Being alert to digital control and abuse will be a key challenge to journalists in the pandemic and post-pandemic era, a media panel has said.

UTS Journalism’s Media Salon heard journalists’ relationship with technology had forever changed because of pandemic and lockdown restrictions, altering the way they worked with sometimes negative repercussions.

But the inaugural panel discussion, which pairs top-tier journalists and leading academics to discuss media issues, also agreed it was an opportunity for positive change and constructive solutions, rather than a return to pre-COVID life.

Confronting Crises on a Global Scale: Fighting for Change in the Post-pandemic World saw Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, and London School of Economics and Political Science associate professor Dr Seeta Pena Gangadharan discuss a range of issues, moderated by UTS’s international journalism collaborations coordinator Christine Kearney.

Our relationship to technology has … very much transformed in the darkest months of the pandemic.

The conversation took Viner’s musings on values at The Guardian as the starting point to consider topics such as young news audiences, climate action, the (mis)information pandemic and technological governance.

Viner and Gangadharan both urged for replacing the desire for a ‘return to normal’ with a hunger for change.

“Our relationship to technology has, I think, very much transformed in the darkest months of the pandemic,” Gangadharan said.

“Partly because we were able to see the tools that many of us have come to understand as information and communication tools as fundamentally surveillance and extractive tools. Surveillance, whether that’s tied to your workplace monitoring your performance throughout the day or if it’s the use of technology.”

She added: “For everyday citizens and everyday consumers I think [there’s] this sense that ‘I’m on a screen for far longer than I would have enjoyed it, and what’s happening on the other side of that screen?’.

“I feel like we’re at an inflection point where for 25 odd years we’ve had this understanding of technology being a democratising tool and it’s felt in the last year and-a-half, almost two years now, that technology, at least these communicative technologies, have really become disciplinarian technologies … there’s something grossly awry here.”

With digital modes of communicating reaching new heights during lockdown, the panelists said the media needed to be mindful of its moral and ethical responsibilities to be alert to digital control.

Viner said getting back to normal is impracticable if normality entails “more screens… and more surveillance” than ever before.

“It is a very big challenge for journalists and partly because the sea you swim in has changed so much … in your Facebook feed you can’t tell if something is from a reputable source that is transparently funded and will correct its mistakes or whether it’s just some junk website that’s trying to get clicks for cash, or whether it’s from some propagandist paid for by a state or some other actor that is out to influence the scene for worse,” she added.

“We may be angry with technology companies for that but it also puts greater pressure on us (journalists) to be trusted.”

COVID has produced a world rife with technological dependencies, which Gangadharan said are manifest in track and trace apps, health applications, educational provision and public safety.

“Things do really honestly feel quite grim,” said Gangadharan.

According to Viner, the pandemic has been positive in its revealing how media can misinform, marginalise, polarise and insulate.

Ultimately, this has “driven audiences back to sites that they trust”; traditional media institutions which ground readers in reliable truths.

Viner said she believes mainstream media possesses the potential to guide audiences to a shared experience and, from there, to collective action on other global challenges, such as the climate crisis.

We should be thinking about different kinds of institutional practices that get us to a point where truth isn’t a bad word.

“I think it’s important that we fight for the common good, fight for public space and put pressure on all of these companies from fossil fuel companies, extractors all the way down to how we tax the super-rich and try to fight for a better society,” Viner said.

And Gangadharan said we may already be seeing this taking place, pointing to the transforming news habits of young people “as the reputation of Facebook tanks”.

In her 2019 TED Talk, Gangadharan explored why the refusal of pervasive, disciplinary technology is the best tool at our disposal, as individual media consumers.

She said she finds hope in younger generations who are beginning to reject the “industrial era notion of human progress” when it comes to technological consumption. However, she also warned that this idea cannot be undone overnight. 

Wrapping up the panel with some compelling food for thought, Gangadharan concluded that “we should be thinking about different kinds of institutional practices that get us to a point where truth isn’t a bad word”. 

Main image: Canva montage images of Dr Seeta Pena Gangadarhan, left, and Katharine Viner, supplied. Background image by Learntek/Flickr.