Where to for communication and journalism in the post-Coronavirus world?

An earlier version in Portuguese appeared in Público, 8 May 2020.

Social relations did not come to an end with the confinement measures adopted to reduce exposure to Covid-19, even though many were suspended or restricted to the domestic sphere. In the same way, the process of communication did not stop; in many instances it may have been interrupted, while in others it was replaced by technological means. With changes to social relations, so changes occurred in the way we communicate; and in turn the changes in ways of communicating produced further changes in social relations. This has revealed the substantive meaning of human communication, as determined by the intrinsic relationship between communication and society.

Communication is an integral part of the creation of “human self”, of social relations and life in society, and not a resource, not a means towards any random end. Its meaning is given to us by the fact it depends on human beings – to establish themselves as individual persons and build, preserve and change the culture of the human societies which give meaning to human life – and on the symbolic processes which take place in social interactions and social relations.

It has also become clear from the exceptional situation facing society that communication mediated by remote transmission technologies may be suitable for certain forms of sociability and for carrying out certain activities and other things which transcend physical space. In order to limit the possibilities of contagion resulting from close physical proximity, many physical presence-based methods of communicating have been avoided, with technological mediation being the appropriate means of communication for current circumstances. But just as being unable to frequent and work in social contexts broader than the home, and being unable to meet in groups – in cafés, schools, markets, festivals, theatres, cinemas, concerts, etc. – makes us appreciate the many forms of social relations based on physical presence, so too we come to understand how much we value face-to-face communication, without which we lack the rituals which are the mainstay of social ties and of our ways of expressing the feelings and emotions which make human begins human.

Public forms of communication have also proved essential, with journalism constituting a crucial resource. The need for the intermediation provided by journalism, and its significance, together with its professional standards and values in gathering vital information, handling it in a rigorous manner and making it available to society as a whole, are even more readily understood in a context in which fear of illness and death constitute fertile ground for propagating falsehoods and disinformation. The importance of journalism, our understanding of why we need it, has emerged because even in the presence of the most dreadful suffering, the experience of life in society generates forms of human awareness by means of symbolic action: because it is necessary to say to other human beings things that they are perhaps not aware of; because it is fundamental to understanding what constitutes a pandemic; because it is imperative to name this moment and because we have to conduct an ongoing assessment of what is happening. Journalism has been the most prominent actor in the realm of cultural production in terms of gathering, handling, and disseminating information, commentary, and organization of the debate surrounding the lived circumstances of the Covid-19 calamity. Even though journalism operates in the competitive conditions of the media market, which leads to dramatization, monothematic coverage, the use of dubious metaphors and the pursuit of attention from the compact networks of cultural and communicational exchange which populate the Internet, it has nonetheless demonstrated that which James W. Carey described in “The Problem of Journalism History” (James W. Carey: A Critical Reader, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 91), which is a particular social way of apprehending the world, of organizing social experience, of imagining the world. To recall his words, journalism is, “a creative and imaginative labour, a symbolic strategy; journalism assesses situations and names their elements in a way that embodies an attitude towards them”.

By virtue of industrialization and a larger market, journalism has gradually adopted standards, techniques and practices which did not truly match the felt needs of the profession, but were required to comply with the impositions of the media institutions, for the production of a commodity subordinated to industrial conditions and profit. Nevertheless, as a result of this process the profession expanded and acquired a certain autonomy, embodied in professional organizations and codes of professional ethics. Journalism is a collective cultural actor, whose products are reasonably homogenous and identifiable – journalistic facts which take place when they are articulated and which provoke reactions by virtue of being said. It is a promoter of feelings and notability in the life of society; its justification does not lie in technology, nor in the business of information, but rather in civic life and the common good.

In dramatic circumstances, technological mediation by digital means has become useful for relating at a distance, for forms of socialization, work, teaching, cultural activities, sport and leisure. But with remote social interaction there is a voiding of the broader contexts of human action and even of the perception of reality: ambiguity arises between that which is present and that which is absent, between being there and not being there; there is the loss of contact and bodily memory, touch, hugs, kisses, smell, the synaesthesia of the senses. Not everyone can afford a personal computer, and not everyone has access to one. There are “digital divides” between classes, age groups and generations. Even more significantly, mediation through digital technologies opens up the possibility of compressing space, both for increasing the effectiveness of the message and for centralized control, and that is why they are so suitable for advertising, disseminating lies and propaganda, and widespread digital surveillance and total domination. Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have not for one moment ceased in their campaigns to gain attention and users: they may emerge even stronger from the pandemic. China’s authoritarian government, which started by concealing the pandemic for precious weeks, arrested those who publicised it, expelled journalists, and finally imposed total societal surveillance. Restrictions on freedom in China, implemented using information technologies with remote control capabilities and massive data handling capacity, are being used not only for the situation of exception, they are an extension of the system of social control (called “social credit”) implemented in that country. Transitioning seamlessly from exceptional use to trivialised use may prove to be the foretaste of new tyrannies.

So it is that the seriousness of the pandemic is revealing a broad spectrum of experiences and possibilities, the extent and complexity of which it is not even possible to outline, let alone the ways in which it penetrates our consciousness and what its outcome will be. Which of the trends outlined above will intensify? What new combinations will arise from those three types of communication? Which communication trends unleashed by the need to deal with pandemic will win out in the longer term, which will be halted in their tracks, and which will progress in some shape or form? Will print newspapers decline still further? Will online journalism come out of this in a stronger position? Would it be possible to have faced up to this difficult situation, and will it be possible to face up to those which will emerge in the future, without the resources, the experience, the professionalism and the content of journalism practised in accordance with rigorous standards? Will there be such a strong emphasis on remote contact that we will lose critical awareness of its more pernicious effects? There may well be other questions arising, the answers to which we will only start to obtain in the aftermath, not just of this pandemic, but of the cultural debate and the political struggles which are already happening beneath it and will break out in the post-Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 world. It would be a fortunate effect of this crisis if we were to understand the substantive importance of communication, especially face-to-face and journalistic communication. All of this, we may assume, is an allegory of a modernity which has fatally neglected contingency.

Jose Luis Garcia

José Luís Garcia is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal. He received his PhD in Social Sciences from the same University. His research interests focus on social and critical theory; philosophy of technology; social studies of science and technology; communication and media studies. Garcia has held visiting positions and lectureships at various universities in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, Brazil and the USA. Amongst his most recent publications as editor, co-editor and author are Media and Portuguese Empire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Salazar, o Estado Novo e os Media [Salazar, The New State and Media] (Ed. 70, 2017); Pierre Musso and the Network Society: From Saint-Simonianism to the Internet (Springer, 2016 (ed.)); La Contribution en Ligne: Pratiques Participatives à l’Ère du Capitalisme Informationnel (Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2014); and Jacques Ellul and the Technological Society in 21st Century (Springer, 2013). Since May 2017, he has served as an elected member of the Executive Board of the Society for Philosophy and Technology (SPT).