Johanna Sumiala: "More people, also ordinary people, are able to make certain deaths visible"

Johanna Sumiala is a professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Helsinki. We sat down to discuss her research on the mediatization of death and the potential effects it has in terms of democratization, banalization and instrumentalization of death.



In your research, you are interested in media anthropology, media and religion, visual culture, and media history. Can you discuss what you are currently working on or what research projects you are engaged in at the moment?  

Currently, I'm leading two research projects. One has to do with-- This is funded by the Academy of Finland. It's a consortium, and I'm leading this together with Katya Valaskivi from the Faculty of Theology. This project is about media, religion, and populism. It's called Mediatized Religious Populism. It runs till 2025. The other project that I'm leading is about digital death. This is a CHANSE EU-funded international consortium. The title of the project is Digital Death: Transforming History, Rituals, and Afterlife. In addition to the University of Helsinki hosting this project, we have a PI from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, Durham University in the UK, and then one PI from the University of Bucharest in Romania. This also runs till 2025.  

Can you tell us a bit about your teaching at the University of Helsinki? What courses do you teach currently?  

I'm teaching both in the Finnish language program and then in the English language program. The Finnish language program, I'm teaching this course on viestinnän teoriat ja tutkimussuuntaukset, media and communication studies theory and traditions in studying media and communication studies. This is a master's-level course. Then I'm teaching this course on media and modernity, global perspectives. This is in our international program. What else? Next year, I'm teaching this introductory course to the study of media and communications, and this is a bachelor-level course. This is about it. I did teach a bachelor-level seminar last autumn, and I've been teaching master's seminars. But this is not what I'm doing at the very moment.  

Do you, generally speaking, enjoy teaching?  

I do. I like the contact with students. I do.  

What attracts you personally about the study of the media? Why is it important to study media?  

This is a good question. I often tell to my students that I'm not actually that interested in media as such. I think that you cannot understand contemporary society or the contemporary world if you don't understand how media functions because I do think that our lives are so emerged with media, and now I'm not only referring to traditional mass media or news media, but also to social media. In my perception, I tend to use this concept of a hybrid media environment that we are all part of where the social media and the different types of digital platforms, and the news media, they are in many ways merged together.  

In your research, you have examined the mediatization and democratization of death, meaning that death has become more visible in society and that ordinary citizens have more influence in determining whose deaths are highlighted and mourned through, for instance, ritualization of the deceased on social media. In your view, what are some of the positive and negative societal consequences of these developments? One might, for instance, imagine that this could lead to a trivialization of death where someone's death is just one thing among a million other things one sees in one's social media feed, thereby contributing to people becoming more desensitized to death.  

That's a long question. Maybe you're referring to this book [Mediated Death].  

Yes, I was reading that a bit.  

Yes, Mediated Death, that came out in 2021. In this book, and in my other research as well, I've been interested in the question of mediatization of death and the related politics of death and the politics of mourning and suffering. How should I put it? People die all the time, but not all deaths become public events. Before the era of digital media and social media in particular, it was the journalists who made these decisions. They maintained the role of gatekeeper. Whose death gets to have publicity? Considered as worthy and important. Now, you had a long question, so you are having a long answer.  

That's fine.  

In the history, in the mass media era, it was either people who had a high profile and who were leaders, these were the people who had a recognized role in society. These were the people whose deaths also became visible, and it was given public attention. Then the other category of people were the ordinary-- the local people got media attention when they were conducted of serious crime, where they were murderers, so public hangings and executions. It was in these cases that people grabbed public attention. With the advent of social media and digitalization of media in general, now almost anyone, if you have lost your pet, you can post that online.  

Not only animals, not only pets, obviously, but your relatives, your friends, and people are also mourning over the death of a stranger. Now, we have had this horrible event in Finland, a school shooting when a 12-year-old school boy killed 1 boy, and 2 were seriously injured. This obviously also grabbed public attention. It was transformed into a media event. In this case, for example, the role of the social media has been very relevant and people have been publicly expressing how they felt about the tragedy and sending messages of condolence and expressing public mourning. This is a very recent example of this phenomenon. How should we interpret this? Is this about the democratization of death?  

Different types of deaths, and more people, also ordinary people, are able to make certain deaths visible. Does this mean democratization? It may mean that. If we, for example, think about Black Lives Matter, for example, cases like that where people use mobile phones, and they pay witness to these events, and they are making public those events, those tragedies. Then all demonstrations are also created around those death events. In that sense, yes, but I would say that it is ambivalent and also because these rituals of public mourning can also be hijacked for different kinds of purposes, for the purposes that are quite contradictory to the original intention.  

There also can be an element, and there actually often is an element of banalization of death and also instrumentalization of death, which means that death in this very commercialized media environment, including news media and social media, it is instrumentalized and monetized, actually, to make money. The more we post on things, the more these platforms collect information on us, and not to mention the tabloids, how they are selling death, so to say. There's no simple answer, whether it's democratization or whether it's banalization or instrumentalization.  

I tend to think that these potentials are there. Then we can study empirically how it is, conduct empirical studies around these phenomena. I don't think that we can have this predestined theory about, and then we go to look at the media material and have this already decided theoretical framework and look at it through this lens. 

Do you think it's disturbing that people on social media may be more moved by the death of a single celebrity than by the death of hundreds of people in a terrorist attack or a natural disaster? Or how have you perceived this phenomenon?  

It's hard to say. Who am I to say? Who am I to judge whether these acts of mourning, whether they are authentic or not? How people, for example, are mourning over the people that might live in the same apartment, or maybe not the same apartment, but the same building, for example, so your neighbor. Maybe we can't make a claim based on the fact that people are only mourning over those people who they publicly express their empathy or sympathy. Part of this still happens offline. It is an interesting phenomenon to think about the relationships people create to people, celebrities and other public figures who they have never met in person. 

Then, for example, if we think about David Bowie or Queen Elizabeth II, for example, that people-- they're also thinking about their own histories and the histories that they have lived with these public figures, not knowing them intimately, but knowing them by media. People might be mourning over their lost youth, for example, whether they're a pop icon that they used to really like someone's music, for example, when they pass away. In a way, I would like to maintain a position of-- not to be too judgmental of the fact, but there are certain elements that interest me.  

One of these elements is that sometimes you can find examples of people when their performance of mourning tends to be more about themselves than about the victims. For example, influencers using certain hashtags to get more visibility for their posts. Then there was an interesting study, and I'm making reference to this study also in my book. The original study was a doctoral dissertation by Ally McCrow-Young. She studied public mourning after this attack that took place when Ariana Grande was giving a concert in Manchester. Then she was studying the Instagram mourning. One of the observations that she made was that the victims were quite invisible in this mourning. It was quite a lot about people maintaining their social connections, their social networks, and also these influencers who use that also to get visibility for themselves, and it became a part of their self-branding.  

You talk about the public mourning of people's deaths, but the flip side of that is the public celebration of certain people's deaths. For instance, Thatcher's death, which I think you have raised in your research.  

Yes, I did.  

Do you think social media has intensified this trend of sometimes celebrating the deaths of people that are regarded by some as detestable?  

Yes, definitely. There's this sociologist of death, Tony Walter, he had this saying that earlier in the era of mass media, there was this unwritten rule that you are either saying-- If you can't say anything nice about the person who has died, you don't say anything between the death and the funeral. Then afterwards, then you can be more critical. Now, this has totally disappeared. When there are people who have-- Thatcher was a very contested figure.  

People were, in fact, waiting for her death, and then the celebration started immediately. Then also in some other cases, I recall in Finland, we had one of our very famous sports heroes, Matti Nykänen. When he died, there was a huge public outcry and a lot of public mourning around him. Then also some people on Twitter, they were starting to ask questions, why do people mourn over this person who was known to be rather abusive, for example, against women and this domestic violence. This was raised. This was not about celebration, but this was about questioning the legacy of the public mourning. 

Then this person, I think that she was this actress. I don’t recall her name, but she actually had to remove her post, and then she had to publicly apologize for her post. It was too soon to start this discussion about the dark side of Matti Nykänen, so to say. Yes, it is very rarely unified. There are always voices that question, that also can celebrate, make fun of the public mourning. That can make it quite difficult for people who have also-- their relationship to a person is not only mediatized, but also they know these people intimately and when they are following this, the public mourning. Yes, I think that we should be mindful of that it's not only about our reactions, our responses, but what kind of message that we give and who are the people who are part of these networks.  

So the norms around when it's appropriate to talk about a dead person's actions or a public record, that has changed dramatically?  

I think it has. I actually don't think that we have established new norms yet. It's a bit confusing.  

Do you perceive any major differences concerning the mediatization and democratization of death in the West compared to other cultures or countries? Have you conducted research into this matter, comparative research?  

Yes, this is definitely an area that I would like to do more research on. I have conducted some research on public death events that have taken place in the Middle East, for example. Then again, it is, to a certain extent, also a question of the ability to know different languages. It might be a very useful thing to know Arabic when you are studying a case in the Middle East. But I have conducted a study on this many years ago on the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. This was with our colleague, Matteo Stocchetti, we did a study where we were comparing visual representation of his death in different news outlets.  

You could identify certain differences in the so-called Western media and then in the media in the Middle East, for example, with the crowds and then the smoke, and how that gets interpreted, how these discourses travel from one culture or context to another, and actually, they don't travel very well. What looks like chaos when there's a public funeral might actually be interpreted very differently in the Middle Eastern cultural context, for example. This was something that we worked on. I also did a study, and it's not about social media because this was in the 1980s. The study was more recent, but we studied the media ritualization of death of Kekkonen, and then Olof Palme, Swedish Prime Minister, and then this Soviet leader, Brezhnev.  

They all died in the 1980s, two of them died of old age, and one was murdered. Then we had a Russian colleague to work with us on this who had access on the Russian sources. It was certainly very different, in the 1980s, the news media coverage of Brezhnev. It was totally identical, regardless of what paper you were because it was under the governmental rule, obviously, what you can report. This study was published in the Journal of Media History quite recently. I do think that we should study more carefully and have a comparative and more global take on these topics.  

I do think that now, if we go back to social media, it's quite conventional, and it's quite patterned the ways in which you can start to identify, like Je suis, #Je suis, Je suis this, Je suis that. This started with the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Then different types of symbols. Now, with the case in Vantaa, in TikTok, there are these hearts with a Band-Aid, and then there are these dolls as a symbol of peace. Those kind of symbols, they tend to travel because this is part of the social media culture. They tend to travel from one culture context to another.  

The way they are domesticated in those cultural contexts, that might be a very different thing. The symbols, they tend to travel because they are part of the so-called social media mourning culture, and people tend to recognize that. You need to use it if you want to have visibility for your posts because if nobody understands what you are saying, you don't get any shares, or likes, or whatnot.  


You have also studied the relationship between the media and religion, and you have found that journalism has the power to define what constitutes a religion and what falls outside of this definition, for instance, non-institutionalised natural religions. Do you think social media has had any effect on this? For instance, if something comes to be viewed as an actual religion by large numbers of social media users, can that challenge traditional media's power to define what constitutes an actual religion?  

Another big question.  

Another long one.  

Yes, a long one, a big question. Yes, obviously, in social media and in digital media in more general because there are other platforms, not just social media platforms, that we might be interested in. Many researchers of digital media, these different platforms, they would agree that the authority of different types of institutional actors and journalistic actors, for example, has to a certain extent, it has become diminished, in a sense that the Pope is not the only authority who can say what, for example, Catholic religion is. In this digital environment, everyone who has access can, in principle, voice their concerns and views and provide definitions and what they understand by, for example, Catholic religion.  

This is only in the field of institutionalized religions. I think that in recent years there is also an emerging interest among scholars to study, for example, conspiracy theories. There are many conspiracy theories. We might not be able to say, and maybe we should not be able even to call it a religion. It's not a religion in a sense, but there might be religious elements in that. People have beliefs that are not considered rational or there are myths or narratives or rituals, the kind of elements that often resonate with, if not only religion but religiosity or spirituality. I think that it is a messy world out there. 

Actually, one of the things that I would like to do more research in the future is to rethink what we understand by the idea and concept of secularization. It's a very established literature that says that institutional religions are losing their power, especially in Western societies. There is no doubt about that. When we think about, for example, how people-- if they are members of any established religion or if they actively are devote religious practitioners, but if we think about secularity as something that has to do with the rational mind, however you define that, or scientifically-oriented mind, I think that -- I’m not that convinced anymore. 

Because I think that the COVID, for example, and the question around whether you are taking a vaccination or not, that made visible that there are all kinds of underbrush religious, spiritual ways of thinking about how this world is. What is this world about? What are the natural laws, for example, and the dividing line between this worldly and other worldliness? I think that this is something that I would like to do more research on.

One final question. Are there any books or movies that you have read or seen lately that you would recommend?  

That I would recommend. The book that I am about to read, but I haven't read yet, that has been highly recommended to me by people whose judgement I trust is Naomi Klein's Doppelganger. Even though I haven't read the book yet, I have the book. I would still strongly recommend to read that. About the movies, about films, we just watched Poor Things, this film. Now, I can't remember who was the director, but Emma Stone, she played a main female character there.  

Can I recommend that film? I think it was a powerful movie, but maybe the storyline was not that strong, but the film itself was very powerful. These are the two, one film and one book that I recommend.