Jānis Juzefovičs: “Making sense of the Covid-19 crisis” Emerging Scholars Grant report

Sep 13, 2022

AABS is pleased to recognize Jānis Juzefovičs for his completion of the project “Making sense of the Covid-19 crisis: information-seeking and trust-making strategies of the Baltic media audiences at the times of the coronavirus pandemic,” for which he received the Research Grant for Emerging Scholars.

Janis Juzefovics, a man with short brown hair and glasses, wearing a blue and white checked shirt, looks at the camera with a neutral expression.

©Jānis Juzefovičs, 2022

 Dr. Jānis Juzefovičs is a senior researcher at the Rīga Stradiņš University. His research interests focus on the study of media audiences in the Baltics. He obtained his Ph.D. in media and communication studies from the University of Westminster in 2014. Before joining the Rīga Stradiņš University, he has worked on a University of Tartu research project examining civic identity and transnational (digital) media practices of Russian-speaking audiences in Latvia and Estonia during times of geo-political uncertainty. Juzefovičs is the author of Broadcasting and National Imagination in Post-Communist Latvia: Defining the Nation, Defining Public Television (2017, Intellect).


The Impact of an Award: Report from Jānis Juzefovičs

After the completion of his project, Jānis Juzefovičs submitted a reflection to AABS.
We thank him for his permission to publish his thoughts, which have been lightly edited.


Building on my previous research project at the University of Tartu where from 2017 to 2020 together with Prof. Triin Vihalemm I studied strategies utilized by Baltic Russian-speakers to deal with complex and conflicting information flows during the Ukraine crisis, in the current investigation, I explored the ways media audiences in Latvia and Estonia have navigated the coronavirus pandemic. This time audiences of both the ethno-linguistic majority and minority were included in the sample.

Although still politicized, the Covid-19 crisis has been less ethno-linguistically charged in contrast to the explicitly political Russia-Ukraine conflict. Instead, the Covid-19 crisis has polarized the Baltic societies beyond the usual ethno-linguistic lines. We have witnessed both ethno-linguistic, as well as socio-economic frictions in the attitudes people in Latvia and Estonia have taken towards the Covid-19 crisis. This has invited me to combine inquiry into audiences of both the ethno-linguistic majority and minority.

Thanks to the AABS Research Grant for Emerging Scholars, I was able to obtain rare cross-country survey data on media practices and media-related sentiments of audiences in Latvia and Estonia during the Covid-19 crisis.

The national representative survey in both countries was conducted by Kantar. Fieldwork took place in May 2021. In total, 982 respondents in Latvia and 1048 in Estonia have been surveyed with the help of the computer-assisted web interviewing method. My task was to provide a survey questionnaire and, when the fieldwork was completed, to analyze the survey results with the help of analytical tools of descriptive statistics. It was also my responsibility to do all the administrative work related to data commissioning.

Those surveyed were asked about their news media repertoires during the pandemic, trust in various news providers and non-journalistic sources of information: experts, officials and politicians, and members of one’s online and offline social network. Survey respondents have also been invited to position themselves vis-à-vis the popular anti-media discourse where journalists are conceived as being subjected to political instrumentalization. That is, they have been asked to what extent they agree or disagree with the claim that journalists cover the Covid-19 pandemic according to the vested interests of their “client”. This then helped me to assess the presence or absence of media scepticism sentiments in the attitudes audiences have developed towards legacy news media during the pandemic. Survey respondents have also been asked to provide their views on Covid-19 and vaccination against it.

Although there is a rather rich body of audience survey data available in both countries under investigation, what is often missing are cross-country comparative data. Cross-country survey data is expensive, and without the AABS support, it would not have been possible to obtain it.

Numerous earlier inquiries into media audiences in Latvia and Estonia have already documented divisions in media use between members of the ethno-linguistic majority and members of the Russian-speaking minority. While media repertoires of members of the ethno-linguistic majority are much centred around the local media channels, Russian-speakers in their information-seeking practices combine Russian-origin and local Russian-language news providers with little interest in local titular-language news media. However, these differences should not be overestimated. While different in their news media preferences, audiences of the ethno-linguistic majority and minority are not that different in their media-related attitudes: namely, a sceptical take on media and journalism is popular among both ethno-linguistic groups.

Because of its cross-country comparative study design, this investigation has provided a more nuanced picture and allowed to move beyond the usual focus on the ethno-linguistic fissures in media practices of Baltic audiences. Succinctly put, it has demonstrated that not only ethnic Latvian audiences differ from ethnic Estonian audiences, but also Baltic Russian-speaking media users are not a uniform group. These particularities have often been overlooked in earlier inquiries into Baltic media audiences.

The key takeaway from the survey data is that, despite popular sentiments of media scepticism in both countries, audiences in Latvia are more both sceptical and suspicious in their attitudes towards media and journalism than audiences in Estonia. To be more specific, in Latvia, there are more people who distrust local media and also more people who subscribe to the view that journalists are subjected to political instrumentalization. What is more, not only local media, but also other local producers of information and knowledge – experts, officials and politicians – are more distrusted by audiences in Latvia than it is in the case of Estonian audiences. This conclusion also provides some explanation to other findings of the project:

First, being more suspicious of the local media, and also the local political elite, it should not come as a surprise to learn that audiences in Latvia have also relied less on the public media as a source of news during the pandemic. In my earlier explorations of the ways public media institutions in Latvia are seen by their audiences/publics, I have discovered that distrust towards the local political leadership is being translated into suspicion towards the public media, with the latter seen as having close ties with the former.

Second, being more suspicious and sceptical in their attitudes towards established news media institutions, audiences in Latvia have embraced social media more enthusiastically than audiences in Estonia (in terms of both use and trust).

Third, in both countries Russian-speakers have over the past years restructured their news media repertoires in a way to rely less on Russian television as a source of news, and while Estonia’s Russian-speakers today show greater and growing confidence in local news providers than in those coming from Russia, Latvia’s Russian-speakers at the same time express an equally and increasingly critical view of both local and Russian news sources. This also explains why Estonia’s Russian-speakers are more enthusiastic users of local, Western and independent Russian news media than Russian-speakers in Latvia are.

As already noted, audiences in Latvia in contrast to Estonian audiences are more suspicious not only towards local media, but also other local producers of information and knowledge. This, as also documented in earlier studies, shows that trust in the media is closely related to overall trust in public institutions. Sentiments of distrust towards local producers of information and knowledge being more prevalent in Latvian society, perhaps also explains sentiments of Covid-19 and vaccination scepticism being more popular among survey respondents in Latvia. These conclusions invite us in further explorations of media scepticism and media distrust in the Baltics to take a less media-centric approach and consider wider socio-cultural context shaping the ways audiences attach meaning to media organizations.

In addition to the survey evidence, the project also included a small-scale qualitative investigation. Ten semi-structured one-to-one qualitative interviews have been conducted with members of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia (4 informants) and Estonia (6 informants). Part of the AABS Emerging Scholar Grant has been used to cover expenses related to this stage of data collection.

The outcome of the project is the manuscript, currently under review at the Journal of Baltic Studies. I also plan to present the study results at the upcoming 2023 Conference on Baltic Studies in Europe.

The AABS Research Grant for Emerging Scholars has allowed me, building on my post-doctoral research project, to conduct independent research, and in this way, it contributed to my transition from the post-doctoral researcher position at the Tartu University to my current senior researcher role at the Rīga Stradiņš University. Thanks for the support provided.

– Jānis Juzefovičs, 2022

Jānis Juzefovičs

What is the Emerging Scholars Grant?

The Research Grant for Emerging Scholars is an award for up to $6,000, to be used for travel, duplication, materials, equipment, or other needs as specified. Proposals are evaluated according to the scholarly potential of the applicant and the quality and scholarly importance of the proposed work, especially to the development of Baltic Studies. Applicants must have received PhD no earlier than January 1, 2013. Applicants must be AABS members at the time of application.

The application deadline for academic year 2023-2024 is February 1, 2023. Applications will be evaluated by the AABS 2023–2024 Grants Committee consisting of AABS VP for Professional Development Dr. Kaarel Piirimäe, AABS President Dr. Dovilė Budrytė, and AABS Director-at-Large Dr. Daunis Auers. Award notifications will be made in April 2023.

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