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Sabina Mihelj delivers a keynote at the Moscow Readings conference

Sabina Mihelj gave a keynote at the annual ‘Moscow Readings’ conference, organised by the Faculty of Journalism, Lomonosov Moscow State University, with support from the International Media and Communication research Association and UNESCO. The conference took place online on 19-20 November. Sabina’s keynote, entitled “News consumption, political polarization and the Covid-19 pandemic beyond the West”, presented the results of the analysis of audience engagement with pandemic news, drawing on 120 interviews and media diaries conducted at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Serbia. The Moscow Readings conference has been organised annually by the Faculty of Journalism, Lomonosov Moscow State University, since 2009, and brings together scholars from around the world.

Keynote abstract:

Existing research on media and the Covid-19 pandemic is often West-centred, largely based on quantitative data, and limited to single-country studies. As such, this body of work has limited capacity to provide a holistic account of audience experiences with Covid-19 news, or to consider the impact of systemic political and media factors, especially beyond long-established liberal democracies of Western Europe and Northern America. This keynote presents some of the findings of an ongoing research project, based a large set of qualitative interviews and media diaries collected in four Eastern European countries during the first wave of the pandemic. Contrary to existing work on the topic, the findings suggest that changes in news consumption during the pandemic – including the resurgence of television and decline of print consumption – were not driven solely by audience demand for up-to-date information, but also by practical constrains of home-bound life in lockdown, and the introduction of live briefings. The findings reveal the importance of understanding the hybrid nature of audience engagement with crisis news, and the different combinations of legacy and digital sources. They also underscore disruption and uncertainty as key elements of audience experiences; and highlight the markedly privatized and depoliticized nature of public debate in the early phase of the pandemic. On the whole, the analysis shows that the pandemic was an unpredictable, open-ended and exhausting media event with high potential for divisiveness, especially in countries marked by low levels of media freedom, declining democratic standards, and elite-led politicization of the crisis.