1. 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, i.e., the 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:
Why do media matter? Because communication is power, many scholars and activists posit. 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:
2. 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.
And 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.
The international media reform researcher and consultant Susan Abbott recently talked to us about the complexity of issues and stakeholders in the global arena:
3. Today: Media Reform as a Global Object of Study
While much of journalism, critical studies, media sociology, media economics and policy studies, and most other fields are concerned with problems in the field of the media and communication technologies, Media Reform has not until recently been a legitimate object of study
First, MR does it present an unified concept with a grand theory.
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 (Chpt 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.
All of these issues are becoming increasingly urgent concern within the academia. At the same time, we are witnessing the rise of evidence-based policy making — that requires scholarly expertise. And, at last, the idea of engaged research — research that supports a cause, such as media democratization, in practice — has been accepted as part of academic achievements (as opposed to a violation of objectivity). For more information, and cases, please see the book Communications Research in Action.
4. 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. Here’s an interactive map that shows media reform groups around the world.
And yet, we share so many issues with different variations. Here’s a list of global and national organizations around the world working for Internet Freedom.