Welcome to look at the media and communication technologies through the lens of reform, advocacy, and activism.
This first week is a hefty descriptive introduction, painting the big picture (or pictures) with a broad brush. We will discuss the idea of media reform (what and why), as well as some global benchmarks and the re-birth of the movement(s) in the 1990s (the how of the recent past). This is to lay out a foundation of more detailed, nuanced scholarly discussions to follow. However, please also note that a part of the course focuses on very concrete strategies and tactics, as well as related hands-on work. This introduction will hopefully serve both the theory and praxis dimensions of the course. You will have plenty to read/watch, but the assignment for next week is an easy one, to balance your workload.
Basic Definition: Media in Need of Reform
Social reforms can happen and be supported through the media. In other words, people and civic organizations that strive for social change may use the media as a vehicle to further and support their cause. But sometimes the media themselves need attention. Individuals and organization may work on misgivings and defects of media systems, content, reception and access.
In this course, we concentrate on the latter issues and stakeholders: problems and related movements regarding the media themselves, and scholarship supporting that work. While Media Reform is not an unified movement, its topics are clearly linked to a better — more democratic, inclusive, open, just, egalitarian, transparent — world. It is essentially about redistribution of (symbolic and economic) power that is directly or indirectly related to mediated communication.
Here is a 5-minute refresher crash course by the journalism visionary Dan Gillmor: He highlights the power of communication (technologies) throughout the human history — and the battle over control:
And here are some important issues, in your own words (from the questionnaire):
Communication and Democracy in the Global Context
Most media reform stakeholders and activities in the past decades have focused on national contexts — mass media, after all, were structured around national systems. But the philosophical grounds are shared in many countries. Ever since the Greco-Roman tradition of public communication as a tool for problem-solving and decision making (think Aristotle & Socrates) the ideas and ideals of communication and democracy have been closely linked. The rise of mass media in the 19th century took that idea to another level when information could be shared, at least potentially, not only by the elites, but by vast groups of people, regardless of economic or social standing. No wonder the printing press was influential in educating and activating the proletariat.
Later on, in the 20th century, many countries chose to establish a public broadcasting system to ensure several components that had to do with the media’s relationship with democracy: universal access to media contents; diversity of all kinds of contents (famously, the trinity originally attributed to the BBC: public media should inform, educate and entertain); as well as a variety of voices and viewpoints, also those of minorities. In the academic contexts, the normative model of the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas was often used in defense of such thinking: a democracy needs a diverse functioning media to guarantee a public sphere where citizens (virtually) meet to debate (rationally) and agree (consensus) on common issues.
The above discourses on media and democracy have a Western conceptual history, but with globalization have become prominent in international contexts. The idea of Development Communication often included the idea of (more) universal access and, hence, establishment of vehicles of public service media.
To illustrate this: here’s a 3 min. poignant video about the role of the media in international development — something that is increasing in importance for the Global North and South alike:
As we know,the Internet and mobile communication multiplied opportunities and challenges. The new platforms also made many media reform issues increasingly borderless, global. The array of slogans of transformations includes: Globalization of media markets and conglomerization (often vertical integration) of media companies; fragmentation of audiences and their transformation into prosumers; deregulation of media policies; commercialization of media structures – and an incredible proliferation of platforms, contents, and producers of media. All this affected traditional media as well as networked and mobile communication. In terms of the global outlook, the idea of democracy and democratization now embraced the concept of ICT4D.
The context of the United Nations and global debates on the role of the media reflect the above development:
Freedom of Expression is defined already in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1946, Art. 19.
The discussions on Right to, and Freedom of, Information entered the debate in the 1960s — when the role of governments and states were questioned and the rights of individual citizens to information were brought forth.
Around the same time, the lesser developed countries begun to bring up the Right to Communicate: They wanted to challenge the Western domination of mass communication. Active partners in the conversation were UNESCO, proposing the New World Information and Communication Order and the so called UN McBride Commission (1980).
In the 1990s, the idea of the Right to Cultural Identity was added to UNDHR — and challenged in fora such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) , and later in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in terms of copyright agreements. (A fun fact: Here’s the fake website by anti-globalization activist that describes what GATT/WTO does).
At the same time, the UN recognized the increasing importance of the Internet and organized two major meetings on the issue: The World Summit on the Information Society. It soon became clear, also with the beginning of the UN-driven Internet Governance Forums, that Communications Rights was the term several stakeholders started to use as an umbrella term for the new challenges of the networked era.
Read more here from a short summary article on the historical developments above.
Much of the recent debate has focused in the Internet and Human Rights. In late 2009, Finland declared broadband access a legal right. The UN followed in 2011 in declaring the importance of access:
Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states,”
– Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations, in his report to the UN Human Rights Council
But while human rights seem universal, they can also been seen as relational and contextual, even when we think about the Internet. For instance, the question of access may include challenges of corruption and concentration of ownership, as some African activists argue.
Yesterday: Media Reform Revived as a National Project, and beyond
While the UN was discussing the media in terms of global development and justice, the 1980s and 1990s revitalized debates about the need for democratization of the media, especially in the United States. Undoubtably, media reformists (broadly understood) have existed as long as the media, whether as community radio projects or culture jammers, all around the world. However, the increasing commercialization and globalization of the media landscape brought grassroots activism into policy advocacy sphere, most vocally in the U.S.. Many groups, from consumer advocacy organizations to women’s media collectives, decided to mobilize their supporters. Here is a short article by one of the key players, Robert McChesney , from 2002 that explains the situation well. The quote highlights the tone:
The role that US news media have played in narrowing and warping the public discourse since September 11 provides dramatic evidence of the severe limitations of contemporary American journalism, and this nation’s media system, ,when it comes to nurturing a viable democratic and humane society. It is now time to act upon that anger to forge a broader, bolder and more politically engaged movement to reform American media.
What happened was quite remarkable. A Philadelphia-based small pirate radio collective Prometheus Radio challenged the ever deregulated corporate media ownership rules by suing the U.S. Federal Communication Commission — and won. Behind the case were hundreds of organizations and individual researchers who collected evidence and gathered citizen support for more diverse media landscape.
This victory sparked the interest of activist and scholars around the world and legitimized media reform as a living (albeit very broad set of) movement/s. With the rise of online communication, media reform issues that had been about broadcast media and print journalism, begun to shift to questions of Internet. More about this shift next week, as well as during the sessions on “old” (3.2.) and “new” (24.2.) issues.
4. Back to Power: Media Reform as an Object of Study
As the diversity issues you highlighted in the questionnaire show, Media Reform is not, and cannot be, a unified concept with a grand theory. At the same time, much of journalism, critical studies, media sociology, media economics and policy studies, and most other fields concerned about the media and communication technologies all, in essence, trace different dimensions of communicative power.
In universities, the early and mid 1990s witnessed a surge of thinking and public debates around the democratizing power of the Internet. The most hopeful utopias of deliberative online communication and formation of active ‘subaltern counter-publics’ (term by Nancy Fraser) were countered with fears ranging from trivialization, fragmentation, even disappearance of widely and commonly shared issues, to viral distribution of non-democratic, “harmful” content.
Now the same debates are re-emerging once again in era that is witnessing the explosion of “social production” in a multitude of digital platforms. Most scholars agree that participation via informal networks including social networking sites and microblogging has played a major role in democratic and democratizing processes. Yet, we face issues such as privacy/surveillance, copyrights, and the digital divide (access to digital communication, as well as competence to communicate and participate). Click Here to Save Everything is not a solution, as the anti-techno-utopian thinker Evegeny Morozov muses.
One thing seems certain: We are living in an increasingly mediatized, and networked world. Many scholars, and an increasing number of practitioners and ordinary citizens around the world, have begun to collaborate in bringing awareness to what Hackett & Carroll (Chapter 1) call the Media’s Democratic Deficit. Their list includes:
1) Public sphere failure: People have insufficient access to relevant civic information.
2) Centralization of power: The political economy of media industries is about concentration and media monopolies. As Matthew Hindman’s recent research shows, web traffic, too is very concentrated, and the most popular blogs are written by a handful of professionals, often connected to mains stream media outlets.
3) Inequality: This has to do both with access (social class: can one afford a broad band access, for instance?) and with media representations (including ethnic/religious minorities, gender, and age).
4) Homogenization: Multiple platforms do not automatically translate to diverse content, see (2).
5) Undermining community: In several senses: media contents are homogenized (same content is recycled everywhere, and local media outlets die); media marketers try to find and create consumer segments (fragmentation); and regardless of globalization of communication and information sharing, the lack of the sense of a global community.
6) Corporate enclosure of knowledge: Commercialization of privatization of common cultural products, public commons of knowledge (Intellectual Property Rights).
7) Policy-making behind closed doors: As our lives become more and more mediatized, media policy making matters more and more to our everyday lives. Yet, ordinary citizens are seldom invited to engage in related debates.
8) Eroding communication rights: Apart from digital divides, the web and mobile technologies also pose challenges such as privacy and surveillance.
One could argue, then, that studying media reform and related movements could be defined as studying any attempts to address, and better the democratic deficit related to the media and communication technologies, some important aspects of which are listed above.
5. Summary: Media Reform and Related Movements Work for a More Just Media
In sum: The media are powerful proponents and/or opponents of democracy – and that’s why people care. Different media forms and forums are used by social movements to advance their causes. At the same time, the media themselves entail social justice issues, the issues of democratic deficit, that interested scholars and specific civic organizations seek to address. Forming an unified movement is a challenge, especially in the international context, as issues are diverse, and ever more complex in our society. What ‘just’ means, for different stakeholders, is another matter.
As noted above already: On the variety of issues and kinds of movements, e.g., Media Reform vs. Internet Right, please come back next week to find out more.
(1) Please go to our Dropbox and read texts marked W1.
These texts will give you a sense of how the short history of what we could label Media Reform is concerned about — whether we discuss legacy media or Internet Rights. They also highlight different levels of reform, from the grassroots to the U.N.
- Hackett & Carroll, chapters 1 and 3 (for now): An overall background discourse on Media Reform as a (set of) movements.
- McChesney, at least chapter 7, but those interested in journalism, check out chapter 6 as well: Robert McChesney is the Grand Old Man of Media Reform, a professor as well as an advocate. You need to “read” his voice.
- Pickard’s article on key past global and institutional (the U.N.) macro-level attempts of media reform and the politics of policy-making…
- Please also read my very short account of the current WSIS+10 process, here.
(2) Please introduce yourself below as a comment.
A “light” assignment for the first week, for us to get used to the routine 🙂
- Let us know who you are in terms of our topic: Why are you taking this course and what “media reform issue” or issues, broadly defined, have you encountered in your own life? (We as scholars and professionals often discuss issues of social justice and reform in a general manner and from a societal/organizational standpoint. Advocates and activists are most often personally invested in the issues they engage in. Share with us if/how the media’s democratic deficit has impact you as a scholar/professional/ordinary citizen/media consumer in any way.)
- Note that when you post for the first time I need to moderate your comment. As I live in New York, I might not be online when you are — so allow some time for your first comment to appear. Your subsequent comments will post immediately.
- Do note that this is a public platform for anyone to access and read (in theory). Would you like to preserve your privacy, please use any screen name you want. However, when you post for the first time you will be asked to submit your email address. Please use the email you registered to this course with. I am the only one to see the email address and can then identify you with that email.
- Due Wed 27.1. at midnight.