If we are at war with Corona, can history of war teach us anything? Part II: News and Media Consumption
Drawing comparisons between Corona and warfare seems omnipresent in the current crisis, as the United Nations, Macron, Merkel and even the British Queen have referred to the coronavirus pandemic as the biggest challenge since the Second World War.
Before we start this rather eclectic collection of thoughts and reading recommendations, let me repeat that I am neither a historian of medicine nor of pandemics, but others are, and their work has to be highly recommended in this context. Let me add to my inconclusive list the recent insightful interview (in German) on pandemics and modern medicine with Malte Thießen, who has published on the history of vaccinations.
In my previous post, I have already discussed the various problems of comparing a health crisis to the Second World War: firstly, that the lack of a physical enemy bears the danger of projecting fear and hate onto minorities, secondly, that we run the risk of diminishing national and individual responsibilities for war and war crimes when only speaking about impersonal “challenges”, thirdly, that historians should not give answers but rather ask good questions. So, if we chose to speak of the virus in terms of warfare, can historians of war teach us anything?
War News and Media at War
Covid-19 and its rapid spread have launched an avalanche of news. New numbers of tests, patients and deaths roll in, updated at least daily, sorted by countries, regions, cities. Many check these numbers regularly; probably more often than anyone would care to admit or than is reasonably sane (me included). It is easy to assume that this media frenzy is predominantly a symptom of current times, of the Internet and 24/7 online media information.
However, crises and media have a long-intertwined history, and the history of war provides us with a lot of comparisons. These days, addictively reading updated news reminds me of how Sebastian Haffner in his essential autobiography “The Story of a German” describes his childhood memories of the First World War. Haffner writes that as a child he was drawn to war news, which seemed to report something unreal to him, like a game. He recalls that he obsessed over numbers and frontlines as others might have over football scores; the real tragedy of it hidden by distance and by the fact that it was unimaginable. (Chap 3). This might ring a bell; it certainly does for me in (yet) relatively safe and calm Germany.
Are there other similarities between corona news and war news, between media coverage and consumption of these crises that can help us understand it? There certainly is a broad field of research on media coverage and news of war. Firstly, because newspapers and journals are comfortable primary sources: they are easy to read (printed!), easy to find (usually linked to an institution), easy to follow over a period of time, and usually survive the years in a more or less complete and representative form. Secondly, contrary to governmental documents, newspapers seem to give insight into what “people” think and what their daily life looks like. Thirdly, they seem neutral and objective, providing “the news” and “what happened”.
While the first is all too true, and often very seductive for historians, the second and third points have to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Historians of war in particular have spent some time analysing how news and media have been used to display certain views, to further agendas (for example nationalist ones), to discredit the enemy, and to feature exactly the point of view you want your readers to adapt.
The First World War Online Encyclopaedia 1914–1918 provides multiple national case studies on how the First World War was covered in different countries and in how far this reflected or influenced popular views , showing how a formerly international and connected global press quickly nationalised and split during the war, but almost as quickly reconnected after it.
During the Second World War, and particularly during the London Moment, radio broadcasting became essential to communicate news to both the British public and the population of occupied European countries. The British Broadcasting company (BBC) turned into a central Allied platform, facilitating broadcasts for the several governments-in-exile. While providing important independent news otherwise no longer available under Nazi occupation, the broadcasts were certainly also used to circulate Allied propaganda. In particular France and Germany were being wooed with radio broadcasts by both sides, Nazis and Allies. Many of the original Allied broadcasts can still be accessed via the French archival platform INA.fr and the BBC archives.
Reading up on media at wartime helps us to transfer knowledge gained from historical analysis to current times: that while most journalists do their best to supply the public with news, some facts remain: Mass media is a powerful force shaping how we experience the world and our self. As such, it is constantly instrumentalised to portray certain views, and even spreading misinformation, especially in times of crises. Or, to simplify: even good journalism has an angle. Information and news is never simply neutral and objective, it has always been chosen and written by someone, whose view is influenced by their own personal background, the time and place they wrote it, their own knowledge of the situation.
We can use Erving Goffman’s notion of “framing” to investigate how news articles are written in a specific way to encourage a certain reaction and to create a certain opinion among the readers. Additionally, we can lean on discourse analysis (following a Foucauldian tradition or adaptations as for example by Achim Landwehr) to look for longterm definitions and narratives within the news and public discourse and analyse how our understanding of health, state responsibility or what kind of professions are deemed essential to our society have changed over a longer period of time. Discourse analysis also explains why I am writing this blog entry in the first place – only the omnipresence of war in public discourse leads to the current comparisons of Covid-19 to war.
Finally, it all comes back to analysing your sources when you read the news, whether on war or on corona: Who wrote it, when, what did they possibly know (or not know) and what might have been their intentions? Who published it, when, with what kind of readership in mind? What might have been their intentions? Which part of the text can be traced back to reliable sources, which part is clearly an opinion? Annoyingly, the more we analyse, the more questions we have to ask. A vicious circle – or rather, Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle, but that’s a whole different story.