Conference review

International conference “Media and Communication: Transformations and Development in the Digital Age”


For the fourth consecutive year the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication organized the International Scientific Conference “Communication and Media of the XXI Century”. The theme of the conference in 2023 was “Media and Communication: Transformations and Development in the Digital Age”. The forum was conducted on 26th and 27th October 2023 in the video conference platform Microsoft Teams.

The event was part of two major anniversaries of the academic community of Sofia University – 135 years since the founding of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” and 50 years since the establishment of the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Academic partners of this year’s event were prestigious international universities: Eastern Kentucky University, USA, Vilnius University, Lithuania, Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania, the Polytechnic Institute of Lisbon, Portugal, and University of Bucharest, Romania.

Within two days 93 representatives of the global academic and institutional community took part in the fruitful discussions in the different panels of the forum. 16 participants were from abroad and 77 – from Bulgaria.

The Dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication Prof. Dr. Vesselina Valkanova opened the scientific forum, which focuses on the challenges and prospects for media and journalism education. She expressed her delight at the presence of journalists with many years of experience, leading names in professional circles, researchers, scholars and lecturers from fourteen universities and institutions from the USA, India, the Republic of Korea, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Kosovo, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Norway and Ukraine, and Bulgarian participants from leading universities and departments, institutions, organizations and media.

Prof. Valkanova expressed her regret that she could not personally welcome the participants in the conference in the building of the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, where Sofia University was established and pointed out that the academic year 2023/2024 marked two important anniversaries – 135 years since the founding of Sofia University and 50 years since the establishment of the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, where the education in journalism and media in Bulgaria began.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the academic development of educational institutions, especially universities, is facing a number of social challenges, structural and educational transformations. Higher education institutions are undergoing radical transformations driven by the need to digitalize education and training processes. The university system is striving to overcome this situation in order to be competitive and continue to provide high quality education in the context of digital transformation and technological innovation, emphasized Prof. Valkanova. She underlined that journalism and communication education is oriented towards teaching specific knowledge and skills combined with practical training and all these aspects are very important for the students’ realization. The philosophy of education and academic research in journalism and media at Sofia University is related to the high social responsibility of the journalistic profession and its role in social systems, its functions as the fourth estate and the role of journalism in society.

The Dean pointed out that the theme of the conference covers the most controversial and important issues of contemporary journalism and media, and the impressive scientific program includes papers on key issues of media and digital change, risks and opportunities of digital communication, contemporary aspects of media and communication, digital transformation of media and communication, future trends in communication professions, local and regional dimensions of media and communication, challenges of media environment and emerging technologies and the new media culture.

According to Prof. Vesselina Valkanova, all these topics are relevant not only for the situation in Bulgaria, but also for the global community. Undoubtedly, the Bulgarian media environment has undergone dynamic and complex processes of transformation over the last two decades, related both to digitalization and the change in media business models, as well as to the drastically different social, cultural and professional context of communications worldwide. As part of the mega-processes of globalization and digitalization of human activity and societies, of media ecosystems everywhere in the world, Bulgarian journalism has been transformed in conditions of complex processes of transition, of dramatic reversals in media economics, politics, professional and discursive practices. In periods of transformations and crises, journalism and media as public institutions find themselves in various risky situations, threatening freedom of speech, professional standards and, ultimately, pluralism and democracy. At the same time, the media industry is evolving in an environment of uncertainty, with unfavourable economic indicators – rising costs and shrinking household spending – and global issues such as news avoidance and news fatigue, as well as the risk that economic weakness will make news organizations even more dependent on government advertising, leading to turbulence and profound disruptions affecting the media and their functioning.

In times of crises, we are seeing a growing need for quality journalism and journalism education and expanding the potential for resilience to the negative impact of fake news and misinformation, Prof. Valkanova pointed out. She recalled that journalism education has an even greater responsibility in today’s world and young generations will lead the fight against misconceptions in society, the distortion of the idea of normal journalism and the masking of propaganda as journalism.

Prof. Valkanova expressed her pleasure at the opportunity to welcome as participants in the conference the leading researchers in the field of media and communication Prof. Dr. Mark Deuze from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Prof. Dr. Benedikt Schnellbächer from Saarland University in Germany, Prof. Dr. Surbhi Dahiya from the Indian Institute of Mass Media Communication in New Delhi and Prof. Dr. Hasan Saliu from AAB College in Pristina, Kosovo and wished them useful discussion and constructive ideas for the future of media.

The plenary session was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Manuela Manliherova. The beginning of the discussion was given by Prof. Dr. Mark Deuze from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, a leading researcher in the field of journalism and media culture. Prof. Deuze presented a paper entitled “The Glitch, Uncanny, and Dizziness of Freedom: Articulating (a Future for) Media Studies”, in which he shared with the audience his view that the contemporary context of living in the media, rather than with the media, offers the challenge of finding ways to study the media effectively. While scholars working in any other field tend to see media as something that happens in people’s lives, media studies sees how people create worlds in and through media.

The floor was then given to Prof. Dr. Benedikt Schnellbächer from the University of Saarland, Germany, an expert in the development of digital business models. In his report Prof. Schnellbächer focused on the power of digital technologies and their impact on society.

The topic of transformation of media journalism and corporate journalism was addressed by Prof. Dr. Surbhi Dahiya of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, a former journalist with The Tribune newspaper and a current researcher on English-language journalism in India.

The plenary session concluded with a presentation by Prof. Dr. Hasan Saliu from the AAB College in Prishtina, Kosovo – former Dean (2011-2016) of the AAB College, researcher in the field of public diplomacy, media literacy and public relations. It was the national television and digital journalism that stood at the center of Prof. Saliu’s presentation.

The conference continued in 10 parallel panels: “Media and Digital Change”, “Risks and Opportunities of Digital Communication”, “Contemporary Aspects of Media and Communication”, “Digital Transformation of Media and Communication”, “Future Trends in Communication Professions”, “The Past, Present and Future of Media”, “Local and Regional Dimensions of Media and Communication”, “Media Environment Challenges”, “Contemporary Dimensions of Media and Journalism” и “Emerging Technologies and New Media Culture”.

In the working panels, lecturers and researchers from Bulgarian universities and institutions – the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Faculty of Philosophy of Sofia University, New Bulgarian University, University of Veliko Tarnovo “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”, Southwestern University “Neofit Rilski”, American University in Blagoevgrad, Varna Free University – discussed a wide range of issues with their colleagues from foreign universities from 15 countries: Eastern Kentucky University, USA, University of Vilnius, Lithuania, University of Saarland, Germany, University of Trieste, Italy, University of Turin, Italy, the Polytechnic Institute of Lisbon, Portugal, University of Alicante, Spain, AAB College in Pristina, Kosovo, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Korea University in the Republic of Korea, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi, Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary, the University of Silesia in Poland, the Kharkiv National University of Economics in Ukraine.

In the panel “Media and Digital Change” (moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Svetlana Stankova) took part a number of researchers on topics from different interdisciplinary scientific fields, which contributed to a very interesting multifaceted analysis and communication of trends, perspectives, transformations and challenges facing the media and the media environment in a time of dynamic digital change. Among the topics, speeches related to innovation, visual journalism, interdisciplinary approaches in media presentation of content in a digital environment, integration of artificial intelligence in visual communication, generated interest and discussion among the participants. The topic of the future that artificial intelligence portends and the danger of dehumanizing communication was commented on, as well as gatekeeping as a phenomenon related to the responsibility of the media and the personal responsibility of each of us – as a consumer of content on social networks – the audience gatekeeping.

The panel “Risks and Opportunities of Digital Communication” was moderated by Dr. Georgi Alexandrov and included foreign and Bulgarian participants exploring a diverse set of topics: media literacy and the challenges it poses for media and news narratives; specific examples from countries such as Lithuania and Portugal. The impact of new digital technologies on communication studies was widely discussed. Prof. Dr. Fernanda Bonacho from the School of Communications and Media Studies in Portugal presented a survey that is the conclusion of her 3-years project form 2019 – 2022 with 6 Collaborated Universities and 6 Secondary Schools. The survey is trying to develop 3 main competences – critical thinking, responsible communication and language use. Asst. Prof. Dr. Saulė Jokūbauskienė from Vilnius University in Lithuania shared her analysis of the communication of information services of the National Library of Lithuania in social media during the pandemic period in 2020-2022. Dr. Manuela Toteva informed the audience about the AI revolution and how it is transforming the practices in general and in the education sector. Asst. Prof. Dr. Simona Veleva explored the new legal mechanisms and instruments developed specifically to safeguard freedom of expression in the digital realm. The paper of the PhD student Lora Tarkoleva looked into who is more active online – the media or the listeners who upload content on their own. It reflected on the image created by the radio of humour and satire through what is available online – up to date or nostalgic.

Technological aspects of media (although not as a central theme) were also presented in the panel “Contemporary Aspects of Media and Communications” moderated by Prof. Dr. Nikolay Mihaylov. The audience’s attention was particularly drawn to the report of Prof. Dr. Ginny Whitehouse from Eastern Kentucky University, USA (a partner university of the conference), who focused on the ethical aspects of journalism in the context of documentary filmmaking, as well as on the subtle difference between journalism and filmmaking when it comes to documenting events. At the end of the panel, the particularly popular topic of artificial intelligence and its increasingly prominent role in contemporary media was also touched upon. Steinar Bjørlykke and Dr. Valery Marinov presented to the audience their practical experience from news channels in Norway in the use of augmented and mixed reality in reporting and coverage of major events. The concepts of “fast and slow media consumption” were at the center of Dr Justine Toms’ presentation, outlining key aspects of new digital media. PhD student Elisabetta Pozzetto from the University of Trieste (Italy) introduced her insight into attempts to implement a circular economy in the public sector in Bulgaria. Social networks and the opportunities provided by them are starting to be increasingly used by engineers and designers of urban environments – examples of this use of new technologies was given by PhD student Mariana Huskinson from the University of Alicante, Spain. The talks continued with a discussion of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s practice of cutting off its citizens’ access to the internet as a political means of addressing their dissatisfaction. The topic was addressed by Dr. Tsvetelina Dzhambazova. The question of the political aspects of contemporary media was also raised by PhD student Mityo Marinov, who examined the social media posts of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump to show how political communication has changed in recent years.

Most of the reports in the panel “Digital Transformation of Media and Communication”, moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mila Serafimova, were dedicated to artificial intelligence. It turns out that artificial intelligence influences both the creation of news and their perception by the audience, as well as the communication of various topics by public relations professionals. The discussion that followed after the panel was again dominated by the topic of the role of artificial intelligence in public relations, advertising and journalism. Participants tentatively observed that two conflicting narratives dominate the public: 1) that of the pessimists who see AI as an imminent threat to the jobs of communications professionals and 2) that of the optimists who view AI as a useful tool available to communicators. All panelists agreed that the topic remains open for more in-depth research.

A major conclusion from the international conference is the significant change that is taking place in all aspects of media and communications. The professions of communication professionals themselves are changing, which was discussed in the panel “Future Trends in Communication Professions” moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Kalin Kalinov. The first speaker, chief assistant professor Nikolay Kolev, discussed the application of AI (artificial intelligence) in the creation and distribution of news content. His presentation sparked debate as to the application of AI in various fields of expertise. The second speaker, chief assistant professor Teodora Georgieva, presented the digital transformations in investigative journalism in Bulgaria. The topic enjoyed wide interest, since it was presented a few days before local elections in the country, as well as being a hot topic in the field of media and communication. The third speaker, chief assistant professor Nikola Vangelov, presented the opportunities that lie before online advertising in nowadays everchanging digital world. It was accepted well by the other speakers and it was proposed that a joint project is developed among media specialist with regard to length of pre-roll video online advertising and its effectiveness.

The PhD candidates’ reports that followed showed vast interest in the topics, as well as great presentation skills on behalf of their presenters. The first one was Elena Stankova, who talked about the digital transformation in content management and customer engagement. The presentation was interesting and discussed in depth some of the present trends in this regard. Kaloyan Ganev discussed his research on AI in brand-customer communication, taking into consideration personal communication with regard to the use of chat bots. Monika Dimitrova presented her research on digital approaches in book reading promotion. Besides her elaborate analysis on various digital platforms for book reading, her presentation sparked questions concerning the promotion of these platforms with regard to municipal and state aid. And last but not least was the report by Ivailo Tsolov, who discussed the challenges that lay before the recruitment business in the IT sector. His comparative analysis in this sector among Bulgaria, Switzerland and Germany shed more light into intercultural differences, as well.

In all, the panel was a complete success. All the presentations were well received and sparked         lively debate on various additional topics. All these facts give evidence to the significance of the international conference with regard to its growing popularity and interest among national and international scholars.  

The participants in the panel “The Past, Present and Future of Media”, moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Alexander Hristov, tried to make a kind of walk through the past, present and future of media. The papers presented the possibilities of content integration in different channels, the trends of content marketing in social networks, but also took the audience back to the 1920s with research on the coup on June 9, 1923, and the propaganda messages in the newspaper publications of popular issues of that period. The report of Prof. Dr. Iliana Pavlova (from the University of Veliko Tarnovo “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”) was focused on the news content of the three national media (BNT, BTV and Nova Television) on Facebook in August 2023. The monitoring shows that there is a strong overlap in the topics of the three national TV channels during the study period. The next report – “#Elections in Tik Tok – politics as fast food” by Chief Asst. Prof. Dr. Laura Simeonova explored how the race for the local elections in 2023 is interpreted in the “social network of zoomers”.

The next panel, “Local and Regional Dimensions of Media and Communication”, was moderated by Prof. Dr. Svetlozar Kirilov. Papers were presented on the communication strategy of the private military company Wagner, the communication policy of the Hungarian government, the modern municipal press in Poland and the gaming industry in the Republic of Korea.

The panel “Media Environment Challenges”, moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Maya Vassileva, analyzed the latest trends and challenges in communication management of popular campaigns in Bulgaria, in book publishing, in European communication policies. The moderator put an emphasis on the communication management of facts and data in the “Do It Now” Multi-Media Campaign – a popular campaign that strived to create a demographic model for parenting and to encourage people to start their own family. Asst. Prof. Dr. Victoria Bisserova focused on “Traditional book publishing and new digital opportunities” and outlined the changes in publishing products, in the publishing-editing process and in communication.

“Contemporary Dimensions of Media and Journalism” was the title of the panel moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sc. Maria Popova. The researchers chose to focus on ethical issues in the field of contemporary journalism, including the question of whether there are restrictions on free speech that are not essentially censorship but are a necessary element of communication, on the non-ethical practices of Bulgarian journalists when reporting tragic events such as disasters and major car accidents with lots of victims, as well as on media portrayals of political figures such as the Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.

The last panel of the conference was entitled “Emerging Technologies and New Media Culture” and was moderated by Prof. Dr. Simeon Vassilev, who kicked off the discussions with his paper on the need for a unified theory of media transformation and the creation of a new media culture. The panel continued with the presentations of PhD students from FJMC, covering a wide range of topics: the new skills of the communication professional, media self-regulation in the era of hybrid warfare and disinformation, the dynamics of the development of the PR sector.