How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Minority Language Media (MLM)? The findings from a series of expert interviews
The present text summarises the findings of the series "Minority language media and the COVID-19 pandemic" which consists of of expert interviews looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on minority language media across Europe. The individual interviews in this series have been posted as 10 different pieces since July, featuring expert scholars and practitioners who focus on one specific linguistic sphere. This post provides an overview and comparative analysis of the series, which was divided into six different themes discussed for each case.
We conceptualised this series after initial conversations with external colleagues who were beginning to notice significant effects of the pandemic on minority language media throughout the Spring of 2020, including aspects which appeared to be unique to minority languages. As such, we conducted ten in-depth interviews across varying spheres, namely: Welsh; German and Ladin in South Tyrol; Basque; Irish; Catalan; German in Denmark; Swedish in Finland; German in Poland; Scottish Gaelic. This was not a pre-planned list and thus was mostly decided on practical grounds as to where we knew or could find experts willing and able to work with us at short notice. As a result, it is not representative of the entire continent and its greatly varying minority language media spheres – this is an obvious limitation of our research which we would seek to address going forward in consequent analysis. Nonetheless, there is still significant variance between these spheres – highlighted in further detail below.
In terms of other methodological aspects, we were mostly focusing on the initial lockdown period of Spring 2020. Whilst the pandemic is ongoing and indeed in the midst of a strong second wave, for comparative purposes and issues of urgency in making stakeholders aware of such developments faced by minority language media, we chose to focus on this initial period as the first phase of research. However, it should be stated that some of situations may have since changed or worsened. Nonetheless, we tried to focus not only on negative or threatening effects but also to highlight positive examples of innovative content.
The interviews were structured into six thematic questions across all interviews. Therefore, this text will continue by providing an overview of each of these six areas, intending to summarise common and contrasting findings, as well as highlighting unique and exemplary practices.
An overview of the MLM outlets
This first question was answered in great detail by the expert interviewees, some of which were practitioners working for or with specific media outlets, whilst many were scholars who focused on a given linguistic sphere as a whole. As such, the outlets covered in their research varied greatly for each sphere, entailing public sector broadcasting as well as private (albeit often subsidised by the state and/or kin state) media such as newspapers. This question also highlighted the significant difference in terms of the numerical size of each linguistic minority – which often had a consequence for the number of media available, although not always. The series covered spheres which contain hundreds of thousands or even millions of speakers, such as Catalan, Basque, Welsh, but also much smaller spheres concerning low tens of thousands, such as Scottish Gaelic or the German minorities in Denmark and Poland. Another defining differentiation was the combination of minority languages with and without a kin state, which can make a significant difference with regard to financial support but also competition for audience figures. Overall, this question acted as an informative and contextual introduction to each interview, explaining in detail the current situation as well as briefly outlining historical developments concerning each minority language media sphere.
Audience Figures and Funding Implications
An initial finding which was repeated across many spheres and media outlets was an increase in audience figures, often substantial. There was very little evidence of lower audience figures, rather the remainder of outlets did not have numbers – often due to only releasing figures at the end of the year. A particular increase appeared to be in relation to news items, which possibly reflects the local nature of the pandemic and minorities’ desire to receive detailed updates in one’s mother tongue. Indeed, a remark from Chief Editor of Der Nordschleswiger, Gwyn Nissen, was interesting in this regard, whereby he stated that normally big global headline events draw minorities to national level (majority language) media. Yet, despite being a global phenomenon, the pandemic has most significant effects on a local or regional level and this can drive a spike in local (in this case minority) news audience figures. Specific news outlets and programmes reporting higher figures included: S4C and BBC Wales Today in Wales, Berria in the Basque Country, TG4 in Ireland, Yle and Hufvudstadsbladet in Finland, and Der Nordschleswiger in Denmark. Moreover, engagement also increased in many social media spheres, however this will be expanded on further below.
Despite this widespread increase in audience figures, at the same time many MLM outlets faced funding issues due to reduced advertising revenues. This was particularly an issue for those operating in the commercial private-sector or only partially state-subsidised. The experts had highlighted that in some cases this could quickly become an existential threat, if normal levels of advertising revenues do not resume or alternative funding is not secured. Although this has been the case for many major newspapers, TV companies and radio channels as well, in the context of minority languages the situation is exacerbated due to the oftentimes small scale of the audience. Further, such outlets are often the sole media available in a certain language or area. Therefore, they carry the extra responsibility of being a community-building resource for minorities and an essential part of their collective identities.
Effects on other Content
Although pandemic-related news saw an uptick in audience figures, the effects on other content were not always positive. Issues such as suspension of sports and cultural events reduced the available content. TV channels in Welsh, Irish, Frisian, Basque and Scottish Gaelic were impacted by this, and in some cases replacement re-runs acted as a turnoff and diminished audience figures. Similarly, some newspapers decided to reduce the number of printed pages by downsizing certain sections. Moreover, dwindling advertising revenues forced commercial media to reduce their output in several instances. Finally, there were also examples of new content being delayed due to filming or production being suspended because of lockdown – again affecting more often culture or entertainment, examples of this can be seen in Scottish Gaelic TV productions. As before, these issues were not unique to minority language media in 2020, but when the media sphere is much smaller a reduction in content can make a big impact to the availability of media in a minority language, and thus affect the intensity and depth of speakers’ everyday contact with a given language.
Yet, there were positive examples of innovative content offered during the lockdown period. For instance, many minority communities shifted cultural events online and thus provided content to be covered by minority language media. Unique pandemic-inspired programmes included user-interactive shows produced on Welsh TV, a life under lockdown podcast series on Irish radio and a similar initiative on Catalan TV.
Some unexpected findings concern minority language media coverage of minority–majority relations. One worrying tendency was the lack of use of minority language during the pandemic, in a number of scenarios. In Friesland, the head of the regional health service, despite being a Frisian speaker, was addressing the public sector (Frisian language) TV channel Omrop Fryslan in Dutch for several weeks, before returning to Frisian only after the initial wave of the pandemic had died down. No official reason was given for this and it caused outrage with viewers. In Ireland public health information was only provided in English, making it more difficult for Irish language media and its audience to follow respective developments. In Finland, on the other hand, the national air carrier Finnair only provided COVID-19 related information in Finnish and English, thus excluding Swedish despite it being an official state language. This was something that caused a stir when picked up by the Swedish language media.
However, there were also positive examples where minority languages were given or maintained a presence on majority media. In Finland, the initial live press briefings at the start of the pandemic saw the Minister of Education and the Minister of Justice give their speeches in Finnish and Swedish. Whilst this practice was eventually changed to just Finnish and dubbed into Swedish for the Swedish language media, for a time Swedish was being broadcast nationally to an audience usually not exposed to the language. Moreover, in Wales the First Minister and other Ministers answered journalists’ questions in both Welsh and English, providing content for the Welsh language media and social media. On a smaller scale, Scottish Gaelic received some unexpected exposure via positive reviews of Gaelic TV and radio programmes in national level English newspapers. Such situations certainly contributed to the increased awareness of minority languages and their media among majority populations.
In terms of logistics, the media sphere in general had to rapidly rethink how it operated and this was no different for minority language media outlets. This involved both journalists and production workers in core institutions and their external collaborators. The day-to-day life switched to working from home for a significant part of staff and presented fresh challenges for smaller institutions, including the supply of equipment for those working remotely. Yet, many reporters were out in the field and while keeping the distance from their offices, still delivered high-quality content. This was the case of Omrop Fryslan, for example. Another innovative adaptation was the use of user-generated reports / videos by Gaelic speakers, providing content for BBC Alba where its journalists were struggling to work in remote areas subject to strict lockdown rules.
However, not all staff outside of news and current affairs departments were able to work during the pandemic. BBC Wales announced job cuts, there were examples of temporary staff reduction in private-sector Catalan media, or hours cut for workers in German language media institutions in South Tyrol. Other issues include distribution problems due to closed retailers, as demonstrated in the case of some Irish language print media. The West Highlands Free Press was forced to move to an online-only format for a few months, due to lockdown restrictions in Scotland, but it did keep its (limited) Gaelic content.
Whilst situations like these were not unique to minority language media, it must be again emphasized that oftentimes such institutions are the only, or one of very few, media outlets operating in a given language. As a result, their reduced production capacity or disappearance can significantly affect minority communities themselves. Lack of media outlets weaken internal community links, limits possibilities of informed debate, while at the same time makes minorities less visible to their neighbours. Importantly, such a gap cannot be substituted by media content produced in a kin state (if there is one), as arguably the most important aspect of minority language media is the proximity between the produced content and a given community.
The role of social media can also demonstrate some unique aspects in the context of minority language media. Firstly, as with general audience figures, most minority language media outlets with a presence on social media saw an increased engagement during the months of March, April and May. This included many viewers finding their way to minority language media outlets not only through their official social media accounts but also through social networks or discussion groups – again not anything that does not occur in majority language media. However, there were instances were majority populations began to engage with social media content of minority language media outlets – as was the case with Der Nordschleswiger which saw increasing numbers of Danish speakers visiting the German language site. Or in Finland where Swedish language media outlets saw an increased traffic in social media channels from Sweden. This was the case of the Facebook page of the nationally distributed Hufvudstadsbladet daily newspaper. In this way and somewhat surprisingly the pandemic contributed to the occurrence of unique instances of interaction between majority and minority which may not normally occur.
Furthermore, there were many instances were popular social media groups were set up during the pandemic to share practical information or personal experiences in a minority language. For example, in Finland, a group in Swedish was set up titled ‘Practical tips for the Swedish parts of Finland with corona around’. In Wales, groups on ‘beating the coronavirus through cooking’ or singing in Welsh were created. Although not strictly social media, Scottish Gaelic was seen to have a significant boost in learners through Duolingo during the Spring.
To summarise, minority language media spheres have clearly been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown measures, albeit to varying degrees. This has presented both challenges and opportunities, some of which are unique to minority language media and some which are shared with majority media. The lower revenues could become an existential threat to some media outlets, particularly in light of the second wave of substantial lockdowns which have been implemented in many areas of Europe. Oftentimes it is a particularly precarious situation which can negatively affect not only minority communities who rely on such media sources, but even some of minority languages in general. Particularly in the case of smaller linguistic minorities, the loss of a media outlet could leave a given community with no media in their language. Resulting migration towards majority-language media may result in decreasing interest in minority language, and further weaken incentive to master it due to reduced visibility. Ultimately, such trends might even put into question the preservation of Europe’s linguistic diversity. At the same time, rising audience figures and social media engagement, as well as increased exposure to minority language media concerning both minority language speakers but in some cases also majority populations, bring to the fore the significance of minority language media in terms of community-building potential, but also the quality of the offered content (it is good enough to attract the outsiders). Somewhat paradoxically then, the current crisis can also stabilize the situation of some of the minority language media outlets, as their importance for particular communities have been clearly shown during the pandemic, and thus the argument for a sustainable public support of minority language media can be made much stronger.
In terms of minority-majority relations, the aforementioned positive aspect concerning majority language speakers' interest in the content offered by minority language media outlets, is to a certain degree relativized by several instances in which officials, politicians or institutions decided not to speak or communicate in minority languages during the pandemic. This remains an area of concern and should result in sets of guidelines / recommendations concerning the significance of the official communication in minority languages during crisis situations.
Moreover, there have been many positive examples of innovative content produced during lockdown, offering evidence of minority language media adapting quickly to the situation. Again, whilst this is not necessarily unique to minority language media, it provides evidence that such institutions are well-equipped to deal with different kinds of challenges (including logistical) and respond to a surge in demand for localised media, as well as to creatively interact with their respective audiences.
This research project was of course not without its limitations. It focused just on 10 linguistic spheres which were mostly in the more economically prosperous areas of Europe; further research aims to address that, by expanding the analysis towards minority language media situations in central and eastern Europe. Moreover, this initial research focused just on the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the initial lockdown. As we write in late November, much of Europe has descended into a tough second wave of infections and has seen governments respond with fresh lockdown measures which could present more logistical and financial complications for minority language media. Further research would therefore seek to expand the series to other linguistic spheres, as well as to return to the previously interviewed experts for an update in early 2021.
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