Prof. Irene Neverla on Media and Democracy in the World and her course at University of Hamburg

Professor Dr. Irene Neverla talks about challenges to the media in different democracies, her research on the subject and the course MeCoDEM that she is teaching to the last Hamburg cohort of Mundusians. University of Hamburg is still part of our second semester alternative - this year UHH will receive 2 Mundus students!

During the 4-years project “Media, Conflict and Democratization” (MeCoDEM) funded by the European Union, Dr. Irene Neverla was a member of one of the seven working groups from seven universities in and outside of Europe.  Based on their research, Irene Neverla and other leading members of the consortium published several articles and a chapter for the book ‘Media, Communication and the Struggle for Democratic Change: Case Studies on Contested Transitions’ (2019, London, Palgrave Macmillan). Following this line of research, Dr. Neverla developed the course MeCoDem that Hamburg Mundusians have had the chance to attend for some years now. 

By the time we write this article, Irene has almost finished her classes with the last cohort of Hamburg Mundusians pursuing the specialisation in “Journalism across Cultures'' of the old curriculum.

Mundus Journalism always supports academic collaboration and research, so we asked Irene about her publication, challenges to media in different democracies and some insights on her course MeCoDEM. Even if University of Hamburg is not a degree-awarding partner anymore, the German institution is still a credit-awarding university, which means our students can spend a semester there attending courses and broadening their perspective and approaches to journalism studies and research. 

Mundus Journalism: Congratulations on getting published! Can you tell us more about your research and how you translated your findings into a book chapter?

Irene Neverla: Each working group explored certain social fields, which we considered to potentially be driving forces in the democratization process, like civil society, stakeholders from economy and politics, and last not least traditional media and social media.

In the Hamburg team, we wanted to examine how democracy emerges in transitional societies that have a history of authoritarian regimes and what role journalism plays in this scenario. We selected four countries for case studies:  Post-communism Serbia, post-colonialism Kenya and Egypt, and post-apartheid South Africa. We applied for funds in 2011, the year of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. It took us three years to get the funding and we started to conduct our empirical research at the end of 2014, beginning of 2015. That time, the uprise in Egypt had failed, and the authoritarian suppressive regime was back, making the country a very dangerous spot for doing research and conducting interviews with journalists.

We conducted around 25 qualitative interviews with journalists in each country, in sum 100 interviews. My team in Hamburg was responsible for empirical design and analysis of the interviews, while teams in the four countries were responsible to conduct them. Our focus was on journalist’s working conditions, professional roles, ethical considerations and norms. Based on our findings, we wrote several articles and the chapter in the above mentioned book. Throughout the project, thanks to our findings we further developed the concept of  ‘Conflict Sensitive Journalism’, which traces back to Ross Howard’s concept of ‘Conflict Sensitive Reporting” as an alternative and broader approach to Johan Galtung’s ‘Peace Journalism’.

The idea of conflict sensitive journalism is that journalism may follow various roles and practices, appropriate with the specific societal conditions. There is not the one and only correct and proper professional role for journalists, but the appropriate role is embedded in the social context. Especially at times of deep transitional conflicts, conflict sensitive journalism largely interacts with the historic moment and socio-economic context, and thus roles like advocacy journalism, or development journalism, will fit the best with the given circumstances, or else will shape arenas for counter-powers in a country.

MJ:  How is the rise in social media technologies affecting democracy?

I: Worldwide, social media have become channels not only for exchanging information and as discussion-forums, but for organizing protests. Younger generations have fully integrated social media in their media repertoires, and especially those with higher education use social media for political participation. We have observed this phenomenon in many countries during the Arab Spring in 2011, more recently in Asian protest movements like in Hong Kong and in climate change protests organized by Fridays for Future.

This is a positive example of the political role of social media. While the debate is also around hate speech and echo chambers in social media, the wide distribution and use of social media has drastically enabled a broader range of active participation and new formats of performative protests, which attract civil society and media attention.

Consequently, the interplay between traditional journalism and social media plays a crucial role in enhancing political discussions and providing decisions, both through agenda setting, and through new framings of the issues.

MJ: What are the gaps and challenges in the research in Media and Democracy studies?

I: Since a couple of years, as a follow up of globalization and digitalization, the new challenge in Western countries is populism combined with nationalism, racism and anti-democratic positions. Not only transitional societies, coming from authoritarian regimes, but also Western societies, considered established democracies, are under threat. Focusing on transitional democracies only reveals a Western-centric approach of our research. It is a challenge for communication and political science researchers to reconsider the role of the media in Western democracies. It took Europe several hundred years to develop democracy and journalism, however, still these two intertwined institutions are under fire.  In contrast, so many postcolonial countries had a chance to shape their democracy and to practice free journalism, not before the 1960’s, and post-communist countries not before the 1990’s, that is just a few decades.

Another issue in existing research is whether there is only one viable type of democracy and one type of journalism. Alternatively, we can think of more concepts of both.  Countries with different historic processes may develop their specific type of democracy and emphasize certain roles of journalism, like development journalism. This is not only an academic and theoretical question, but very much a practical challenge.

There are essential and universal components of democracy (rule of law, respect to human rights, participating in elections, checks and balances of democratic institutions), but if we take a closer look we can see more than one model of democracy even within the Western world - France, US, Germany, Switzerland... they have all different characteristics. Accordingly, there might be essential and universal components of journalism, like independence from political and economic power, but diverse role concepts how to fulfill the function of informing the public, controlling powers, and shaping arenas for public debates.

MJ: How is the MeCoDEM course followed by Mundusians designed?

I: The MeCoDEM course was originally shaped within the scope of our research project since it draws upon basic theoretical concepts and methodological tools that we developed in the MeCoDEM-project. Within this framework, students are free to refer to any recent development in their countries or anywhere, any conflict case which has come up recently, and of course to discuss new and maybe innovative theoretical concepts.

Students have the chance to develop their own projects (preferably but not necessarily working in groups) with several feedback-loops, both from their peers as well as from the teacher. It is a semester-long research project, which you can take as hands-on training on how to do research, but also as the first step into the master thesis.

This course is relevant to every student in every country. Every country faces specific challenges, and every student brings her or his knowledge and expertise on the specific background of the country and will get the opportunity to apply this expertise within this course. It is always an honour to learn from my students, and to exchange and deepen our knowledge about democratization processes and the role of traditional journalism and the social media.

You can find more about Professor Neverla’s academic and scientific contributions here.

Interested in learning from top experts and researchers in journalism studies? Join the Mundus Journalism programme, applications open in November!