From humour scandals to early childhood media education – NordMedia research conference celebrated its 50th anniversary

The NordMedia research conference was organized in Bergen, in the rugged Norwegian landscape. Photo: Saara Salomaa

The biannual NordMedia research conference attracted hundreds of participants to Bergen, Norway from the 16th to the 18th of August. Founded in 1973, the conference has been held every other year for 50 years.

NordMedia has its own group for media literacy and media education research, but one of the great things about the conference is that it offers such a wide range of perspectives on media-related research, especially in a Northern European context. I also went to listen to presentations on political communication research. Juha Herkman and Joonas Koivukoski, from the Finnish perspective, were particularly on the cutting edge of the times, whose presentation “From the ‘willy card’ to foreign spices” dealt with humour scandals in the Finnish political publicity in 1990–2020. The presentation was based on research that has been done in the larger Political Humour in the Power Struggles of Democracy project.

The researchers pointed out that in political scandals, the media exposes a violation of norms that causes widespread public disapproval. The humour scandal is especially about offensive humour, which is often aimed at, for example, religion, gender, or ethnicity. Comedy scandals have changed with the development of the media and have clearly become more common in Finland. While only two political humour scandals that received national attention could be identified from the 1990s, there were already 16 from the 2010s. Current scandals also reflect more than before the political confrontation between right-wing populist parties and others.

After the presentation, I asked Juha Herkman and Joonas Koivukoski what humour scandals mean from the point of view of critical media literacy and how could they be considered. Here are some tips for media educators:

  • First, it is necessary to recognize that humour challenges media literacy because humour itself is an ambiguous subject. In certain reference groups, things that don’t seem funny at all to others can be perceived as amusing. On the other hand, the sign of a functioning social debate is that there is a value-based public debate, and you can’t ignore anything just by dismissing it as humour. The task of media education is also to highlight things done with humour.
  • When dealing with a scandal, it is worth asking: who is involved in it, why are these parties involved, and what are we fighting for? From what position do you communicate, is the person or entity that caused the commotion with their actions, for example, in a position of power in relation to the targets of their message?
  • Humour is known to be a common device associated with populist rhetoric. When looking at the humour scandal, you can wonder if it is fundamentally about humour or a serious effort. Is there an actor behind it that systematically pushes its political agenda under the guise of humour?
  • The media’s role in scandals should also be considered. For the media, scandals are sometimes very challenging. Socially significant phenomena must be dealt with, but on the other hand, the media can become involved in ways that would not be desirable by the journalists. Populists can benefit from the media attention they receive and thus consciously try to stir up scandals. The journalists’ choice of words also plays a role in what kind of message is conveyed: For example, by talking about “Nazi humour”, the media may inadvertently be legitimizing the claim that it is “just a joke”. The word choice “Nazi references”, on the other hand, is more neutral, and does not in itself take a position on what the communication that caused the scandal is about.

KAVI’s media education experts were well represented at NordMedia: Lauri Palsa’s presentation dealt with the conceptual contextualization of media literacy, Ella Airola’s on the design principles of equal media literacy. In my own presentation, I looked at early childhood education teacher training and teachers’ perceptions of media education in the interpretive framework of media education awareness. In addition, we were able to hear about other interesting studies on Finnish media education. I recommend that you take a closer look at, for example, studies on the critical reading of young people, peer tutors for digital guidance for seniors, and ninth graders’ experiences related to “youth lived online“.

Saara Salomaa

Senior Adviser

National Audiovisual Institute