Covid-19 and the (Greek) media

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The Covid-19 pandemic is already bringing to the surface a number of platitudes – such as “the world will never be the same again”, “the Covid-19 pandemic is socialist in essence”, “the very nature of work will change in ways yet difficult to foresee”, “societies are already accepting willingly invasions of privacy and/or disregard of fundamental rights considered unthinkable”.

One more such platitude has to do with the role of the media – not only in the coverage of the pandemic, but also in the modeling of social stances towards it, in translating health-based measures into political capital. When all will be told, the media may discover that this episode has altered their own nature, starting from the pecking order within the media world.

To start from the coverage the media have granted the pandemic: as expected, the virological/medical/epidemiological material made available by ever-longer rows of scientists, along with explanations and extrapolations, bleached over to the political discourse held over the multi-layered measures taken to confront the crisis. Soon enough, divergent opinions surfaced and journalists turned themselves to virologists, grilling scientists but also pontificating on their own.  The great mask debate (“to wear or not to wear”) raged on. New figures of media heroes and/or villains were created. Of course, one would say, such is the core role of the media; but in an enticing field of health threat and fear, they have steadily surpassed themselves an ongoing everyday information glut playing to human worry and need for hope. Of course not all media are the same: but look back in your experience of the last two weeks to find who have resisted the lure to play to the audience with sensationalism and/or fear.

Starting from there, efforts to influence the audience’s acceptance of the measures taken (or debated) to counter the advance of the virus, especially those of social distancing and successive levels of lock-down, soon became evident. True enough, graphic accounts of the ravages the pandemic was making and images such as the body-bags in New York or the military trucks convoy transporting coffins out of Bergamo could not be evaded; but. as the days went past, a wide majority of the media opted for a position of government policy echo-chamber. Not only that, but  most assumed the function of berating those who took a different approach – such as the attempted policy of herd immunity in the UK, then in Sweden.

The major take-away for the media menagerie out of the Covid-19 crisis may well be that their own modus operandi changed radically – or at least that changes already happening accelerated and deepened. Threat and fear are best catered to through TV- so TV flourished in the lock-down days; but it was a peculiar mixture of never-ending reporting of casualties along with unfolding of medical/epidemiological diatribes, with around-the-globe images ceding their place to charts and graphs – but also with germ-warfare theories and economic desolation stories.

The written Press could scarcely follow, taking the self-evident options of analysis and more cool-headed approach: here, the obstacles to reporting but also the problems of printing and distribution became insuperable for many. Will home-working become prevalent – just as Skype, Viber, Zoom have invaded TV?

But it is the Internet world, mainly social media in their best (and worst) that had a field day. The very fact of social distancing fueled Fb, Twitter and the suchlike – but government play and official announcements (not to mention The Donald) were soon shoved aside by a flood of comment, wishful thinking, invective, fear-mongering. “Citizens’ journalism” running amok at times; media professionals trying to find an outlet for their own contribution; a quest for some sort of community and of “is there anybody out there?”. It has been an amazing story to follow.

Back to our starting point: for the media, too, “the world will never be the same again”.