Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Covid politics – We Have to do Something About It! Agency and Pandemic Mikołaj Pawlak
Covid politics – The Unexpected Victory of the Nation State Agnieszka Bielewska
Covid politics – Pandemic, War Metaphors, and the Process of Civilisation Daniel Arenas
Covid politics – Crisis in the Time of Disaster (Coronavirus) Dr Veselin Mitrović
Covid politics – Morality and Solidarities in a State of Exception Teppo Eskelinen
Covid politics – Your Own Personal State of Emergency José Duarte Ribeiro
Covid politics – Beware of the Ministry of Purity Javier García-Martínez
Covid politics – Reflections on the COVID-19 Rupture: Towards Transformation Angela Martinez Dy
Covid politics – Calling Leaders’ Bluff: The Covid-19 Outbreak and Power Relations in European Societies Matteo Antonini
Covid politics – The Pandemic in Europe's Community of Destiny Stefania Adriana Bevilacqua
Covid politics – Being Tough (Enough?) – Navigating the Limits of Democratic Power in the Coronavirus Crisis Isabel Kusche
Covid Inequalities – Scenarios of Return (im)Mobility and Pandemic Izabela Grabowska
Covid Inequalities – The Butterfly and the Cocoon: The Chinese Community of Prato (Italy) during COVID-19 Laura Leonardi
Beliefs and knowledges – Between a Purifying and Polluting Spoon Milica Resanović
Beliefs and knowledges – The Sound of Silence: The Aestheticization of the Coronavirus in Service of the Production of Knowledge Dr Shirly Bar-Lev
Beliefs and knowledges – Coronavirus, Theodicy and Capitalism Bartholomew A. Konechni
Beliefs and knowledges – Toilet paper and pangolins: Magical thinking during the Covid-19 pandemics David Redmalm
Beliefs and knowledges – Socio-Ecological Mentalities and the Trilemmas of Covid and Climate Dennis Eversberg
Beliefs and knowledges – The Largest Possible Experiment: The Corona Pandemic as Nonknowledge Transfer Matthias Gross
Covid life-courses – Reflecting on Meta-Temporalities in the Study of Youth Futures Within the Covid 19 Pandemic Giuliana Mandich
Covid life-courses – Parents’ Home Office Challenges During the Corona Pandemic Lena Hipp
Covid life-courses – Robots Versus Human Care Workers in Elderly Care: Un-/empathic and Un-/Infected Marcus Persson
Covid life-courses – "My Life in Times of Coronaviruses": Changes in the Everyday Life of Children of Madrid Lourdes Gaitán
Covid life-courses – Alone Together: Biographical Crises in Times of Pandemic Ana Caetano
Life, health, death – Living in a Lockdown: An Opportunity to Enhance Physical Activities? Dr Mihaly Szerovay
Life, health, death – The "Bare Death": Biopolitics and Religiopolitics of Jewish Covid-19 Victims Noa Vana
Life, health, death – Pandemics, Social Sciences and Inequality of Time Cláudio Pinheiro
Life, health, death – The Display of Displaced Care: Funerals in Corona Times Erika Anne Hayfield
Reflections – (Inter)acting in a Different Timeframe Aurianne Stroude
Reflections – Relational Corona Dr. Markus Lange
Reflections – Everything has Changed and Nothing has Changed Hannah Bradby
Reflections – Pandemic Possibilities in Sweden – From a Room with a View Gabriella Wulff
Mediating Covid – Following the #. Italians and ‘Biographical Continuity’ Under Covid-19 Veronica Moretti
Mediating Covid – The Evolution of Fake News in the Context of Coronavirus: First Explorative Insights into the Emergence and Spread of Fake News in Austria Daniela Wetzelhütter
Mediating Covid – Epidemic, Pandemic, Infodemic: A Project in Three Acts Marc Hannappel
Covid Working – Becoming Irrelevant for the System: A Discussion of Terms Elke Hemminger
Covid Working – The Corona Crisis and the Systemic Relevance of Jobs in Germany: Towards a New Appreciation and Solidarity? Paul-Fiete Kramer
Covid Arts – Arts in Finland Sari Karttunen
Covid Arts – The Impact of the Pandemic on Artists: Case Study in Malta Dr Valerie Visanich
Covid Arts – Resisting Pandemics: Balconies, Musicians and Contemporary Lockdowns in Contemporary Spain Kerman Calvo
Covid Arts – The Show Must Go On(line) - Music in Quarantine Alenka Barber-Kersovan
Covid Arts – The State and the Arts in Sweden During the Initial Phase of the Covid-19 Crisis – Less Visible Losses in the Shadow of Lost Lives and Livelihoods Christopher Mathieu
Covid Arts – The Arts in the Time of Pandemic Dr. Olga Kolokytha
Mediating Covid - Covid-19 as a Global Risk and Global Chance Svetlana Hristova

Mediating Covid – Epidemic, Pandemic, Infodemic: A Project in Three Acts

Issue 46: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 2 Sun 2 May 2021 0

Marc Hannappel, Viola Dombrowski, Matthias Kullbach, Institute of Sociology. Oul Han and Lukas Schmelzeisen, Institute for Web Science and Technologies. Universität Koblenz-Landau, Germany.

Prologue: Retrospect(ion)

On December 31st 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) office in Beijing is informed of several cases of pneumonia of unknown origin. In the following days, similar cases with the same symptoms are being reported to the WHO. From January 11th onwards, the increasing evidence suggest that this could be the outbreak of a novel disease. On January 25th, the first cases in Europe are reported, followed by a first wave of measures, such as Lufthansa stopping nearly all flights to China, foreshadowing the political, economic, and public impact this outbreak will soon have globally.

By the end of February, more than one hundred cases are registered in Italy. From here onwards, the numbers will not only rapidly rise in Italy, but throughout Europe and increasingly in the rest of the world, finally leading the WHO to declare the outbreak of ‘SARS-nCov-2’ as a pandemic on March 11th. In turn, several European countries impose measures, restricting citizens’ freedom of movement to varying degrees. Alongside these tangible effects on the personal and professional lives of individuals – ourselves included – the closing of restaurants, shops and warehouses goes on to impact the (inter-)national economies greatly. Within just a few weeks, our research object has moved from ‘very far away’ to right at our doorsteps, now constituting the dominant topic worldwide for probably a long while.

Act 1: The project

Simultaneously with the spread of Covid-19, information, scientific insight and speculation have been spreading through different media. This leads us to form our research team, consisting of five scholars from four disciplines – sociology, political science, computer science, and management – from a seemingly safe distance in Germany on February 12th.

Identifying this outbreak as a risk event according to Keller [1], which is accompanied by an almost unprecedented media spectacle [2], we chose to look at three major German newspapers (BILD, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung), where a development of sheer mass in newspaper articles can be seen – in total as well as in relation to other reported topics (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Development of daily newspaper articles and tweets, 21 January 2020 to 6 April 2020 (Copyright by Marc Hannappel 2020).
Figure 2: Proportion of articles about the Coronavirus compared to the total number of articles in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 April 2020 (Copyright by Marc Hannappel 2020).

Furthermore, we chose to look at Twitter – representing discourse on social media platforms – where the novel Coronavirus is advancing to being a central topic, albeit in far greater variety than in the newspaper articles.

With the pandemic’s dynamic development, diverse discourses around Covid-19 are emerging and changing rapidly, leading our project to pursue the following goals:

  1. Locating central topics and documenting their numerical development over time in both types of media (‘social’ and ‘traditional’).
  2. Analysing structures of reciprocity between traditional media (BILD, FAZ, SZ), social networks (Twitter), as well as ‘fact producers’ (WHO), by using the results of the analysis conducted in 1, in order to find out where agendas are set in the discourses of mass media.
  3. Examining in which ways the ‘objective’ course of the pandemic influences this fragmented discourse and, more importantly, which dynamics of their own they may develop.

Act 2: Theory

By ‘risk events’, we mean events that pose a threat to social groups and collectives, thereby breaking through routines and the self-evident nature of everyday life [1], making them extraordinary by default. Keller differentiates two types of risk events. The first type occurs in a shortened amount of time, posing a very immediate and palpable threat, such as natural or technological disasters, or the combination of both, like the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The second type, on the other hand, poses a less tangible threat that is not as immediate, for example climate change, which has been a point of public discourse for many decades now. Taking the Coronavirus crisis into consideration, we suggest looking at the two types of risk events as two ends of a highly contextual spectrum, as the events have not unexpectedly crept up on Europe as they have on the Chinese population. However, the individual perception of collective risk in both cases – which is a prerequisite for the classification as such – is highly dependent on the communication process surrounding these risk events and the way in which events are presented in media coverage. In a reciprocal motion, the reaction to this is then again incorporated into media reports [3]. While ‘the media’ transport information and pose as a platform for discourse, it is questionable if it is them that set the agendas of public discourse.

For studying the directions and mechanisms of influence that arise from the media, political elites, and the public opinion, agenda setting theory has been a key literature for the how and why of media salience of issues [4]. Most fundamentally, it has established the foundations of first- and second-level agenda setting by defining aspects around the salience of certain issues among the public (first level), followed by more detailed questions of which attributes are highlighted and why (second level). Due to the increasingly varied media landscape through the addition of online and social media, the agenda setting literature’s focus has shifted towards how the networked media agenda creates impact on the networked public agenda (third level).

Thus, the directions of agenda setting effects have spread into many branches of networks that disseminate, interpret, and modify information. The questions imposed by the second and third level of agenda setting, that of ‘how’ the Coronavirus crisis is discussed and through ‘which attributes and why’, are core questions due to the undisputable salience of the Coronavirus crisis, and it will be of importance for the construction of our methodological framework.

Act 3: Methodology

Following our research questions, we follow a mixed methods approach within the framework of an ‘explanatory sequential design’ [5]. In practice, we started out by web scraping, which is the automated extraction of text data from the web, to generate a corpus of data comprising all online articles from the German daily newspapers BILD, SZ and FAZ that have been published since December 31st, 2019 and contain the keyword ‘corona’. In addition, we collected all German tweets with the hashtags #corona, #coronavirus and #covid19. Despite the comparatively low number of users in Germany, Twitter is particularly interesting for the analysis of public discourse because it embodies a dynamic that is almost analogous to what Habermas describes as the public sphere, which is a network for the communication of content and statements: hence, opinions in which communication flows are filtered in such a way that they condense into topic-specific public opinions [6]. However, it would be naïve to regard Twitter as a possibility for the operationalisation of a general public. Neuman et al. point out that users of social media differ from the general (offline) population in terms of important socio-demographic characteristics [7]. Twitter can, however, be understood as a part of the public sphere, representing an important arena for discourse, and especially for the analysis of risk discourses [1], due to the open structures and possibilities for cross-platform discussion.

To gather insight into the reaction of public discourse as portrayed by traditional media and Twitter-discourses, we will conduct our analysis in three central interlocking steps:

  1. Identifying key topics, and the time and intensity in which they appear for both traditional media and Twitter. For this, we use both frequency counts and algorithmic analysis methods, such as ‘topic modelling’ [8].
  2. Determining which topics are set by which medium through time-dependent analysis.
  3. Supplementing the distributional results of algorithmic analysis by employing interpretative methods, such as discourse analysis.

Epilogue: Prospects

When we started this project, we did not realise we would face this unique situation. Not only are we confronted with a mass of data – comprising more than 15,000 newspaper articles and more than two million tweets – we also find ourselves in a state of ‘domestic isolation’. Nevertheless, we want to continue our analyses, maybe with even more motivation for gaining a systematic overview of the situation – unfolding, past and present. Thus, we would like to conclude this ‘drama in three acts’ with an outlook and present the first interim results:

As seen in Figure 3, the reporting of German newspapers does not run parallel to the number of cases worldwide. Only when the disease reaches Europe, a continuous growth can be observed, strongly increasing with the acceleration of Covid-19 cases in Germany, and finally skyrocketing with the discussion of restrictions on public social life. This could suggest that a (perceived) increase in risk leads to an increase in public interest in a topic.

Figure 3: Development of COVID-19 cases by country and frequencies of newspaper articles and Tweets in Germany.

By focussing on topics of discussion, as well as the relation between the newspapers and Twitter, we can see that the discussions for many key topics apparently were initiated on Twitter, rather than in traditional media (see Figure 4). Following the agenda-setting theory, these distributions could be interpreted to suggest that traditional media react to Twitter news – meaning that the latter sets the agenda. Furthermore, we suspect that only isolated media reports regarding specific topics have led to major discussions on Twitter. However, we will only be able to gain deeper insight into this ‘hypothesis’, as well as the overall discourse, as we examine the data – with the help of selected topics – by implementing discourse analysis.

Figure 4: Frequencies of the words ‘crisis’, ‘economy’, ‘measures’ and ‘closed’ in all Tweets and in newspaper articles collected, 20 January 2020 to 22 March 2020 (Copyright by Marc Hannappel 2020).


[1] Keller, R. (2011): Wissenssoziologische Diskursanalyse. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
[2] Kellner, D. (2018): Medienspektakel und Protest. In: Hoffmann, D.; Winter, R. (Eds.): Mediensoziologie. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 158-173.
[3] Schütz, H.; Wiedemann, P. M. (2003): Risikowahrnehmung in der Gesellschaft. Bundesgesundheitsblatt-Gesundheitsforschung. 7: 549-554.
[4] McCombs, M. E.; Shaw, D. L.; Weaver, D. H. (2014): New Directions in Agenda-Setting Theory and Research. Mass Communication and Society 17: 781-802.
[5] Schoonenboom, J.; Johnson, B. R. (2017): How to Construct a Mixed Methods Research Design. In: Baur, N.; Kelle, U.; Kuckartz, U. (Eds.): Mixed Methods. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 107-131.
[6] Habermas, J. (2008): Faktizität und Geltung. Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
[7] Neuman, R. W.; Guggenheim, L.; Hang, M. S.; Bae, S. Y. (2014): The Dynamics of Public Attention: Agenda-Setting Theory Meets Big Data. Journal of Communication. 64: 193-214.
[8] Stier, S.; Posch, L.; Bleier, A.; Strohmaier, M. (2017): When populists become popular: Comparing Facebook use by the right-wing movement Pegida and German political parties. Information, Communication & Society, 20(4): 1365-1388.

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