{book project} Public Media: The 4th Estate in 4 Sectors

The first step of the book project: How to conceptualize the dimensions of  “Public Media” for Social Change?

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 11.12.10 AMInitial Thought: Public Media as the 4th Estate?

The “Fourth Estate” describes the journalists’ role in representing the interests of “the people” in relation to the business and political elites who claim to be doing things in our names.

The idea of the news media as the Fourth Estate has a chequered history. It began life as a term of abuse for the scurillous and ill-principled scribes of the press gallery at the Palace of Westminister. Conservative Anglo-Irish MP Edmund Burke coined the phrase as a way of mocking the gentlemen of the press.

However, in the intervening centuries, the Fourth Estate has come to mean taking a principled position (…)

The intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries who gave us the conception of the Fourth Estate as a civil watchdog to keep an eye on those in power also provided the philosophical argument for defining the public citizenry and the nation-state as two separate entities with differing interests.

Today, governments that claim to act in the “public interest” must face daily scrutiny of their actions. They must be called to account when overstepping the bounds of what citizens will support, or when taking actions that are clearly not in our interests. We rely on journalists and the news media to do this job on our behalf.

– Martin Hirst

Public media, in its very essence, should represent the people, and various segments of the people, in a variety of way — right? So  the ideal and ideal of the 4th estate, the representative of people vis-a-vis decision makers and power elites seems like a fit for a core dimension or characteristics for what might define public media. Supply of information on common issues, and scrutiny of power, it seems to me, are some of the essential factors of social change: what needs to change, how can change happen, by whom?

Admittedly, the 4th estate or the watchdog function (in its many forms) is just a part of what public media is, can, should or could be. For example: public service broadcasting, in the Western European tradition, entails the Reithian Trinity of information, education, and entertainment (sometimes referred to as ‘full service’). But (as the above quote highlights) the 4th Estate is an evolving concept. In these times where much of content is a mixture of what used to “news-like” or “entertainment” in content as well as in production and form (just read a few blog posts about gamification of news and education) it seems very limiting to think about the concept of 4th Estate simply as professional, traditional news content.

At the same token, the power of the popular culture and entertainment, and the relationship between communication and education, in relation to social change, have been discussed for decades.

Whatever the content, at the core of public (interest/service) media seem to be empowerment by access, content — and increasingly, participation and co-creation.

Following Thought: Public Media in its Various Formations

Social change, social justice, democracy… Big concepts that, in real life, will need plenty of support, much scrutiny. Add Appadurian global flows that permeate culture and the media, finance, people, technology and ideas. Public media seems like more of an ideal than ever.

On thing seems certain: Public service broadcasting (PSB) can’t handle all this alone. Its legitimacy continuously being challenged, by governments and commercial competitors alike (and there’s a vast amount of research on this, especially in the RIPE@ collection by NORDICOM). The main arguments relate to the role of public organizations distorting the market place as “subsidized” legacy and digital competitors.

Different kinds of alternative models have been proposed, many of them focusing on public media de jure, i.e., institutional public service organizations. For instance, Bajomi-Lazar et al. (2012)  offer three revisionist frames to the way PSM should be redesigned in the drastically changed media landscape. The Liberal Approach believes that the role of PSM is to correct market imperfections, i.e., to fill in the gaps in content and services that the free market – the commercial competitors – do not find profitable to offer. This approach is very much synonymous to the Market Failure Perspective  on PSM: The role of demand is emphasized and the purpose of PSM is to serve those underserved by the free market. The Radical Democratic Approach, in contrast, focuses on the distinctiveness of PSM in its mission to serve the public interest. This means that PSM should to (continue to) offer news and journalism, music and culture, drama, children’s programming, as well as events that bring the nation together. As a new alternative, Bajomi-Lazar et al. propose an ecological mission for PSM in which public interest media could be reinterpreted, and serve as an ambassador for, ecological, sustainable life styles. A related frame to the ecological mission is that of public service organizations as human rights proponents. (More examples, here.)

The big unresolved issue is: What, in fact, could public service media be? Aufderheide & Clark have tacked this afresh, from the perspective of an individual, with his/her many needs of media. They expand the idea of full service to what I’d like to call abundant service. All of this, available as the figure indicates, in many devices and platforms, seems like an enormous task for any one organization:

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 1.00.49 PM

They also note that the individual may belong to many different kinds of publics. Again – a tough task for one organization:

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 1.01.11 PM

In the light of above, it is perhaps symptomatic that public media de jure has been often offered a specific, limited role, whether from the market failure or the distinction perspective.  But how to define that distinction, from the perspective of serving as a support mechanism for democracy and social change? In that regard, how to move from the individual focus (of the above model) to mechanisms that support collective publics of many kinds? A fair assumption would be that different publics may need different content and form/platforms to function as their 4th Estates. They must depend on contextual matters — or issues, location, access… We need public media de facto that can be manifested in many ways.

Since we exist in the landscape of existing institutions as well as platforms, and ever globalizing media landscape, I then came up with this simple matrix that combines the geographical dimension with the functional-organizational dimension of a media outlet. The reason I title the latter with the dual meaning is that the function of the organization is very much connected to the form, content, and strategies the organization takes.

The Matrix also gives a few examples. They are just that: The matrix would require tons of related research to have empirical backing. Also, some of the examples are deliberately (seemingly) anti-public service. This is in purpose, to highlight the existing landscape and to identify needs and opportunities for new forms of public media de facto. At this point, the matrix is simply a note, a stepping stone.

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Final Thought: From a Matrix to an Ecosystem

When I look at the above matrix it’s clear to me that many of the its sections are in-between organizational or geographic borders (or fit in several slots). In addition, most of them share same social media platforms. And, as I have already advocated, there’s more room for collaboration.

It thus follows that eventually, I want to suggest a public media ecosystem: actors that all serve “the public”, actors that (I propose) are interconnected, and that also could collaborate.

In everyday parlance, or at least in the circles of marketing and advertising, the concept of social media ecosystem seems to be commonplace. Here the focus is on how that system captures consumers.

As C.W. Anderson has argued, in discussing the buzzword “media ecosystem in relation to journalism research:

The ultimate understanding of the news consumer in the more environmental approaches to news ecosystems is of an organism at the center of a webbed environment of overlapping influences—but a citizen who is sick due to a lack of proper nutritional sustenance.

While critiquing the focus on citizens, and calling for understanding of the many processes embedded in journalism to understand its challenges; he also gives a somewhat skeptical description of media ecology‘s focus on technology as the center of the media ecosystem. His argumentation is valid for news production research — but the ultimate challenge for me will be to determine, what the basic parameters are for a lively, diverse and dynamic, organic and healthy model for a public media ecosystem.

It will be a fascinating project to find examples of if and how different  segments of the media matrix can be merged into an ecosystem, and what roles different actors can play. We know already that in some countries, commercial players have public service obligations, and that many thinkers have positioned PSB  at the center of the abundance -=- as public service commissioner/programmer or navigator of public-service-oriented content. One could also argue that the cases of Wikileaks, and Ed Snowden  — as controversial as they may be — already point to that direction of projects by semi-structured groups and individuals meeting legacy media nationally and globally.

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