{research} Re-Framing Media Reform: Part 1


Interested in media reform and Internet Rights movements? Ever wonder whether there is synergy, overlap, and possibilities of collaboration?


Read and comment in this draft journal article in the works, that I’m writing with Yann Ilunga.


 My will be posted here in 4 parts:

  1. Movements: Three Challenges;
  2. Movements and Frames;
  3.  Digitalization and Its Discontents Documented (on the  Mapping Digital Mediaproject); and
  4.  The Case for a More Universal Digital Movement? (assessing the need to unite and further globalize media reform and internet rights activism and advocacy).


The core question is: Is there a need to Re-Frame Media Reform and Internet Rights Movements in the era of Digitalization?


The dilemma is discussed conceptually, as well as illustrated by the findings of the Mapping Digital Media (MDM) project (2009-2013). The project studied global opportunities and risks created by the transition from traditional to digital media in 56 countries and created also 19 thematic reports.


{Part I: Movements: Three Challenges}


Immense changes are reshaping the media landscape, affecting the way citizens are informed, governments and corporations are made accountable, and societies fulfill their potential. Mass communication exists in the same ecosystem with the Internet, social networks, and mobile communications. Digital communication is influencing other global issues, ranging from health (e- and mHealth) to education (MOOCs and other virtual learning) to national and global security. Media regulation meets with telecommunication laws and copyright regimes; copyrights and privacy laws become issues that affect freedom of expression. The recent years have brought about the question of how the policy-making realm can ensure that participation is ‘safe’ and will not be used against the participants in unintended ways, by corporations in the form of unsolicited data-gathering for commercial purposes, or by governments in the form of surveillance (e.g., Morozov 2011[i]).


These changes also naturally affect traditional media institutions by bringing new opportunities, but also ethical, procedural, and financial challenges. In particular, journalism that upholds pluralism and diversity, transparency and accountability, editorial independence, access to information, public service values, and high professional standards. In addition, from the perspective of individuals, one of the defining characteristics of the contemporary media environment is the extent to which it can facilitate a greater array of – and deeper forms of – audience participation (Carpentier, 2011[ii]).  There are new questions about ‘user agency’ (Postigo, 2012[iii]) in the world where production is not only in the hands of institutional players, but potentially everyone. Finally, the question of how to evaluate, challenge, and possibly change media policies, systems, and practices, becomes ever more complex when mediated participatory actions can take local, national, global, or issue-driven, borderless forms (e.g., Clark & Aufderheide 2009[iv]).


Given the above rapid changes, it could be argued that there is a momentum, and even urgent need, for those fighting for a more democratic and just media and communications systems, to rethink how to frame  — how to define, understand, and act upon — their principles, philosophies, actions, and allies. As contemporary theories of social movements posit:


[S]ocial movements are not viewed merely as carriers of extant ideas and meanings that grow automatically out of structural arrangements, unanticipated events, or existing ideologies. Rather, movement actors are viewed as signifying agents actively engaged in the production and maintenance of meaning of constituents, antagonists, and bystanders or observers. They are deeply embroiled […] in what has been referred to as ‘the politics of signification’.[v]


To be sure, ‘Media Reform’ is a not a monolith movement, with unified frames of action (Napoli, 2008[vi]). The term would probably most likely evoke references to the U.S.-based media policy battles, and victories of the early 2000s, of Free Press, the Prometheus Radio Project and other bigger and smaller organizations that seek to influence media policy-making locally and nationally. The U.S. has, indeed, a long tradition of different kind of media-focused advocacy and activist organizations. They range from those who identify themselves with the Media Justice (see, Regan Shade, 2014[vii]) stand of media reform and discuss race, gender, sexuality and class in relation to media and communications technologies, to advocates who lobby for specific technology policies, to hackers who create tools to keep the Internet more free. But as the new Media Reform Map illustrates, organizations focusing on reforming (parts of) local and national media systems exist, and are very much alive, all around the world. At the same time, many Internet-based movements do not define themselves as national, and sometimes a national policy dilemma will evoke global reactions, as in the case of the U.S. SOPA-PIPA legislative proposals (e.g., Benkler et al. 2013[viii]).


Should individuals, informal and formal organizations concerned in ‘media democratization’ (Hackett & Carroll 2006) find common frames of action?  For those concerned in media policy-making, or, more broadly, in media governance (e.g. Freeman 2008[ix]) this new brave ne world is a challenge. Official media and communications policy-making needs to comprehend the totality of changes and challenges – and all related interconnections. The same goes for traditional media organizations whose activities are no longer The civil society – the reformists, the activists, the advocates – are facing increasing challenges and opportunities of mediatization of our everyday lives – and related possibilities of awareness-raising, engagement of more constituents, and new modes of participation.  At the same time, new questions, or challenges, are manifold:


  1. What are the key issues;
  2. Who are the stakeholders; and finally,
  3. What is the scope of the concern, the power regime, that should be monitored, regulated, held accountable? Local, National, Regional, or Global?

Challenge 1: Diversity vs. Human Rights


The researchers of the Media Reform Movement in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., Hackett and Carroll (2006[x]) note that most individuals and organizations working in the sphere are concerned with one or more aspects of the media’s democratic deficit:

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.

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.

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.

Regan Shade, depicting the U.S. and Canadian media reform movements (2014, 152[xi]) adds to this list by naming a multitude of media policy issues that are of concern to the different individuals, groups, coalitions, and so forth, that are trying to influence decision-making around the media and communication technologies. She maps the issues, ranfing from data retention to public and community broadcasting, under four main categories: Infrastructure, Content, Privacy/Surveillance, and Intellectual Property/Copyrights.


Despite of the multitude of issues, there seems to exists a basic disconnect between the core issue of the ‘mass media reform’ and the Internet activism. The question that has engaged media reformists of all kinds during the mass media era often on the media system and the diversity it manifests, whether in terms of media ownership, content, or exposure. The movement the ‘old media issues’ of ownership concentration and biased content. In other words, the movements that were born in the mass media era were mostly about the democratic deficiency as a lack of media (ownership, content, localism) diversity.  With centralized, often nation-based media systems where few produced for masses, this approach made a great sense. And, even in the multi-platform, era of user-generated content, ownership concentration still is a key concern for media reformers. Some even talk about a new form of media concentration, a kind of ‘Platform Imperialism’ (Jin 2013[xii]).


However, more recent movements of the digital era are often framing their activism and advocacy in terms of human rights, or communications rights. Many have noted the power of not only media organizations but platforms in terms of commercial dominance, 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.


One can trace the evolution in communication rights starting with the emphasis on the freedom of expression in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) to the more inclusive forms of communication such as the right to have access to information or the right to communicate (e.g., Joergrnsen 2014[xiii]). With the normalization of the Internet in daily life, the rights-based approach to ICTs becomes more critical on a global as well as national level. The recent years have witnessed political movements around the world (some of them loosely connected) that have been organized with the help of media technologies and user-generated content. Also growing public interest and concerns about our rights in the cyberspace (the above mentioned privacy, copyright, freedom of expression) point to the relationship between rights and the political/social order. And access not only to diverse content but to production is key to this kind of political participation, or participation in the other parts of social, economic, and cultural dimensions of many societies. It is no wonder that several countries, for instance Finland, have decided to legalize broadband access as a human right. The United Nations has taken the same stance in November 2011. Given the shift from the era of mass media scarcity to the digital era of plenty, the right to communicate, the access to content and production possibilities, as well as other related rights


In sum, 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. Yet, the two approaches might need one another. For instance, social media networks and other Internet giants have created de facto global monopolies in several areas of our daily lives. At the same time, the diversity of the content in the Internet does not translate to the diversity of reception: For instance, a handful of websites tends to dominate national news consumption (Hindman 2009[xiv]). As Napoli (2011, 246[xv]) notes, “with all of the information outlets currently available, focusing on source and content diversity is becoming less important than understanding the information that is actually consumed by media users.” One of the key challenges, then, is to reconcile the mass media era focus on the system – diversity – and the newly re-emerged focus on the rights of the individual.


Challenge 2: Multiple Stakeholders


The second question is clearly intertwined with the first one. Given that our societies and personal lives are increasingly bound to media and communication technologies, who are, or should be, partners, allies, constituents in the movements that seek to build a more just and democratic media and communication environments?


To start with, as Anderson (2013[xvi]) notes about understanding news journalism in the digital era, we need to look at the networks, organizations, social groupings, and institutions that populate the larger “ecosystem” in order to come to terms with the shifting technological, cultural, and economic structures of digital-age media. Or, from the perspective of media policy-making, as van den Bulck (2012: 229) posits:


The development of media policies seems to be becoming more complicated through shifts from traditional state policy-making to governance and even multi-governance and through an exponential growth in potential stakeholders. Disentangling and analyzing this intricate web is becoming ever more important yet also more complex.


The concept of multi-stakeholder collaboration has few precise definitions, but is often used in the context of international decision- and policy-making, as well as other forms of governance intended to counter elitist, centralised formations of power (e.g. Cammaerts 2011[xvii]). ‘Multi-stakeholderism’ has an implicit promise of participation (op cit.), and, accordingly, the potential for the incorporation of more diverse perspectives and more publicly visible values. For the media reform movements of all kinds, this idea may be crucial: Multi-stakeholderism as the principle denoting a participatory framework for diverse actors in and across the arenas where public media is being governed, produced, distributed, and consumed.


At the same time, in the complex new media environment, multi-stakeholderism has also its complex dark side. Many feel that often the inclusion of non-governmental organizations in decision-making, in particular in the Internet Governance Forum, is a formality without real impact and there is a deficit in the number of participants from developing countries, especially from civil society, in crucial moments when the IGF agenda is decided and political decisions are made. In addition, due to the complexity of issue, alliances shift case-by-case. For instance, Google can be both an ally (e.g., protesting against online copyright legislation) and an enemy (providing information to the U.S. government and other governments).


But, there is hope. It seems that one constituent is slowly gaining power. As Hasebrink (2012[xviii]) notes, audiences have long been the neglected party when thinking about media governance.  The importance of public participation in media policy deliberations, is evident in a report from the Council of Europe in 2009 (Scifo 2009[xix]): In terms of internal organizational governance, recommendations urge media organizations on every platform to redefine their relations with their audiences and open their processes to real conversation in order to build and maintain a constant dialogue with clear and accountable procedures. If official policy-making is beginning to see multi-stakeholderism as a real model, this could be an opportunity for media reform activists and advocates to engage larger parts of civil society for meaningful action.

Challenge 3: The Scope


The principle of media reform as a global issue could be seen already in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1946, Art. 19 – in the question of the freedom of expression. The discussions on Right to, and Freedom of, Information enteredthe 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.


Many would argue that already the notion of the NWICO was a global media reform movement of sorts[xx]. Others would point to Internet Freedom fighters, or even to consumer advocacy organizations such as Consumer International, that often form local-global alliances. 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.


But while many issues, from censorship to surveillance, are no longer national, nations and regions still matter. Media Governance is both a global and a local matter. The seminal study by Hallin and Mancini (2004[xxi]) showcases three distinct systems in the West; the model has recently been revisited by non-Western scholars (Hallin & Mancini 2011[xxii]) that prove the nuances of a multiplicity of media models – and still point at some similarities.


In other words, much (media, as well as other) policy-making bears the history of the sovereign nation-state. The mass media era and is still media sector-specific and nation-based. Issues such as net neutrality, and intermediary liability of platforms (e.g., MacKinnon 2012) – that, potentially, can affect all forms of media from streamed public service television content to Twitter campaigns – are still a matter of national regulation, and power. It is no wonder that global non-profit, civil society watchdogs outside of the formal governance systems, such as Freedom House[xxiii], Reporters Without Borders[xxiv], or research efforts such as Mapping Digital Media by the Open Society Foundation[xxv], are monitoring this circuit of power nationally and urging for some regional and global standards on media freedom.


Similarly, national regulation may have an international reach. This is, for instance, the case with many U.S.-based sites and services that are be popular also elsewhere in the world. The realization of national and global circuits of power intertwining in very concrete way has not been lost to the civil society.  The situation has fuelled Internet-based global movements ranging from privacy activists to Internet Freedom groups. Perhaps the most powerful example of grass-roots-driven, and social-media-facilitated participation in the policy realm was activism around the anti-counterfeit and anti-piracy legislation initiatives SOPA, PIPA (U.S.), and ACTA in 2012. The many forms of activism – from corporate responses such as the platform shut-down by Google, to vlogger commentary on YouTube – highlighted the mediated nature of participation and activism around policymaking  (Powell, 2012[xxvi]), and manifested itself in infinite forms all around the world, connecting the local and the global. For media reformers, the scope of their work is indeed an extension of multi-stakeholderism. Are there allies in other countries that experience similar challenges? Are there frames and strategies elsewhere that have worked and that could be translatable to other contexts?


The next blog post will revisit the existing prominent frames of action of different media reform movements and expand on these challenges for different approaches to reform.


[i] Morozov, E. (2011). The Net Delusion.

[ii] Carpentier, N. (2011). Media and participation: A site of ideological and democratic struggle.

[iii] See, e.g., Postigo, H. (2012). The Digital Rights Movement. The Role of Technology in Subverting Digital Copyright.

[iv] Clark, J. & Aufderheide, P. (2009). Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics.

[v] Benford, R. & Snow, D, (2000). Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment, p.

[vi] Napoli, P. (2008). Public Interest Media Advocacy and Activism as a Social Movement

[vii] Shade, L.R. (2014). Media Reform in the United States and Canada.  In Mansell R. & Raboy, M. (eds.). The Handbook of Global Communication and Media Policy.

[viii] Benkler, Y., Roberts, H., Solow-Niederman A., & Etling, B. (2013). Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate.

[ix] Freeman, D. (2008). The Politics of Media Policy.

[x] Hackett, R.A. & Carroll, W.K. (2006). Remaking media: the struggle to democratize public communication.

[xi] Shade, L.R. (2014). Media Reform in the United States and Canada.  In Mansell R. & Raboy, M. (eds.). The Handbook of Global Communication and Media Policy.

[xii] Jin, D.Y. (2013). The Construction of Platform Imperialism in the Globalization Era.

[xiii] Joergensen, R.F. (2014). Human Rights and Their Rope in Global Media and Communication Discourses. In Mansell R. & Raboy, M. (eds.). The Handbook of Global Communication and Media Policy.

[xiv] Hindman, M. (2009). The Myth of Digital Democracy.

[xv] Napoli, P.M. (2011). Exposure Diversity Reconsidered.

[xvi] Anderson, C.W. (2013). Media Ecosystems: Some Notes Towards a Genealogy of the Term…

[xvii] Cammaerts, B. (2011). Power dynamics in multi–stakeholder policy processes and intra–civil society networking.

[xviii] Hasebrink, U. (2012). The Role of the Audience Within Media Governance: The Neglected Dimension of Media Literacy.

[xix] Scifo, S. (2009). The ways in which public, in all its diversity, can be involved in consultative programming structures.

[xx] Nordenstreng, K. (2013). How the New World Order and Imperialism Challenge Media Studies.

[xxi] Hallin, S. & Mancini P. (2004). Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics.

[xxii] Hallin, S. & Manicini, P. (2011, eds.). Comparing Media Systems Beyond the Western World.

[xxiii] See, http://www.freedomhouse.org/

[xxiv] See, http://en.rsf.org/

[xxv] See: http://mappingdigitalmedia.org

[xxvi] Powell, A. (2012).Assessing the Influence of Online Activism on Internet Policy-Making: The Case of SOPA/PIPA and ACTA


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