Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

“What, where, and when a crisis began becomes much harder to pinpoint if underlying conditions already form layers of crises.”

As 2020 draws to a close, we continue to live through a crisis of epic proportions, both direct and diffuse, global and distinctly local in response. Even as breaking news is declaring that vaccines will shift us out of crisis and into thinking of Covid-19 as a solvable problem, the questions about why, how, and who the pandemic has impacted are likely going to linger for generations.

For journalists charged with narrating the ongoing present, what constitutes a “crisis” has been irrevocably changed by events this year. This has an enormous impact on issues like climate change, where declaring it a “crisis” was intended to call global publics to attention and to compel collective action and policy changes in response.

Being in a pandemic lockdown while the air turns ashy and white with smoke for weeks on end as thousands of acres of forests burn up and down the West Coast draws our sensory attention to layered crises in a way previously unimaginable. While the need for climate change to be understood as the context for major wildfires and other ecological events is apparent as is the need to not let climate change recede from public and policy agendas amidst the pandemic, there’s also an urgent need to rethink these things together.

The term syndemic has been used to reorient our framing of the pandemic in an effort to account for how social and biological factors impact healthy policies and outcomes. Politically marginalized, economically disadvantaged, and racialized communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with higher death rates and lack of care options that includes lack of access to clean water. What, where, and when a crisis began becomes much harder to pinpoint if underlying conditions already form layers of crises.

Considering climate change and the pandemic together entails not only an accounting of the social and biological, but also how they are deeply intertwined with the ecological and the historical. As many Indigenous scholars and communities point out, our social lives include more than humans (lands, waters, animals, plants) and the current crises we are living through began long ago with the onslaught of colonialism and capitalism.

The disruption and reorientation of relations between humans and nonhumans has become that much more apparent with the pandemic and climate change. Though recent events surely create various kinds of crises, panic, and anxiety, recognizing the deeply rooted conditions that amplify these events requires that journalists pay attention to systems, contexts, and social ordering in a way they haven’t had to previously.

Calling out an event as a crisis is no longer enough (if it ever was) to describe the thick layering of chronic crises, whether ecological, social, biological, or historical — nor are the typical templates of event-centric journalism.

If we take James Carey’s 1974 reflection seriously — that journalism tells stories with an attitude towards the events it reports on, naming enemies and allies in the process — then this moment requires a profound shift that instead names the systems, institutions, and underlying historical conditions that have created an untenable status quo for so many who are not represented in the newsroom.

My co-author Mary Lynn Young and I suggest that a systems journalism approach enables journalists to play a dynamic role in amplifying histories, contexts, and diverse voices in order to shed light on the interaction, roles, and responsibilities of systems and institutions.

All that lies ahead in 2021 will require journalism to reckon with how it narrates the present (and for whom) in a future where crises must be understood as both context and event.

Candis Callison is an associate professor in the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia.

As 2020 draws to a close, we continue to live through a crisis of epic proportions, both direct and diffuse, global and distinctly local in response. Even as breaking news is declaring that vaccines will shift us out of crisis and into thinking of Covid-19 as a solvable problem, the questions about why, how, and who the pandemic has impacted are likely going to linger for generations.

For journalists charged with narrating the ongoing present, what constitutes a “crisis” has been irrevocably changed by events this year. This has an enormous impact on issues like climate change, where declaring it a “crisis” was intended to call global publics to attention and to compel collective action and policy changes in response.

Being in a pandemic lockdown while the air turns ashy and white with smoke for weeks on end as thousands of acres of forests burn up and down the West Coast draws our sensory attention to layered crises in a way previously unimaginable. While the need for climate change to be understood as the context for major wildfires and other ecological events is apparent as is the need to not let climate change recede from public and policy agendas amidst the pandemic, there’s also an urgent need to rethink these things together.

The term syndemic has been used to reorient our framing of the pandemic in an effort to account for how social and biological factors impact healthy policies and outcomes. Politically marginalized, economically disadvantaged, and racialized communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with higher death rates and lack of care options that includes lack of access to clean water. What, where, and when a crisis began becomes much harder to pinpoint if underlying conditions already form layers of crises.

Considering climate change and the pandemic together entails not only an accounting of the social and biological, but also how they are deeply intertwined with the ecological and the historical. As many Indigenous scholars and communities point out, our social lives include more than humans (lands, waters, animals, plants) and the current crises we are living through began long ago with the onslaught of colonialism and capitalism.

The disruption and reorientation of relations between humans and nonhumans has become that much more apparent with the pandemic and climate change. Though recent events surely create various kinds of crises, panic, and anxiety, recognizing the deeply rooted conditions that amplify these events requires that journalists pay attention to systems, contexts, and social ordering in a way they haven’t had to previously.

Calling out an event as a crisis is no longer enough (if it ever was) to describe the thick layering of chronic crises, whether ecological, social, biological, or historical — nor are the typical templates of event-centric journalism.

If we take James Carey’s 1974 reflection seriously — that journalism tells stories with an attitude towards the events it reports on, naming enemies and allies in the process — then this moment requires a profound shift that instead names the systems, institutions, and underlying historical conditions that have created an untenable status quo for so many who are not represented in the newsroom.

My co-author Mary Lynn Young and I suggest that a systems journalism approach enables journalists to play a dynamic role in amplifying histories, contexts, and diverse voices in order to shed light on the interaction, roles, and responsibilities of systems and institutions.

All that lies ahead in 2021 will require journalism to reckon with how it narrates the present (and for whom) in a future where crises must be understood as both context and event.

Candis Callison is an associate professor in the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia.

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