Media ecology, a subset of communication studies, approaches communication as an ecosystem. Borrowing the metaphor of a natural ecosystem, this type of study imagines communication as an environment in which many different elements interact. The environment contains not only different communication media – telephones, radio, television, social media, printed materials, and so on – but also people, ideas, cultures, historical events, and so on.
As with any ecosystem, changing any one part affects all of the others. In a natural ecosystem, say a pond in a forest, the introduction of a new species of frog will affect the insects living near the pond, the grasses and flowers in the locality, the birds, the fish, the animals, in short, everything.
The same alteration of an environment takes place in media ecology. We have seen this dramatically just in the last 15 years. The addition of a smartphone, that is, a mobile phone that allows internet access, has changed the ways that people communicate. Rather than talking, they text; rather than reading a newspaper, they follow newsfeeds; rather than watching films or television, they look at video clips; rather than gathering with friends, they connect on social media.
Many more such examples can be found. However explained, this ecosystem model describes the communications environment in which the Church has faced the pandemic of Covid-19. But rather than the introduction of a new communication technology, the incursion of the virus has caused the changes.
Seeing the Church through media ecology
When the pandemic struck, the Church, like all social actors, had already faced an upheaval in its communication patterns, though a relatively minor one. Church institutions continued to use print media and the Vatican, for example, had its own radio and television outlets broadcasting to countries and networks around the world. Church leaders nationally often benefited from similar arrangements with national broadcasters. The Internet provided additional means of distribution, with Church offices sponsoring websites. Crucially, these retained a “broadcast” model, with institutional sources distributing content. Social media, with its bidirectional communication, opened new opportunities and by its very nature challenged the existing communication models.