"Random Acts of Journalism": Defining Civic Media

I have found myself this week struggling to put together my thoughts on the concept of civic media in light of a series of conversations and encounters I had last week: for one thing, there was the public conversation which the MIT Communications Forum hosted last Thursday between myself and Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) about how participatory culture was impacting how we access and process news and information. For those who'd like to hear the podcast of that conversation, you can find it here. For another, I listened to the earlier exchange which the Forum hosted involving Dan Gilmore (We The Media), Ellen Foley (The Wisconsin State Journal) and Alex Beam (The Boston Globe) on the rise of citizen journalism and its impact on established newspapers which can be found here. And finally, I got into a series of interesting conversations about the impact of new media on civic engagement as part of the planning process for a new series of books being put together by the MacArthur Foundation on Digital Media and Learning. Across all of these conversations, I found myself returning not to journalism as it has been traditionally defined but to something broader I want to call civic media -- that is, media which contributes to our sense of civic engagement, which strengthens our social ties to our communities -- physical and virtual -- and which reinforces the social contracts which insures core values of a democratic society.

Imagining New Kinds of Imaginary Communities

Newspapers and news broadcasts can certainly play that role and some of the speakers from traditional newspapers at the Forum events made powerful points about the important role that newspapers play at all levels -- from the micropublics of individual neighborhoods up through cities, states, regions, nations, and global cultures -- in forging a sense of connection between and within what Benedict Anderson calls "imagined communities." Anderson's point is that we feel a sense of emotional bond with people who we will never meet in part because media, like newspapers, continually remind us of what we have in common as citizens. Democracy depends not simply on informing citizens but also on creating the feeling that we have a stake in what happens to other members of our community. Such an attitude emerges in part from what the newspaper reports and the rhetorical structures it adopts; it also emerges through the perception of the editor's responsiveness to her readers and the notion that the op-ed page of the paper functions as a shared forum where community members can speak with an expectation of being heard. Part of what may be leaving young readers feeling estranged from traditional journalism is that they feel that these publications do not represent the most important experiences of their lives, do not care about the issues that matter to them, and do not value the kinds of communities which they inhabit. One need only point to the ways that news coverage of issues from games violence to MySpace and DOPA emphasize the adult's concerns but do not report or reflect young people's perspectives.

Players often experience a similar sense of social connection in regard to their guilds, for example, in multiplayer games. There are plenty of players who go on forays on nights when they are too tired to see straight because they don't want to let their virtual neighbors and comrades down. Such games are powerful introductions to civic engagement because they taught young people what it was like to feel empowered, what it was like to feel capable of making a difference within a world, and what it was like to feel a strong set of bonds with others with whom you worked to accomplish common goals. This is something radically different from Robert Putnam's argument that people who go online lack the deep social ties that emerged through traditional community life. Those people who form guilds in multiplayer games can scarcely be described as "bowling alone," to use Putnam's potent metaphor. This is a totally different ballgame. What ever we want to say about what they are doing -- they are doing it together.

Now, many concerned with civic engagement want to know how we could transfer those feelings and experiences from the game world to the "real world." And I am certainly interested in ways we might use games to strengthen ties to local communities. But this approach may discount the social and emotional reality these game worlds have for their players. Journalists and local governments have long seen sports franchises as enhancing community life: Is it any accident that so many multiplayer games are now developing their own local newspapers which report on important event and key figures within these alternative realities? Many young people who do not read the daily paper in their own towns and cities may read such publications and feel a greater sense of civic engagement, What would happen if local newspapers -- that is, traditional print publications -- reported on events which occurred within these game worlds -- as news events -- rather than as trends in the business section or more often, as simple the same old story about video game violence?

Creating the Daily Us

Other forms of participatory culture may foster this kind of civic engagement simply because they welcome our participation and reward our sense of affiliation. Think about wikipedians protecting the integrity and quality of information in the entries they have helped to create. Think about bloggers linking to others with whom they are having ongoing conversations. Think about the various social networks that are emerging at MySpace or Facebook or the kinds of lively and neighborly exchanges that take place on Live Journal. Think about the text message communities that emerge in a world where most people are carrying around mobile phones and using them to maintain recurring if not constant contact with their closest friends throughout the day.

During his remarks at the MIT Communications Forum, Dan Gilmour suggested we move away from thinking of citizen journalists as publishing the "daily me" and think of them as instead publishing the "daily us." I like this phrase because it speaks to a movement within networked culture away from personalized media and towards communal media. This shift is what I mean by civic media.

Think about people recording things they see around them on their phones and transmitting them via Flickr. I would argue for example that it was the availability of photographs by everyday people which circulated outside of official channels which more than anything else highlighted the inefficiencies and inequalities of the Bush administration's response to hurricane Katrina. We read those images differently because they came from people like us than we would receive the more polished images produced by traditional photojournalists. They spoke truths that were much closer to the ground because these phone cameras went places that journalists never bothered to go. Indeed, a small tool of journalists could never be everywhere at once and suck in as many impressions as a large community armed with their own information appliances.

Here, I am struck by Gilmore's phrase, "random acts of journalism." Gilmour is talking about the ways that average citizens may suddenly take on a responsibility of reporting back to their communities something they saw because they happened to be at the right place at the right time and not because they had a professional responsibility to do so. The knowledge they bring back is situated, shaped by their personal stakes and interests in the topic, and thus makes no gesture towards objectivity or indifference, yet for that very reason, we will learn to read it critically -- as a partial and subjective truth, rather than as, ahem, fair and balanced.

Slashers for a More Democratic Society

I am also finding myself thinking about the ways that average people appropriate, transform and recirculate news content -- such as the Photoshop collages which function, like editorial cartoons of the past, to encapsulate complex political debates into evocative composite images, or the use of digital sampling in hip hop music to speak truths to power that might not otherwise circulate within the culture, or the use of video mashups that mix together elements of popular culture and news to express something about the politics of our age.

It is interesting that such mash-ups figured prominently at both of the Communication Forum events: Dan Gilmour shared this fan-made video which borrows some of the rhetoric of slash to signal the close and uncritical relationship between Bush and Blair; and William Uricchio shared this video which uses dialogue and images from V for Vendetta to speak about the politics of terror in the Post-9/11 world.

Neither of these works might be called journalism -- citizen or otherwise. They don't involve reporting and they don't involve the exercise of news judgment. Yet, they depend for their power on the viewer's pre-existing awareness of events in the real world and they offer some powerful new metaphors for comprehending the importance and impact of those events. These videos work because they avoid the rhetoric of traditional politics and appeal to us as fans even as they ask us to act as citizens.

Newspapers in Network Culture

Civic Media doesn't try to displace the work of traditional journalists per se -- though increasingly, the editors and journalists who do their job best remain aware of these other kinds of civic media and use them to draw insights into the communities that they cover. Blogs spring up at those points where there is a public which demands kinds of information that is more likely to be scattered across many different websites than to be found well represented in the local paper. A good editor might well look at what blogs are tapping their information to figure out how to produce more information which will better serve the needs of those various constituencies and communities. These communities may search the planet for the information they want and yet they will return, as several participants at the Forum events suggest, to those sources which reliably provide them with information sources they value.

My colleague, David Thorburn, tried across both forums to get people outraged over the prospect that young people might stop reading newspapers and that print publications might not survive much longer. Yet, in both conversations, participants seemed more concerned about threats to participatory culture than they were about threats to traditional journalism.

I love newspapers and would hate to see them disappear. But I honestly don't think that this is going to happen -- not if journalists learn to respect the new kinds of civic connections which are felt by young people and find ways to tap them through their publications. I don't think we live in a world where blogs and podcasts are going to totally displace newspapers -- print or digital --but rather one where we will have a more complex ecology of information than we have seen before.

Professional journalists have real advantages in such a world because they have different kinds of resources, training, and access to information, because they have more time to devote to data collecting, and because they have built up a reputation -- for better or worse -- over time which allows us to evaluate their performance, unlike the citizen journalist who pops up, delivers information, and disappears again. Yet, participatory culture also brings something to the table -- a more diverse set of expertise and experiences, the ability to disperse responsibility over processing large bits of data (as in the example Benkler likes to use of citizens responding to information about the reliability of electronic voting machines).

More and more, these different forces will be correcting each other: the grassroots will innovate and experiment in ways that commercial media or traditional journalism can not; traditional journalism will monitor those experiments, test their reliability and heighten their visibibility; and yet these grassroots media efforts will also challenge the blinders that the traditional journalists develop as they become too close to some sources and too removed from others.

Who Gets to Participate in Participatory Culture?

I am more concerned by the issue of who gets to participate in an era of participatory culture and who gets excluded. Bill Ivey and Steven J. Tepper raised these questions about participatory media in the May 19 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Increasingly, those who have the education, skills, financial resources, and time required to navigate the sea of cultural choice will gain access to new cultural opportunities....They will be the pro-ams who network with other serious amateurs and find audiences for their work. They will discover new forms of cultural expression that engage their passions and help them forge their own identities, and will be the curators of their own expressive lives and the mavens who enrich the lives of others....At the same time, those citizens who have fewer resources -- less time, less money, and less knowledge about how to navigate the cultural system -- will increasingly rely on the cultural fare offered to them by consolidated media and entertainment conglomerates...Finding it increasingly difficult to take advantage of the pro-am revolution, such citizens will be trapped on the wrong side of the cultural divide. So technology and economic change are conspiring to create a new cultural elite -- and a new cultural underclass. It is not yet clear what such a cultural divide portends: what its consequences will be for democracy, civility, community, and quality of life. But the emerging picture is deeply troubling. Can America prosper if its citizens experience such different and unequal cultural lives?

This is what I call the participation gap. It is a problem newspapers have faced from the very start -- and speaks to the contrast we see here in Boston between the Boston Globe (which has always been preferred by the educated elites) and the Boston Herald (which has always targeted the working class). The papers cover different content in different language and make different demands on their readers. Unfortunately, newspapers may be losing that battle to serve these different publics as we've seen the consolidation of urban dailies until there is only one paper left per major metropolis and most often, that paper per force aims somewhere in the middle -- no longer serving the expectations of the educated elites and no longer reaching out to the underclass at all. The new and more participatory forms of journalism do seem to reach some readers that newspapers have left behind, but are still niche products that don't touch the lives of most Americans.

Anyway, I hope these somewhat rambling remarks are enough to get you interested in listening to the podcasts of these two events. There's lots of thoughtful discussion around all of these issues and many more.