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Media activism/advocacy — or, in other words, Media Reform — has been addressed as a social movement of its own right, and has begun to be studied as such, only fairly recently. 

  • Hence, scholars from various disciplines — from legal studies to cultural anthropology — study it. So can you — choose your specific angle.
  • Hence, definitions,  classifications, theoretical frameworks are still vague…
  • …And they will probably remain so. Media landscapes change faster than ever. New issues, or old issues in new forms, emerge constantly.

It is good to keep in mind that in real life, all kinds of borders and classifications are never definitive. For instance, the broad movement concerned with globalization certainly entails sub-movements specifically focusing on media-related questions.

Through the Media, About the Media

IndyMedia, a case many of you might know, is a good example: Was it  an in and of itselfScreen Shot 2016-01-25 at 4.43.44 PM an alternative media outlet challenging mainstream media agendas, or was it a vehicle of the so called ‘counter-globalization’ movement? Well, both.

Still, it is useful to have a broad framework in mind when mapping the communication-related activism, and related research. Activism can be about the media and/or through them.

Circuits of Stakeholders

Somewhat more theoretically, we can follow Steward Clegg’s (1989) idea of the circuits of power. Originally, Clegg theorized about the context in which power is being used and in which it potentially appears. He views power as a process that has several circuits. The first is the overt, or macro-level, circuit of (political) decision-making. The second is the systemic-economic circuit of power that contextualizes policy-making decisions (this is what we can see within organizations). The third, social, circuit describes cultural meanings, membership and belonging – elements that also provide context to the macro-level circuit (and what we can experience as individuals in our everyday lives). We can perhaps understand media reform activism and advocacy through these levels: pertaining to national/international legislation, to individual (media and other) organizations and to individuals’ rights and responsibilities.

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Old vs. New; Diversity vs. Rights

Even if the break-down into circuits seem straight-forward, issues related to media and communication technologies seem sometimes divided by some invisible watershed in history. You may have noticed this during your studies. There are ‘mass media’ scholars from journalism, cultural studies, political economy, sociology; there are ‘science and technology studies’ folks that analyze networked cultures. (Media law people seem to cross borders more easily.)

Similarly, in Media Reform movement the ‘old media issues’ of ownership concentration and biased content, and their relationship, often remain separate from questions of access, intellectual property rights, privacy, net neutrality, online freedom of expression, and so on. The ‘old media’ activists lobby for more regulation for media ownership and for better journalism, and criticize the commercial advertising culture — while the ‘new media’ activists build mesh networks for those in need, crowdsource to do whistleblower work, and help bloggers working in undemocratic circumstances to remain anonymous with circumvention tools.

In other words, the movements that were born in the mass media era  were mostly about the democratic deficiency of lack of media (ownership, content, localism) DIVERSITY. More recent movements are (once again, think of the UN UDHR) framed as digital human RIGHTS.

Here’s how I have summarized the dilemma from the perspective of media governance:

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But, again, these differences described above do not really exist, do they?

In terms of biased, ‘narrow’, content, we know the power of legacy journalism, but also viral hate speech online. Lack of accountability in terms of media ownership, and the power of the big corporations is no longer an issue of only the News Corp and Disney.

As a news story from last week highlighted, five companies rule the digital world. Or, as the Economist put it a few years ago, a Game of Thrones battle of sorts is happening in ‘new’ media business. Many have noted their commercial power but also their role in providing access and human rights — resisting censorship — as well as their role in fundamentally shaping how we communicate, what we know, what we share.

Remember Context

Another dimension to the question of stakeholders.

While many issues, from censorship to surveillance, are no longer national, nations and regions still matter. Media Governance — that is, who gets to control the media — is both a global and a local matter.

It goes without saying that multinational media and technology conglomerates as well as international organizations, such as WTO and ITU, and supra-national bodies such as the EU, influence areas beyond nation-states.

As this outline of media governance shows, a part of the governance does happen in multi-national contexts:

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Yet, much of media regulation is nation-bound. National mass media systems differ from authoritarian, to free market driven, to public service-oriented ones (where some of the media, often broadcasting, is supported by public funds). And old mass media regulatory frameworks often influence attempts to nationally regulate the Internet and mobile communications.

In addition, much of the history of consumption, of political participation, of economic structures still influences the present. They affect global challenges and bring about specifically local issues.

Frames of A & A

Finally, yet another dimension to media reform stakeholders and actions is how the stakeholders themselves position their work, and the core philosophy behind it. Before going any further, one distinction about terminology, commonly used: Activism often refers to grass-roots, not-so-institutionalized, often (but not always, think of counter-globalization activism, again) smaller-scale activity. Advocacy is used in the context of more established and organized forms of civic activity, such as lobbyist groups (however radical).

Hackett & Carroll (Chpt 4) and others have mapped different movements or ‘frames’ of action and towards more democratic and diverse media. Labels are just that: names. They may vary depending on the scholar mapping the field. To follow the categorization H&C use, one way of defining the frames is as follows:

–       The frame of the free press is concerned with the basic freedom of speech, and all forms of censorship.

–       Right to communicate follows that train of thought but sees right ti communicate as a human right and extend the idea of free speech to the right to communication in public for a, i.e., there should be such platforms for all who wish to express themselves publicly.

–       Media democratization stresses the importance of democratic processes in media decision- and policy-making; very often challenging the specifically corporate and commercial media culture. Media reform is a term often used synonymously, or somewhat more broadly to entail all kinds of considerations regarding media structures, not only questions directly related to policy-making.

–       Cultural environmentalists parallel toxic media culture (violence, one-sidedness, hypercommercialism, and so on) with environmental movement: the desired outcome would be a humane, healthy media output (less emphasis on democratic processes within media structures).

–       Media justice refers to activism that views media issues as a part of other global social justice questions. It often addresses matters of race, class, gender, and so on.

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The figure above also shows the movements in terms of their ‘radical, reformist’ position, as well as their position regarding individuals vs. communities (e.g., the free press ideology is often based on the idea of the individual freedom of speech; media justice issues often pertain to ‘minority’ or underserved communities).

Arguably, these are  categories that do not fit each and every situation. Violations regarding the freedom of the press, for example, may in real life be directly connected to the power struggles between minorities and majorities, some collective solidarities not being allowed to be voiced.

Also, for instance: Where would surveillance and privacy issues fit into the model? (The Cultural Environment frame seems like a good candidate, although it traditionally focused on media violence, and such. But our new media environment is ‘polluted’ in many ways.) Or, is there a frame for (anti-)copyrights? Is it simply about media democratization?

Nevertheless, mapping of the frames does give a broad outlook on philosophies that have driven media activism and advocacy in the past decades. And perhaps you can, suggest new frame/s based on your own work?

The other axis in the figure refers to the strategies of change that are dominant within each frame. Should one promote legislative changes, regulatory procedures within existing systems? Or should one call for a more fundamental transformations, perhaps changes of entire media systems and decision-making governing them, or more support to alternatives to the mainstream media?

Take note: all of the above influences the nature, and actors, of all kinds of media reform movements.


Hackett & Carroll (Chpt 3) note that three kinds of groups potentially engage in struggle for more democratic media:

(1) Those within and around media industries – journalists, other media professionals, librarians, communications researchers. Today, we can add information technology specialists (just think of Manning, Swartz, and Snowden) into this group;

(2) Those who are very dependent on media in relation to their ‘cause’ (anti-globalization movements are a great example, again; but organizations that see the power of ICT4D could be); and

(3) Those ‘diffuse’ sectors who occasionally mobilize for better media when they feel that media pose a threat to their cause (e.g., a classic example would be children’s protection/rights activists that might oppose violence on TV, be concerned about children in social media, and so on).

H&C wrote their book a decade ago. Give it a thought: To what extent iss their view still accurate?

I suggest that we can add at least a few other groups in the mix:

(4) Semi-professionals. As mentioned by many, citizen journalism, for example, has flourished in the past decade. Is it media reform — reforming the news media landscape? Could we call organizations such as Wikileaks a media reform group? How about crowd-sourced crisis mapping platform Ushahidi — that clearly performs public service?

(5) Foundations. Many international foundations understand the power of the media in the processes of democratization — or maintaining democracy. For instance, the Open Society Foundations (global; former Soros Foundation) Mapping Digital Media project seeks to provide information and data for activists, advocates, policy-makers and other stake-holders. Nominet Trust (UK) ranks most inspiring social media innovations, and so on.

(6) Consumers/Users/Netizens? How much can we change by our individual actions?

Any others?


Given these many media landscape shifts, how should we should conceptualize, support, and act towards ‘media democracy’? Multi-stakeholder modeling has been offered as the solution by scholars and change-makers alike.

The idea of using a multi-stakeholder approach to conceptualize media-related issues and processes is nothing new. Multi-stakeholder modeling has been used, for instance, in tracing technological diffusion in media industries, by mapping developments in organizational, industry and environmental levels, or discussing how to frame media ethics. Also, the field of media management has embraced the concept of ‘multi-stakeholderism’ over the last decade. For example, McQuail, 2000 (whom many of us might have read) has discussed the many ‘pressures’ that a media organization faces from actors, ranging from competitors, news agencies, owners, and unions, to those that have legal and political control; from diverse pressure groups and other institutions; distribution channels and audiences to pressures created by events and constant information and culture supply.

Yet, Internet Governance, and the UN-driven IG Forums  has brought the need of multi-stakeholder dialogues in the forefront of policy-making, as well as media reform mobilizing. The challenges are so great that without the collaboration of governments, the industry, and the civil society, there is no way to democratize the net. Here is a wonderful account on multi-stakeholderism in Internet Governance by Consumers International.

Opposing Views

But how to organize and mobilize? Collaboration is not ‘second nature’ to most of us. (That is why one of our sessions is focused scholars as media reformers.) Different stake-holders have different interests, and events like IGF seem disappointing to many. Another case in point? Christina Dunbar-Hester provides an interesting analysis (in Jansen Chpt 13, Dropbox) on how radical media democracy activists, policy advocates, and scholars find themselves in relation to a particular issue. And some question the dominant ‘story’ of what media reform is as a movement, framing it around US-centric, policy-centric, blind to other social justice struggles.

Real Voices

Let’s hear it from those who do media reform. Here are the voices of some stakeholders from around the world.

(1) From old to new: Media Reform Advocacy Embracing New Challenges. Here’s is a MRIS interview with one of the key stakeholders in the field, Tim Karr of The Free PressTim is the Senior Director of Strategy for perhaps the most impactful, and most well-known, media reform organization in the world.  US-based, and initially US- focused, The Free Press has brought together different organizations working for media democracy, and organized highly successful National Conferences for Media Reform to strengthen collaborations.

Tim talked to us about his definition of media reform, and of ways to make change:

Please see also his TV interview on Corporatocracy and the Internet, his and C.W. Anderson‘s insights on the Egyptian revolution and how the tools for freedom of expression can also be used as tools of repression, and his great blog on current affairs around media and comm tech.

(2) New issues that unite: Internet Rights, Globally. Media democratization is a global movement, in many ways. Here is a video produced by a Brazilian documentary project on the freedom of the Internet It includes interviews with bloggers, activists and academics – including Amira Al-Hussaini of Global Voices, Matisse Bustos Hawkes of WITNESS, and Rebecca Mackinnon — filmed during a Global Voices SummitGlobal Voices is a network of bloggers and other media activists around the world, making a difference with their alternative news stories. Its sister project, Global Voices Advocacy, is a network specifically concerned about freedom of expression and access to information.

Also, explore this thorough, and global, list of  of organizations and initiatives around Internet Freedom, compiled by  Rebecca MacKinnon — she is the author of the Consent of the Networked, and the co-founder of Global Voices.

(3) An academic-activist speaks out. Those who already checked out last week’s “In the news” email from me may have encountered Prof. Freedman’s blog post about how How to Fight Media Power. The big trend in the field of policy-making and social change work,  is “evidence-based policy-making” or K2P – knowledge-to-policy. Now researchers have an apt opportunity to be activist-advocates — or do they? Power plays into scholarship on media and media reform as well… Prof. Freedman has embraced the role full-on, but we will address opportunities as well as challenges in a few weeks.

Assignment: More Voices!

  • Read the W2_readings from our Dropbox that support the above briefing:
    • Hackett & Carroll Chapters 2 and 4: Framing the change issues and agents
    • Dunbar (in Jansen, Chapter 13): , and
    • Hintz & Milan: multi-stakeholderism and grassroots movements
    • EXTRA READING UPLOADED, just FYI, for those who are especially interested in ICT-driven social movements (that are not necessarily media reform movements).
  • Mapping. The above ‘real voices’ are limited (and very Western). Let’s crowdsource some interesting examples of media reform actors (activists, advocates) around the world!
    • Here is a link to a Google Map that I have started. You can edit it via that link. Please add three (3) organizations/groups/individuals with a short description, and a related link (if applicable) to the map!
    • If possible, can you “categorize” the actors you map in any way (mass media reform, Internet Rights, frames by H&C)?
    • Also, please identify yourself with your first/screen name in the beginning of your tag, e.g., [Minna] so I can see who has contributed what. This map will be a great resource for us all in looking at different cases of stakeholders around the world!