The arts are so deeply embedded in our everyday lives that we might sometimes take them for granted, but in the depths of COVID-19 restrictions, we were reminded of the importance of the media, entertainment and communications.
When the world ground to a halt in March, we turned to news media to keep us informed, social media to keep us connected, Netflix to keep us entertained and archivists to help preserve a valuable record of history as it unfolds.
The arts keep us informed: a news media resurgence
When the World Health Organization declared an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, the world’s journalists and media professionals hit the ground running reporting COVID-19-related issues and impacts.
The result was a dramatic increase in the consumption of news media.
ABC North America correspondent and Curtin journalism graduate Kathryn Diss says Australians have always turned to the ABC in times of crisis.
“With COVID, the rolling coverage blog got enormous readership on a daily basis, which then tapped into other stories on our page. We’ve definitely gained a new audience off the back end of COVID reporting.”
Importantly, increased news consumption coincided with a dramatic increase in trust in public broadcasters like the ABC and SBS. Recent research found that Australians’ trust in quality journalism went up by 29 per cent.
The arts keep us connected: the role of digital and social media
Associate Professor Tama Leaver is a researcher in digital and social media in Curtin’s Faculty of Humanities. He points out that this year, all types of media communications have played roles we couldn’t have anticipated.
“Initially, when the outbreak was declared a pandemic, people were seeking out the authoritative voices that were flowing through traditional media channels.
“Then when we went into lockdown, social media became more important. We started relying on Messenger or Zoom or Skype – platforms to connect and engage with people for just about everything.
“Zoom went from being ‘what’s that?’ to being almost ubiquitous.”
“Instagram has played it very cleverly – I think they’ve released more features in the past six months that in the preceding five years. Their angle was ‘looking after the small businesses of the world’, and it’s made the platform almost indispensable, quite central to the way that we engage.”
Indeed, online business did boom – according to an Australia Post report, in the eight weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic was announced, e-commerce in Australia grew 80 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.
The arts keep us entertained: Netflix and escapism
The entertainment industry overall has been hit hard, but streaming service Netflix bucked the trend, doubling its expected new subscriber tally in the first quarter 2020 and gleefully filling the gap left by the closure of cinemas and other entertainment venues.
Nielsen reported nearly 170 billion minutes of content was streamed during the week of 6 April. That’s equivalent to 323,000 years’ worth of content, and double the figures from the same week a year ago.
While Netflix isn’t the only streaming service, something that sets it apart is its commitment to creating opportunities for first-time filmmakers. In 2019, Netflix released 19 films from first-time directors. One of them was the critically acclaimed sci-fi movie I Am Mother by Curtin graduate Grant Sputore.
Starring Hillary Swank, Rose Byrne (as a voice actor) and breakout Danish star Clara Rugaard, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and maintains a 90 per cent certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Reflecting on his time at university studying Film and Television (now Screen Arts) at Curtin, Sputore said it was a great opportunity to try new things and learn the craft of filmmaking.
“Spending three years thinking about only storytelling and filmmaking, and just trying stuff was great. It was about making terrible short films, making good short films and working out what separates one from another. It gives you the opportunity to work out how to improve your skills and then do it.”
The arts help us remember: preserving 2020
When future generations learn about the COVID-19 pandemic, what will they discover? We owe everything we know about the enlightenment, world wars, colonisation, genocide and pandemics past to careful and considered preservation of the historical record.
Dr Leisa Gibbons, a researcher and lecturer in archives and information management at Curtin, says that although a lot of our experience of COVID-19 is published on the web, assuming that it will be preserved automatically without careful human curation is misguided.
“Firstly, the role of the internet isn’t to preserve itself,” she says, “and more importantly, we don’t just need information, we need the context about why that information was created in the first place,” she explains.
“Documenting context is largely about recording decisions. In the case of COVID-19, we’re seeing not just governments, but private organisations make decisions that have a vast impact on society.
“For people to make sense of it all, both now and into the future, it’s important that we document it, preserve it, and also make it accessible to people into the future.”
Curtin University has played a pivotal role in archiving a historical health crisis of a different kind – the brain disease kuru that plagued Papua New Guinean communities throughout the 20th century.
In 2005, the unsorted collection of more than 1,000 films – known as the Melanesian Film Archive – was transferred from the US National Institutes of Health to Curtin, where it has since been catalogued in a purpose-built cool room at the Perth campus.
The films explore the impact of kuru and reveal a way of life that has all but disappeared. The archive will serve as a valuable trove of information for research, not only in health sciences, but also in anthropology and sociology.
The same will be true for our record of COVID-19, thanks to the concerted efforts of museums and archives around the world, many of which are now asking the public to submit stories and photographs of their COVID-19 experience.