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“We are communicating more than usual in bubbles”

Campus.leben series: “Coronavirus – Ask the Experts” / Part 7: Interview with communication studies scholar Joachim Trebbe from Freie Universität Berlin

Apr 28, 2020

“Coronavirus – Ask the Experts” / Part 7: Joachim Trebbe, Communication Studies

“Coronavirus – Ask the Experts” / Part 7: Joachim Trebbe, Communication Studies
Image Credit: shutterstock.com/khaleddesigner

What will change due to the corona pandemic? What consequences will it have for individuals, what impact will it have on society, politics, the economy, research, and culture? In the current interview of the campus.leben series: “Coronavirus – Ask the Experts,” Lena Pflüger spoke with Joachim Trebbe, a professor of communication studies at Freie Universität, about communication in times of crisis, changed roles of the media, and what changes might stay in place after the crisis.

Professor Trebbe, communication is particularly important in times of crisis: to convey information, but also to create trust. How well is communication currently taking place?

Prof. Dr. Joachim Trebbe, Media Analysis / Research Methods: “Our digital media environment means that we are faster today than we were at the time of 9/11.”

Prof. Dr. Joachim Trebbe, Media Analysis / Research Methods: “Our digital media environment means that we are faster today than we were at the time of 9/11.”
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

In communication studies we know that crisis communication takes place in different phases. This also applies to the corona crisis. In the first phase, when communication is panicky and strongly shaped by uncritical reporting, everyone wants to first clarify what is going on, what risks exist, and how to deal with them. In this phase, the executive power, in our case the federal government, specifies how to act.

In this phase, journalists are basically only concerned with communicating and explaining these decisions. In the corona crisis, it has to do with being up-to-date with the number of infections, catching sound bites from the responsible politicians, and for example, explaining how many people you may sit with in the park. In this first phase it is important for the media to take up the topic and inform the public.

Probably now we are in the second phase – what are the media doing now?

As soon as the first peak is over, meta-communication begins. That means people start asking questions – in politics, the media, in public discussion: Are we really doing the right thing? Who is responsible? What are the media, research, and politics doing? Are there any other opinions? What facts need to be assessed and how? As a rule, the narratives, i.e., the narrative and explanatory patterns in journalism, change after about two weeks. This process of reflection started relatively late in Germany.

Why is that?

That was due to the dynamics of the crisis. It wasn't a shock like an earthquake or a terrorist attack, but rather a developing disaster  – every day brought another escalation. At first the media and politics were caught in a spiral of bad news and short-term countermeasures, to some extent through developments and measures in neighboring countries.

Would you have expected this second phase to begin earlier in view of our digitized world and the associated acceleration?

Yes, our digital media environment means that we are faster today than we were at the time of 9/11, for example. The public media system could have developed greater self-confidence and question the measures that were declared “without alternative” from the start. Then critical people would have had their say earlier, and an actual discussion could have developed that would have had a social effect.

Information spreads relatively quickly via social media. Is this an aspect that is useful in times of crisis?

In the first phase of the crisis, when it comes to providing information as broad as possible about the development and the measures that have been adopted, social media channels can be an option in addition to the usual mass media.

However, social media as an information channel and source is always a double-edged sword: a lot of nonsense is spread. It is not always transparent who has posted the information, and the operators of the platforms have so far been too overwhelmed to filter and curate the mass of data mass sensibly.

In modern, very diverse societies, there are groups that cannot be reached through conventional mass media. These are usually minorities, for example, migrants. This can be due to linguistic, cultural, or religious differences. Information in these groups is only passed on via certain channels – such as social media or personal contacts – which in turn are only used by certain groups – either men, women, or children.

Does there seem to be a shift in power between the classic and the “new” media during this pandemic?

Under the pressure of the crisis, conventional mass media are finding a new role. They act as fact checkers, anti-fake news institutions, and credible bodies for the explanation of numbers and the evaluation by experts.

However, reporting is only one aspect. Entertainment and culture are also supported by different media and platforms during these times without public events. For example, there is now an inflation of cultural and entertainment programs on television made up of archive material, forgotten series, historical concert and theater recordings, and a revival of the good old Saturday evening shows. The media libraries are full to the brim. And the usage figures prove the providers right – more people are watching these shows.

Social media is more about streaming: cultural workers try to compensate for the lack of performance and stream directly through social media, since they do not need a broadcast license there and do not have to go past journalistic editorial offices.

Will these new roles stay in place? Will the conventional media benefit from the crisis?

Most likely to some extent. In my opinion the perception people have about information literacy and the credibility of conventional media has improved. At some point a certain degree of over-saturation is like to occur. The desire to be actively involved in the physical world outside the home will increase.

The spread and use of social media will also be higher after the crisis than before. Especially the older generation, which is less network-savvy, is currently embracing the new opportunities and will probably not abandon them. The distinction between media, public, and private social communication is becoming increasingly blurred.

At the moment we are communicating differently with each other, both privately and professionally. What is changing, and what will remain after the crisis?

Since we are all spending a lot more time at home at the moment, our daily routines and our media usage behavior are changing. Digital communication technologies are now naturally part of our environment like television used to be. Overall media usage has increased enormously. Because our real, physical experiences in the world are minimized by the restrictions, the media and its contents have a greater impact on us.

Social media focuses more on people's everyday experiences, which opens up space for interpersonal communication. On a personal level, the way we are communicating now, has brought social groups closer together. In families, for example, relatives are communicating more frequently and intensively. Because at the moment accidental encounters are hardly possible, we are communicating more than usual in bubbles.

Especially in the work context, the predominantly media-mediated communication also changes human interactions. Your individual personality lags behind the easy-to-manipulate virtual appearance. For example, tips are published online about which books should definitely be on a shelf during a video conference or whether it is allowed to wear a hoodie while working at home. TV interviews are often shot in an informal setting, and software can insert a virtual background.

And then of course, there is also an aesthetic issue: the sometimes weak Internet, interruptions, jerky videos – or cats running through the picture. I think we'll look back at this time with great nostalgia.

Lena Pflüger conducted the interview.

The original German version of this article was published on April 21, 2020, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.

Further Information

Read all the interviews in the campus.leben series “Coronavirus – Ask the Experts”: