The challenge of the virus to the identity of journalism

By Sergio Baraldi – FULL TEXT – Accused on the web of making a catastrophic narrative of the infection, journalism must deal with the need to rethink its identity. This could be the beginning of a change in the profession gripped by the logic of sensationalism.

It is now clear that coronavirus represents a challenge not only for Italy but also for journalism because the narrative of the period of the infection could mark a further phase of delegitimization of journalism, or else it could see journalism partially rehabilitated, recognized as the voice of national conscience in the story of the virus. The potential rehabilitation lies in the fact that reporting will be the process by which we will be able to rework the trauma and its emotions, and give meaning to what has happened to us. At the beginning of the infection journalism seemed to have already lost the battle. A few days after the appearance of the coronavirus in an “another place” that was not the newspapers but namely the internet and social media, experts such as Giuseppe Granieri, Luca De Biase, Pier Luca Santoro, Massimo Mantellini, Andrea Fontana and some academics did not spare their criticism of the catastrophic, anguished and sometimes downright inaccurate reporting of the virus by the newspapers. Not all newspapers are the same, not all of them have reported in the same way but the judgment overall was negative. Their criticisms were shared by many citizens, the connected public of which academics speak, who harshly stigmatized the presentation of the infection by journalists. Such a generalized rejection of the coverage seems to me to be unprecedented.

But something unexpected happened. Perhaps the unusual convergence between experts and citizens, perhaps an awareness of the wave of criticism, has prompted many newspapers and news programmes to correct the tone of the coverage partially revising the language and partly limiting sensationalism for an event that is already sensational on its own. Not all and not all in the same way, but journalism seems to want to offer a more credible and complete narrative that leaves room for the passions of those who fight the virus, for an Italy that resists and hopes and restores status to competent individuals so far silenced by the logic of one opinion is equal to another. The apocalypse has given way to the daily drama, less striking but more true; sensationalism has taken a few steps back in favour of a dignified but no less painful sobriety. It is a signal that should not be ignored. It could be the beginning of a reflection by journalism on the long dominance of sensationalism which Professor Rolando Marini1 defined as the second phase of marketing that created a “commercial twisting of the economic model and its contents”. According to Professor Carlo Sorrentino2 we entered a “noise spiral” produced by “a very compact society”. The polarizing dramatization which journalism has been practicing for some time was intended to be the cure for the drop in sales but instead it could prove to have been the disease.

The stakes for journalism are substantial. In a good book, Professor Paolo Mancini3 defined the stakes as the debate from which it is easier to make a decision, object and objective of the conflict. It is for these reasons that it has a role redirecting the interpretation. Defining the stakes, therefore, already means outlining a possible perspective through which to view journalism. The stakes for journalism today seem to require the redefinition of the identity of the profession. First of all, the mediation function of journalism comes alive unexpectedly. In the society of disintermediation, journalistic mediation seemed a topic already in the archives.

Instead, a phase of re-intermediation follows a disintermediation. What is journalistic mediation? Journalism can be identified as the production and distribution of knowledge that helps us understand our experiences in society. Journalism thrives on mediation. The information, the ideas and the images disseminated by the media are, for most of the public, the source for finding their way around the world. In contemporary society, first-hand, direct knowledge is increasingly diminished. Professor Bentivegna4 explains that complexity and social differentiation, continually increases second-hand, mediated knowledge. This is the process that for decades has placed the media at the centre of the process of defining reality and the political and social agenda. The media came between us and the experience of the world that is beyond our direct observation. And they have become agents of socialisation, sometimes more important than schools, the church, political parties, and associations. This function seemed to be in crisis due to the advent of new communication technologies, the internet and especially social media. Before that, however, mediation had lost value in society precisely as an ordering principle among the actors who exchange information. The monopoly of the media which translated into the role of “gatekeepers”, selecting what is relevant, defining priorities (with the power to include and exclude), has been broken. New actors have appeared on the scene to do the same job: politics, institutions and businesses are also platforms today. But the deciding factor was the access of millions of citizens. Individuals intend to compile their own media diet, they want to have their say on what is relevant (the definition of which is important). Audiences, explains Professor Giovanni Boccia Artieri5 have changed their position: from being objects of communication to subjects. A change of rôle due to both the new communication skills of individuals, and to the need for social advocacy and visibility, but also to an opposition to newspapers and news broadcasts, with the latter increasingly viewed with suspicion as broadcasters who decide on high in the name of citizens without being delegated to do so. It is no coincidence that the criticism of the newspapers took place in a different place, on the Web and the social media that have become the centre of gravity of the negotiation of common sense. The crisis of journalistic mediation seems to occur in parallel to a general process of re-appropriation of public space by individuals.

The infection could thus start a rethinking of the identity of journalism. The traditional work of mediation does not disappear but must change and evolve towards a different model. In a communicative environment where there is an enormous abundance of information but also of disinformation, distortion and manipulation, and in which citizens have an enhanced power of choice, a question of orientation increasingly arises. Society is more complex, denser, explains prof. Sorrentino6 and more difficult to decipher. The information overload raises the need for a cognitive, reflective map that accompanies readers in a conscious choice without journalists deciding instead of citizens according to the pedagogical approach and proximity to the politics of the Italian press but in constant interaction with the readership The new mediation should take place on a level of equal dignity with the public who become the partners of journalists as the constant point of reference to listen, interpret, and investigate with the help of data. That is, journalism could rediscover the mission that seemed lost. But it is a mission that entails entering into a new contract with readers who have new rights. In this context, the sphere of ethics is re-valued reinvigorating objectives such as the increase of citizens’ trust, capacity for action and participation.

Will the infection be an opportunity to experiment with new models and construct a different professional identity? Journalism is called upon to question its own culture, its own practices and its own position. As Professor Sergio Splendore explains 7 it is necessary to change the ideology and the limits of the profession, knowing that the relationship between technological changes and journalism and its contents, is in relation to its core values. The stakes are therefore the reinvention of mediation. The business model will need to be reassessed. Professors Mario Morcellini and Mihaela Gavrila8 wrote that the general model has entered a crisis. But at the centre of a difficult process of adaptation and change values ​​such as responsibility, quality and credibility emerge for a journalism that must decide whether to be the initial actor (even if not the only one) who can identify and decipher social change . This is the theme that Morcellini9 poses, important because it links the cultural industry to the modernization of the country. It must decide whether to be a factor of fragmentation of the country or a factor of integration, albeit expressing pluralist cultural and political attitudes. In recent years, the logic of sensationalism, of dramatizing, of personalization has pushed journalism to be more a factor of fragmentation, to the point that Professor Christian Ruggiero10 wrote of an anti-journalism that parallels anti-politics. Perhaps the coronavirus offers the moment to rethink a strategy that is not rewarding even in newsstands. Perhaps a new game must be played: promoting a more transparent and reflective public sphere, a more equal and authoritative exchange with citizens in a divided society, traversed by fears and grudges. It is time for a reorganization of the relationship between journalism and the public sphere. After all, as Professor Marini explains11 the public sphere “constitutes the environment in which ideas are compared and sometimes collide, giving life to the articulation of public discourse” – where journalism and democracy meet.

Sergio Baraldi (wt)

1 Rolando Marini, The five Ssthat distort information, Il Mulino, N 504, 2019

2 Carlo Sorrentino, What are you talking about? Forms and places of public discourse, Il Mulino, N504, 2019 and La Società densa, Le Lettere, 2012

3 Paolo Mancini, The stakes, Carocci, 2003

4 S.Bentivegna, Mediating reality, FrancoAngeli, 1994.

5 Giovanni Boccia Artieri, States of connections, FrancoAngeli, 2012

6 Carlo Sorrentino, What are you talking about? Forms and places of public discourse, Il Mulino, N504, 2019 and La Società densa, Le Lettere, 2012.

7 Sergio Splendore, Giornalismo ibrido, Carocci, 2017

8 Mario Morcellini Mikhaela Gavrila, Mediaevo vs technoevo. The world of cultural consumption in the Italian Middle Ages, Carocci, 2015

9 Mario Morcellini, New Journalism, 2011, Mondadori university

10 Christian Ruggiero, The crisis of political mediation: politics, the fourth estate and the test of identity in M. Morcellini New-journalism, Mondadori University, 2012

11 Rolando Marini, Mass media and public discussion, Laterza, 2009

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