Crisis and the media: what are we being told?

Newspaper coronavirus

We live, it seems, in a time of crisis. As well as the current Covid-19 pandemic, and the economic crisis which comes with it, we face the climate-change emergency, overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, the global political order and much more besides. How do we know all this? Because the media tells us so.


What drive the choices behind media coverage? Famously, the newsworthy should be negative and preferably unexpected. Some catastrophes are more equal than others, depending on how far away they take place. Disasters in far off places are the norm. As an ex-foreign correspondent put it, the working rule for ‘tragic death’ is ‘10,000 deaths on another continent equal 1,000 deaths in another country equal 100 deaths in an outpost equal ten deaths in the centre of the capital equal one celebrity’.


Mass and social media need to attract audiences to thrive. So, it should come as no shock if their imagery emphasizes immediate effect over thoughtful deliberation. But are the terms that designate major misfortunes so casually interchangeable? What’s in a name?

Cvid-19 crisis media


In English, an emergency is an unexpected state of affairs demanding immediate action. Brought on by a sudden great misfortune, it becomes a disaster. If matters take a sudden turn that subverts the order of things, we call it a catastrophe. Crisis, by contrast, is more complex. Pathologically, it is the turning point in a disease. More generally it signals a moment of decisive change for better or worse. The first three terms describe unforeseen circumstances that demand action.


Crises are different: they build up, often over a long period, towards a peak that require forensic analysis and perspicacious deliberation. Life normally rumbles along until a crisis forces people to start questioning what they had taken for granted. Critical thinkers however may well discern flaws, incoherencies or aporia that, unaddressed, result in crises. The link between being critical and crisis is not coincidental. Krísis in Classical Greek was decision or judgement; and came to designate the decisive moment in an unfolding sequence of events.


The concept of crisis, strictly understood, has noteworthy analytical and rhetorical implications. For the mass and social media, framing a situation as a crisis, emergency or disaster packs an emotive punch designed to attract audiences’ or readers’ attention. What is not made explicit however is more revealing.


The postulated need for urgent action marginalizes the value of prior reflection, analysis and judgement. Politicians around the world indulge in this ploy when they are anxious for people not to inquire into how matters were allowed to come to such a pass in the first place. It distracts attention from their wanton failures, neglect, incompetence, lack of preparedness and so on.


If we step back from short-term media and political imperatives, there is more to invoking crisis. Instead of any old emergency, crisis invites critical reflection on the chain of events, actions and decisions (or lack thereof) that preceded. Furthermore, it is gerundive: describing a state of affairs as crisis delimits appropriate and inappropriate modes of reasoning, engagement and action. Climate change as crisis is a good example. In offering an aetiology of the present mess, it criticizes the thinking and actions that produced it and suggests remedies that may be potentially unpalatable. But are crises inevitably a bad thing?


Evidence suggests otherwise. Capitalism thrives on crises as opportunities to exploit new possibilities. Analysts of ‘disaster capitalism’ treat crises as exploited or engineered to distract people from criticizing questionable policies. After all, never let a serious crisis go to waste. Furthermore, crisis is a distinctive kind of explanation: it presupposes narrative. You cannot explain a crisis without recourse to what happened before. Victor Turner generalized this in his idea of ‘social dramas’ which comprise four stages: breach, crisis, redress, then reintegration or schism. Conflicts or contradictions lead to disruption which is either resolved or changes the status quo ante. The argument is elegant and seductive. It rests however upon a particular European genealogy of how we imagine the natural and social worlds are, should or should not be.


Even if we conceive of nature predictably following laws—be they static or evolutionary—what about society? Reflecting on crises shows there to be underlying narratives about the order of existence that we take for granted, at least until things go awry (Greek kosmos and kháos respectively). As there are always alternative accounts of what is ideal, normal or possible, it is Eurocentric to assume that other peoples concur that the natural and social worlds are relatively stable and ordered.

Social media

But what if they are liable to transform in a contingent or indeterminate manner? The Indonesian societies that I know best presume the latter: the unexpected or catastrophe may happen at any moment. That is hardly an unreasonable assumption when earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, famines, plagues, wars, revolutions, massacres and anomie are commonplace. There are other ways of imagining history and crisis: a point neatly disguised by drama itself being a singular European metaphor.


Media coverage of crisis is a two-edged sword. Crisis-as-emergency offers scope for the arbitrary arrogation of authority. Crisis-as-narrative raises critical questions about how things were allowed to come to this pass and threatens to expose the failures, incompetence, insouciance and myopia that allowed it to happen. And, insofar as mass and social media in other parts of the world imitate Western usage, they are inadvertently embracing and advocating an alien hegemony. So, whether Media and Cultural Studies are pertinent to the Covid-19 crisis, I leave to your critical judgement.


Professor Mark Hobart is Emeritus Professor at SOAS’s Centre for Global Media and Communication


For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please check our website

Share this post