Published on April 13th, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented transformational effects on media and technological dynamics in almost every country. These conditions have especially impacted official communication sources, educational media, and issues surrounding access to network infrastructure and computer hardware. To get a sense of how these issues are playing out in the Peruvian context I interviewed Julio César Mateus, a professor and communication researcher who has been studying these topics in recent years.
The interview was originally conducted in Spanish and has been edited and translated for its publication.
Diego Cerna Aragon: To get a more general perspective, the first question that I would like to ask is: in the context of the current pandemic what type of problematic content has been circulating in Peru related to issues of security and health? How are media handling the situation? Is misinformation spreading?
Julio César Mateus: I believe that what is happening in Peru right now must be also happening in other places. I think that we should divide media issues into two areas of concern: on the one hand, mass media, and on the other, social media. In relation to the former, Peruvian news media were doing a really mediocre job in covering the pandemic even before the state of emergency. It is still fresh in my mind the image of these midday magazine TV shows inviting shamans and curanderos to explain the virus. And, for sure, once the state of emergency was announced, the media transform themselves in the sense that they start giving it much more importance. Certainly, traditional media, such as TV news, were not ready to cover an issue like this. Here I will mention, two or three ideas.
In first place, science communication – a branch of communication that has to do with the dissemination of scientific knowledge, including medicine – is very limited in Peru. This situation caused one of the few scientific communicators in the country – Elmer Huerta, a medical doctor who is a respected authority in the field and has a radio show – to be transformed in a hugely important influencer, not only because he is great communicator, but also because he is a scientist who backs up all his ideas and opinions with reliable sources. As I said, this a singular case because there are almost no scientific communicators in Peruvian national media.
Moreover, traditional media not only were unprepared because of their limited personnel in the area of science communication, but also because they have shown themselves to be totally uninterested in offering support during the emergency from an educational perspective, an issue that I research. For instance, they have not joined the campaign initiated by the Ministry of Education, Aprendo en casa1 [Learning at home], through which educational material will be transmitted to children at home.2 In a situation of national emergency, I would have expected that all media would have taken seriously what our Constitution dictates.3 For example, one national TV channel could say “I will broadcast content for high schoolers,” and another TV channel could say, “I will broadcast elementary school content.” This is content that they do not even have to produce, which is the most expensive part. They would simply have to broadcast it and yet the TV channels will not do it. The inability to address these two important elements – science and health communication, and education – reveal a media sector that is to a certain extent mediocre and useless at the moment of dealing with a national emergency.
With regard to social media, I would say that this situation is exactly conducive to the spreading of lies and half-truths, something that normally already happens but now can have more nefarious effects. Every day we wake up with WhatsApp audio files from unknown sources or videos showing dead people in the streets, yet one does not know if they are from New York, Guayaquil, Madrid, or somewhere in Lima. So, the pandemic situation has created a breeding ground and a kind of perfect scenario for the spreading of this content. This exposes a media literacy and media education deficit, among the people, something that scholars, activists, and even UNESCO have been warning about for a long time.
DCA: There are three topics that you have mentioned that I would like to talk about. First, usually we think about problematic information as associated with social media. Nonetheless, as you were saying, before the state of emergency Peruvian mass media was broadcasting this problematic content in which, instead of communicating scientific information, anyone just talked about the Coronavirus – a disease that was known to be a serious issue at least since the end of 2019, and that could eventually arrive to Peru. Could we delve into this a bit more? How is that conventional media can also be sources of misinformation? Instead of the usual framing, that this is something that mostly happens in social media.
JCM: I think that the agenda is divided between what traditional media present and what is shared in social media. And, in relation to traditional media, indeed the lack of scientific communicators is something apparent. Media has specialized in presenting someone as an expert, but does not always offer expertise. Let us say that you get interviewed one day about something you know. If you seem to be good at communicating some ideas you will be probably invited in the following days, and again in two weeks, and so on. Next thing you know, you are the most notorious expert in the field and have a media presence. That is something that is happening now: a group of medical doctors or infectious disease specialists have been exalted as public opinion leaders. And that is good because they are serious professionals. But the concern is that this has happened after the government’s emergency declaration, not before. There is a role to play in education and public health that media outlets should fulfill in non-emergency times, which they clearly have not been doing.
Another thing that concerns me about media coverage of the pandemic is the spectacle-making and sensationalism that is occurring. For example, a report will be accompanied by images that are not from the same country they are covering. To me, this an extremely serious ethical infringement in journalism. For example, in the news, when reporters are interviewing Peruvian doctors or talking about the situation in Peru, they do not always use local images. They also use images from Italy, Spain or United States, where the situation is much more alarming. This generates a terrible sensation of insecurity. To synthesize what I have been saying, these are the most important points: first, the need to have scientific communicators proactively addressing the current situation; second, the need to address the emergency in a level-headed way and not use the aesthetic dimension, including background music and visual effects, only to shock people. Media should provide public health updates with scientific information and try to calm down the audience.
Another point worth mentioning that worries us all is how traditional media now rely on use of internet. As you know, in our country the broadband connection is very limited given that there is not an optimal infrastructure. So, of course, there is a huge concern because diverse groups, such as medical doctors and educators, need internet service to do their jobs and they are finding really serious connectivity issues. In this situation, traditional media are running a campaign to remind us to make responsible use of the internet. Yet before this, they never touched the issue. This is what I mean when I talk about a lack of preparation. What this pandemic and state of emergency has done is to uncover the faults of our whole system – the media system in particular – and our extremely fragile society. We are doing what we can with what we have, but this reveals a huge number of deficiencies.
DCA: There are two points that I would like to follow up on. First, what does responsible media content look like during an emergency? What should be broadcast? On the one hand, there is a sense that if you are confined to your house and watch series, movies, and other kinds of entertainment you can temporarily detach yourself from the state of emergency. But, on the other hand, there is also a sense that this position can be taken to an extreme and become something pernicious, as you were saying. Is entertainment content helpful?
JCM: There are two things that I think are interesting here. First, is the issue of entertainment that, obviously, is necessary. I believe we all need entertainment, as well as emotional and psychological support, because we are going through a really complicated situation, especially those who are alone, but also those who live in family or with a partner. In short, everyone is now in a position in which they require entertainment. There is an interesting point here. In Netflix, the series Pandemic and Virus are among the most viewed content in Peru. We could say that people are not only looking for entertainment, but are also seeking explanations wherever they can find them, whether through fiction or news. They are using media to try and make sense of this dystopic situation we are living. I think everyone who has watched Walking Dead, Black Mirror or similar series, including myself, found in dystopian fiction a number of possibilities related to the present. In entertainment, one not only seeks some relaxation, but also some answers that we do not find in reality.
Now, about the coverage, I am not an expert on how media outlets should cover an emergency like this, but I feel like the only tool they are employing is fear. When you do that you generate some complicated feelings in the audience. The government is doing an excellent job with daily press conferences and a web page that centralizes all the official information.4 This is incredibly helpful from a public communication point of view. But what are traditional media doing? For example, reporters join police on their patrols and produce the typical news segment in which the journalist sees a person not following the rules and says: “Hey, why are you being so irresponsible?!” They try to play the role of moral conscience and make us remember our values, morality and transgressions. And, to some extent that is okay, but you cannot only do that.
So far, we are lacking two elements in journalism. The first is solutions journalism. This kind of journalism is not only about what is happening but also tries to produce a perspective about where we should be going. I do not see any proactive takes in media. The only kind of reporting I see is: “be careful today,” “lockdown yourself now.” A second element lacking is a proactive reflection about what should happen tomorrow. The media coverage makes it seem like all of this is going to be over on April 13th or 14th or May 1st or whenever, and that people are going to continue their lives as usual after the pandemic.
This is a lost opportunity. Media should be engaging in pedagogical labor; there is a reflexive structural analysis that they should be discussing related to the economic, health care, or educational systems. They stay with the here and now. It is a reactive kind of journalism– reactive, instead of proactive, coverage. I think pedagogy is something also necessary in a crisis. First, because it helps to give people a certain sense of hope, which is important because people are demoralized right now. Second, it allows you to start thinking about which solutions we should start pushing for. Helping to reflect on what habits and things should change in the future and what kind of conditions have contributed to this crisis is an opportunity that we should not lose.
DCA: Those two last points are really interesting. To continue with this issue of long-term reflections, one thing I have noticed in the Peruvian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is precisely what you point out: that they make it seem like this is something that will end when the quarantine is lifted in two or more weeks, as if everything will simply be reactivated again. I am thinking, for example, about the coverage of the economy. Pundits are debating how the government should put money in people’s pocket right now, and there are different proposals, but I think they are not emphasizing the fact that a global recession is coming, and that it may last longer than a quarantine. Is this reactive coverage a pattern in the behavior of media organizations or is it something specific to the current emergency?
JCM: We are accustomed to this kind of reactive media coverage, but I also think that it has to do with our precarious economic system. In Peru, seven out of ten people live and work in conditions of informality. There is not a serious public discussion about the necessity to formalize. When the government wants to execute a policy like, now for example, giving subsidies to people in need,5 we are still in a country where those people will have to wait in long lines in front of a bank to get the money. This is not because there are no other options, but because people seem not interested and there has not been a public policy to formalize all parts of society. If seven out of ten persons would be in the formal sector, instead of the other way around, putting money in people’s pockets would be much easier and secure.
Now we are seeing populist and clientelist practices. The government has given money to municipalities – because it did not have many other alternatives – so that they can give basic food supplies to populations in their jurisdictions. And what we are seeing now in media are populist mayors who, with a mask and rolled-up sleeves, go to distribute the food themselves. That is cheap clientelism. Nonetheless, can the government do something else? There is not a system of distribution that goes beyond having to deliver food and water from the back of a truck. This is a super precarious situation. The formalization issue is not something that I see being discussed in a profound way. We are still in the day-to-day. And this is something that I lament because we could use this crisis to think about a future beyond the structure that we are currently living in.
Related to the education system. Look at what has happened at the start of the educational year. On the one hand, the figure of the teacher has been reappreciated. The parents are thinking, “I have to deal with one or two kids and I am already going insane, how does a teacher deal with thirty?” Yet, on the other hand, we can also see the precarity of the system: teachers with not enough digital media training suddenly having to carry out this virtualization plan ordered by the government. This has uncovered complex divides that should be dealt with.
DCA: I think the relation you establish between state capacity and certain media dynamics is interesting. For instance, how do conditions of precarity and limited state capacity enable the media to construct these “heroic” mayors performing clientelism. The relation between state capacity and spectacularization is certainly important. But I would like to return to the issue of education and a point you mentioned earlier involving mass media’s role in education during this abnormal school year. Of course, media organizations are asked to support this new program – Aprendo en casa – in which educational content is transmitted via radio, TV, and internet, but there is something that usually does not enter the equation: the fact that media are working under state licenses. They are not the owners of the signals. The signals belong to the state.
JCM: You have put your finger on a sore spot. There is a theme that a few Peruvian media researchers have been talking about for a while: public media. First, in Perú there is not public media. There are state-owned media, and this is an important distinction. Second, media provide a public service, as you mentioned, under a constitutional mandate, but it seems like we look at our Constitution as a book of fiction. In the Constitution the media’s duty to collaborate with people’s education is specified. That is not in vain. Media organizations typically think of themselves as the owners of signals which are actually not theirs. In a state of national emergency, the government should be able to decree the media to broadcast certain necessary content, given that media companies are only licensees of a publicly owned signal.
What we see now in Peru, however, is the government almost begging the media to broadcast educational content. This is shameful because media belong to us all, and I think there is a conceptual failure on the government’s part for not considering media as part of the educational system. Families, too, still conceive of the educational system as a school and a teacher in a classroom. But the educational system includes all the actors involved in society and especially the media, which cut through our whole society. I believe that this an issue that we should reflect upon, because if this does not change, we will see it happen in other scenarios in the future.
DCA: Even if the teachers from the Peruvian educational system would have access to these media, would they have the training and capacity to organize an educational plan using these media?
JCM: Not everyone has access to the same resources. With the exception of a few private schools that have access to modern infrastructure, the majority of schools have very basic technological resources. So, one issue is the unevenness, and in some cases, scarcity, of material resources. Another issue is the limited capacity of the teachers, which the teachers themselves are the first ones to point out. A significant number of them do not feel trained to develop a learning session using media.
A third issue is how people value virtual education. I do not know if you have seen this, but there are some people already sharing stories about some professors in universities or teachers in schools that feel absolutely out of place in this online environment. And now you start hearing parents saying: “Am I supposed to pay the same amount of money for this? Virtual education is of lesser value.” As a professor, I tell you, doing a virtual class requires a double or triple amount of time and labor because we have to redesign the entire pedagogical scenario. It is not only about transmitting information. I could send you a PDF and just say: “read it and then we talk.” But education is about generating a much more complex learning experience. So, there are a number of points that we have touched upon that I think are super important: how we value teachers, how we value virtual experiences, and the issue of competency in digital media pedagogy.
DCA: Very interesting — this is the opposite of what I have been hearing in my current experience at MIT. Most of the persons that I have contact with are saying “we know having virtual lessons is complicated, so please let us be understanding of each other situations and try to make the best of these classes.” News I have read from Peru mostly discusses people complaining about how virtual classes could be considered the same as in-person classes. Ultimately, this complaint is an economic one, since a great part of education in Peru is private and for profit. Given that education has an economic value, people are raising the question of whether they should pay the same amount for being seated in their homes in front of a computer.
JCM: Here, there are two almost teleological discussions. The first is what does it mean to educate? What is the process of educating? Is it to discover knowledge as a revelation? Is it data that you have put into use? If we return to the origin of the concept, we could set up an incredible learning experience by, let us say, cleaning a bathroom. We could ask what are the surfaces in a bathroom, what materials are they made of, what chemical elements are effective in different circumstances. We are talking about quotidian situations that could reveal an incredible amount of learning content, but in order for that to happen, you would have to prepare a learning route, a session proposed by a teacher who feels capable of doing it. You would also need a parent who feels capable of orienting their child. But neither of these possibilities emerge in the majority of cases. We still have this curricular understanding of teaching: a list or a catalog of data that we should learn so then we can take a test.
This pandemic emergency is showing us that a lot of what we learn in school or university is actually not useful for anything. Because we have no idea of how to clean a house. We do not know how to cook. We have no idea how nutritious is the food that we are eating. These are really important issues for survival.
Actually, there is a very important debate about education as a right. At the roots of this conversation is the notion of education as a service. Since it is a service there are clients, which pay for this service and feel like they deserve a service delivered with certain characteristics, and if these expectations are not met then the economic value should be lower. I believe this a total perversion of education. In a more “philosophical” discussion, if you will, we should define what it means to be educational. What is education’s role in society? And what is the role of the different actors involved? Under the logic of education-as-a-service, families have detached themselves from the educational process and believe that teachers are the only ones responsible. During the current crisis we are seeing that both families and media have a role to play in education.
DCA: I believe that is a central issue often overlooked because in recent years Peru has not gone through an emergency like this before. As you were saying, this situation is exposing certain structural configurations, which have to do with how our society is organized but also with materiality, with the infrastructure and hardware needed. And this raises another issue as well. The fact that many people in the country do not have internet access compelled the state to ask mass media to broadcast educational content. You have been researching the use of technologies in education, so are schools and universities equipped with the needed infrastructure?
JCM: On the topic of infrastructure, the situation is evident. There is a divide issue. The connectivity in rural areas does not even reach 20%. It is very limited. In urban areas, we are talking about a connectivity rate of around 70%. So, to put in simple terms, you could say that, roughly, in Peru only about half of the population has internet access. Now, what is the quality of this connectivity? That is another issue. It is one thing is to have access to a restricted quantity of internet data and another to have a dedicated internet connection and be able to access, for example, streaming services. In that case, we are talking about even fewer people.
With regard to computer hardware, we have a state that in the last thirty years dedicated itself to mostly buying technological devices, such as the laptops from the One Laptop Per Child project of Nicholas Negroponte from MIT. These low-cost laptops were introduced with a very instrumentalist logic to complement certain school activities. They were not used as a tool to break the idea of the physical classroom. If half-million students had those laptops in their homes with internet, then we could be talking of a different set of potentials because we could imagine delivery of educational content in a different way. But the laptops do not work. They are not distributed adequately. And until now the state did not have the capacity to deliver content through them. The strategy launched by the Ministry of Education – Aprendo en casa – uses virtual tools at a minimum level, and is mostly based on traditional media.
Something that now seems curious, because the digital vogue had almost “buried” traditional media, is the re-emergence of radio. The relevance of radio in rural areas is tremendous. It is the most valuable medium to transmit information and its use is well-entrenched. The state lost interest in long-distance education a long time ago because they thought it was an old paradigm and now everyone is trying to unearth and revive those capacities and infrastructures that are somewhere out there. In the Ministry of Education building there was an entire floor dedicated to distance education, but then it was forgotten. This also uncovers the issue of technological vogues and the fetishism for the digital. Privileging of state-of-the-art technology and use of specific “new” devices has finally ruined the distance education system, which should be much more organic and robust as a system, with different technologies interacting with one another.
So now, of course, people are trying assess the connectivity of the students. In theory, the teachers should communicate with the students and parents to determine the kind of internet access that the student has (if any), what devices they have, what technologies are available at home, and, based on that information, propose a strategy. There is also a thorny matter, which cannot be taken into account at this very moment because of the urgency we are living in, which is data privacy. Look at how much data is being exposed at the moment because of the emergency. There are teachers that now have the students’ personal cellphone numbers. I believe digital privacy is something we should keep in mind because, unfortunately, our precarity also includes perverse relations and interactions that hurt the students. I think this issue of data vulnerability is something we must not forget about. If we do, we will eventually face the consequences. During this emergency everyone is trying to come up with solutions, which is understandable, but we should consider that there is a lot of data circulating that will end up god knows where, and we will have to remedy that.
Julio César Mateus is an associate professor and researcher at the University of Lima (Peru). He holds a PhD in Communication from the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona, Spain). His research topics include media education, educational technologies and digital culture. He recently co-edited Media Education in Latin America (Routledge, 2019) with Pablo Andrada and María Teresa Quiroz.
Diego Cerna Aragon is a technology and media researcher from Peru. His work focuses on discourse analysis, expert knowledge, and the uses of new technologies. He currently is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Comparative Media Studies program, and a research assistant in the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab.
2 At the times this interview was conducted (April 2nd, 2020), TV channels had not joined the campaign. By April 6th, they announced they will collaborate by broadcasting one hour of the daily schedule (see www.americatv.com.pe/noticias/actualidad/ministro-benavides-sociedad-nacional-radio-y-television-se-compromete-dar-hora-diaria-su-programacion-n410366). The full schedule can be found here: www.aprendoencasa.pe/static/media/Programacion_Radio_TV_5_Abril.3f78b5af.pdf
3 The 14th article of the Peruvian Constitution says: “Media must collaborate with the state in the education, and the moral and cultural development” [translated by Diego Cerna Aragon]. For the complete text of the Peruvian Constitution see: www.gob.pe/institucion/presidencia/informes-publicaciones/196158-constitucion-politica-del-peru
5 One of the measures that the Peruvian government has taken during the state of emergency is to distribute a biweekly monetary subsidy of 380 soles (approximately 115 USD) among households living in conditions of economic poverty and vulnerability.