due to COVID-19, Shresthova described the adaption process.

She said, “We were confronted with a situation that filled us with fear, the opposite of imagination. We wanted to do something that would inspire the imagination … we made a very strong conceptual and theoretical commitment to thinking of ourselves as participants. Our research really needed to contribute somehow to the participants' lives”.

Participants in this workshop shared their thoughts through virtual word clouds on what values should shape the world of 2060 and the stories that inspire them when they imagine this future. Shresthova noted the difference between answers after conducting the same exercise at Salzburg Global Seminar in 2019, highlighting how today's world may not be adequately described by past stories and people are instead reaching for new ways to explain the current situation.

Claudia Kozman, assistant professor of multimedia journalism, Lebanese American University, Lebanon, conducted research with fellow Academy faculty Jad Melki into selection bias and political participation around the October 2019 Lebanese protests. She described how a tax-rise for online messaging service WhatsApp sparked widespread demonstrations, nicknamed 'The WhatsApp 'Revolution', and illustrated growing resentment against the government.

A representative survey of 1,000 people in Lebanon found respondents who felt strongly either for or against the protests chose media that aligned with their views and demonstrated selective avoidance. Protest supporters dominated selective sharing on social media while those opposing the demonstrations were not as active in promoting anti-protest news. Kozman asked the workshop’s participants to think about why selection bias matters.

She said, "If we live in a place where we feel strongly about something that we believe is our own right as citizens, does it mean we have no room for the opposite view? 'Isn't it important for us to be part of political deliberation because that is basically the backdrop of democracy, or do we want to close off everything and just listen to what we want to?"

Susan Moeller, director of the international center for media and the public agenda and professor, College of Journalism and the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, USA, gave special insight into a survey of 'students' media consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from this research project is currently being analyzed. The results will be available once the study is complete.

Participants were then allowed to share their own experiences and ask questions during smaller breakout sessions before Mihailidis closed the event, thanking everyone for their contribution.

He said, "We are once again super humbled that this community can come together in the numbers that it does. I encourage you to reach out to Sangita, Claudia and Susan to ask more about their research and follow-up questions The goal here is to spark community and invite everyone to continue the discussions”.

Registration for the third workshop on Thursday, November 19, 2020, entitled, Protest and Pandemic: Has Misinformation Undermined Public Trust and Democracy?, is free and open to the public, sign up here.

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