Role of research & academic theory

Questions we might ask when talking about diversity & localism...(that is: What do we really want to measure?)


These questions have emerged from many discussions prior to the
December, 2003 Fordham Conference on Media Diversity and Localism as
well as the panel presentations of the first day. Due to the limited
time we have together, several conference participants have put
together this handout as a way of documenting some of the different
sorts of questions we might put forward to set research agendas and
assess the role of metrics and measures in policymaking.

Sun, 2003-11-30 19:00

Connecting Research and Advocacy for Media and Communications in the Public Interest (Report 2004)


What would a research agenda shaped by advocates and organizers look like? This 2004 report is based on conversations with grassroots activists and community organizers who work on media and communications policy and advocacy.


"Connecting Research and Advocacy for Media and Communications in the
Public Interest," presentation to the Social Science Research Council,
addressing the question "What would a research agenda shaped by
advocates and organizers look like?" Based on conversations with
grassroots activists and community organizers who work on media and
communications policy and advocacy. (4 pages, Updated January 27, 2004)

Aliza Dichter
Article Text: 

Connecting Research and Advocacy for
Media and Communications in the Public Interest

Originally prepared by Aliza Dichter, Center for International Media Action (CIMA)
for Social Science Research Council "Media Democracy" meeting, October 23, 2003
(Updated January 27, 2004)

What would a research agenda shaped by advocates and organizers look like?

following suggestions and questions were drawn from interviews with
grassroots activists and community organizers who work on media and
communications policy and advocacy, as well as many other conversations
where advocates articulated their research needs. They are intended as
a contribution to ongoing discussions about how advocates and academics
can work together in the interest of advancing media and communications
for public-interest goals and social-justice values.

Note that
this is not a list of research questions to be adopted by scholars in
isolation. To the extent possible in a given research context,
investigations would be enriched by establishing relationships with
advocacy groups, community media groups or other
activists/practitioners. Some of these questions could be or are being
tackled by community members as action research projects, others might
be participatory projects with partnerships between scholars and
activists or practitioners.

As noted by the meeting
participants and others, connecting research and advocacy is
complicated by the challenges of timing, such as the advance-planning
needs of academics (e.g. for grantwriting) as well as academic concerns
for objectivity/independence from political agendas and research
"subjects." Experiences from collaborations between researchers and
reflective practitioners in other fields may help us to meet those

The questions below are organized into three categories reflecting the advocacy perspective:
1) What are we fighting for? – the big vision, the best proposals
2) Evidence for our arguments – reporting on the social impact of media policies and practices
3) How to win? How to fight? – informing political strategy

research already exists on many of the questions and topics outlined
below. However, this research needs to be made more useful to the
advocacy community:

1) Translate existing research into a useful form, disseminate and make accessible to advocates:
- Create summaries of existing research, data and findings on particular topics
- Aggregate summaries and translated research into a central location
- Generate list of available researchers and scholars and their areas of expertise as a "referral guide" for advocates

2) Create tools from research, like the Center for Public Integrity's ownership database:
- For evaluating media corporations
- For determining the impact of policies
- For evaluating the media/communications conditions in a given community
- For evaluating advocacy efforts

3) Create a system for on-demand, activist-driven research based on campaign and advocacy needs:
- A program to match graduate school researchers with advocacy groups
- A system to receive research queries from advocates and submit to a researcher pool
- Resources, data sets and information available to aid community-initiated participatory research projects

that these project ideas need to be developed in collaboration and
consultation with public-interest advocates as well as with grassroots
activists and community organizers, to ensure they are developed in a
useful and accessible form.

Research questions from the advocacy perspective:

1. What are we fighting for?

in the general vision (what does a good media system look like?) and
the specific (what models of spectrum allocation have supported
community uses?), advocates can look to researcher to help us work
through the big questions:

  • What models of media policies and
    regulations contribute to a diverse, democratic, participatory media
    that meet social and community needs? Stories, examples and theories
    from around the world.

  • What would victory look like? What
    kinds of regulatory structures, government agencies, licensing schemes,
    accountability mechanisms, franchise (or other corporate/civic)
    agreements, laws, etc-- what kinds of "media systems" would exist in a
    policy regime that met our goals/values. (ie: media that enable the
    public to equally communicate and participate, get information, access
    and share their cultures, discover diverse viewpoints and creative
    content, retain privacy, avoid censorship by economic or political
    pressure, etc)

  • What corporate practices and policies (eg
    "civic journalism," community review boards) can we learn from and
    advocate for to improve media's role in communities and informed

  • What are the implications of future technologies,
    architectures and protocols/standards for social justice, community
    development, democratic values? We need to know what to support, what
    to build, what to use.

  • What are the implications of specific
    proposed policies or emerging systems on the potential for free,
    participatory, democratic, uncensored, accessible, diverse,
    noncommercial media? What are the implications of specific global
    initiatives, trade treaties?

  • We need theories and models for
    economically viable and sustainable independent, noncommercial and/or
    community-controlled media.

  • How do people use ICTs and media
    in non-commercial ways? What are the community, public, civic uses of
    spectrum, broadband, CCTV, Internet, newspapers, even bulletin boards
    that have developed or have potential?

  • How have media/comm.
    policies in the past affected specific constituencies? How might
    proposed policies affect specific constituencies? (eg: the poor,
    seniors, rural communities, youth, "minorities," women) – note that
    some forms of discrimination are illegal and thus we might oppose
    policies as discriminatory.

  • What are the concerns of global
    civil society around media and communications issues? What should U.S.
    advocates know about the impact of US government and corporate
    activities on communities and social justice in other countries?

  • What frameworks can we be advancing to structure policy around our
    values? For example, "diversity and localism" is a key framework for
    FCC ownership policy. It what ways can this framework serve to advance
    our goals, and how can it work against it? (for example, the landmark
    UCC v. FCC case was in part a civil rights challenge to "localism")
    What can we learn from the existing "public-interest" frameworks
    currently undergirding the policy structure and how we might adopt or
    challenge them?

2. Evidence for Our Arguments

Note that
the difference in time cycles is a challenge here. Advocates need
research to use as evidence in a timely way, to be able to respond to
challenges, meet deadlines for filing comments, capture press attention.

  • We need access to core data about industry, programming, users,
    "audiences"- data that is currently only collected by industry and in
    proprietary formats. The research questions for collecting this are
    also set by industry interests. We need quantitative studies on
    existing media conditions, practices of media companies.
  • We
    need frameworks for assessment and analysis of media policies,
    practices and systems that don't rely on market-competition economics
    or audience ratings.
  • We need to establish what sorts of media
    resources and access and structures within a community contribute to
    healthy communities, sustainable societies, authentic democracy and
    social justice.
  • We need frameworks for assessing the impact,
    successes and value of community media (including low power radio,
    public-access TV, community web centers, media arts centers, community
    newspapers) to get policy, funding, support. Ratings don't tell the
  • Does ownership matter? We need research data and
    studies of how ownership and concentration affect agenda-setting,
    freedom of speech and public policy.
  • We need research on the
    role of media arts and media education in youth and community
    development (both specific research studies and tools for our own
  • Campaign-specific research needs

- eg: the impact of duopoly ownership
- stories about impact of media concentration
- critiques of the methodology of FCC and industry research
- content analysis linked to public policy/community impacts
- local research as needed
- document and analyze comments to the FCC
- refutations of spectrum arguments about interference, open-market trading, etc

3. How do we win? How to fight:

To support the continued development of our work, we need:

  • Evaluations of our work, both specific external assessments of our
    strategy tactics and impacts and also frameworks, tools, resources and
    partners to do this ourselves.

  • Stories from the field and
    evaluations of advocacy and community media impact that can be used to
    make a case to funders to increase dollars to the field.

  • Research on the role of media in social change, from examinations of
    the Right's long-term media strategies to proposals for integrating
    media technologies and outlets into social movement and community
    organizing work.

  • Power analyses and political/economic
    analyses of what the power structure looks like in terms of shaping and
    controlling the media system, how agendas are set and thus strategic
    points for intervention.

  •  Access to comparative research,
    documentation, histories and analyses that link media advocacy to
    lessons from other movements and public-interest policy efforts.

questions have been informed by discussions with many media advocates
and organizers. Particular thanks to Inja Coates, Dharma Daily, Seeta
Peña Gangadharan, Deedee Halleck, Art McGee, Jenny Toomey, Pete Tridish
and Martha Wallner for sharing their thoughts.

Media Democracy Day


Based on the author's experience as a media activist and academic, this article critically examines media democracy, while attempting to grasp what media justice looks like.

Article Text: 

Media Democracy Day

Paul Baines

After organizing Media Democracy Day events for three years, I have mixed opinions about my future involvement. In the summer 2001, a handful of Toronto media activists started planning for a new fall event. October 18th would promote "a mass media system that informs and empowers all members of society." Our website ( continues on with Media Democracy Day connecting existing critical and creative media with active social movements, creating a coherent message for public attention and local and global action. Media Democracy Day is a day of international action based on three themes:

Education - understanding how the media shapes our world and our democracy
Protest - against a media system based on commercialization and exclusiveness
Change - calls for media reforms that respond to public interests, promote diversity, and ensure community representation and accountability"

Being involved in writing, researching, and advocating about media democracy issues such as community access and excessive commercialism for ten years, I felt confident enough to work with a small yet inspired group of Toronto media activists on the MDD campaign. In many respects our work was trying to ask the question: how do we make the mass media more democratic and promote literacy and alternatives?

To a point the issues seemed obvious, common sense, and even rational. A democratic society should have a democratic media system because the media play a large role in public's understanding of political issues and choices. Answering our own question, we crafted a Web site and connected with a range of media democracy examples. We had small but spirited demonstrations outside media conglomerate offices and organized discussion panels and socials to share strategies and perspectives. We made handbills, web reports, culture jams and spoke directly to teachers, reporters, media employees, students, and artists. The Toronto activists started something that went global in over 20 cities in its second year and continues to spark interest (the Web site above has fuller descriptions of the events).

My satisfaction with the campaign fades when I think about who is speaking for whom, what issues are brought into focus, and which ones are being obscured. Through my organizing and education, I now see oppressive framing or assumptions in the media democracy movement and want to start a dialogue. The term “Media Justice” has recently made an entry into the discussion, yet I struggle making a coherent contribution. What follows is my first attempt.

Our North American media system is undemocratic because our society is undemocratic. The state of our media is an extension of an oppressive nationalist-corporate state. It's not a problem to be fixed within the system, but a lesson in how the system works. There hasn't been democracy in Canada or the United States for as long as these countries started enclosing their boundaries. Progressives, leftists, democrats, or activists who lament about the loss of democracy are sharing a colonial his-story of the world written by a vicious and victorious elite.

The question shouldn't be: How do CNN and the CBC support neo-liberal agendas, but what can be learned from their connection to other historical examples of white-supremist, capitalist, and patriarchal cultural institutions? The difference between tradition and the present lies not so much in what their role is, but who is now affected. Marginalized groups such as women, people of colour, First Nations, gays, children, jailed men and women, mental health survivors, the poor, non-Christian, non-citizens, non-schooled, and those with different physical abilities from the majority have always been absent from establishment history and mass media narratives. The real reason why media democracy is now an issue is because corporate regulation through corporate democracy is starting to affect certain freedoms enjoyed by a powerful minority (i.e. a reverse list of the one above).

I support media reform, even radical reform as long as it makes social justice it's starting point and not de-contexualized red herrings such as de-regulation, commercialism, foreign ownership, public access, alternative media, and content diversity. These terms can be useful if used with precision and persistence towards justice and anti-oppression rather than the just the hollow ideals of Western democracy that never existed for the majority of people.

I want to continue my work as a media activist but I struggle with defining or building a coalition when so much of the discourse obscures fundamental injustices. Privilege and oppression work in tandem and if a media reform coalition is being built I need to ask fundamental questions about my assumptions to know where I stand and who I stand with.

Is the media being de-regulated? Policies can support a democratic media system for social justice or they can serve elite nationalist-corporate interests. Only through propaganda have these interests convinced people that public interest policy is regulation and that elite interest policy is, you name it: open markets, fair competition, the free hand, convergence, common sense, the natural order, etc. The problem isn't de-regulation but regulation for elite control and profit. We've got to get this message out. The government isn't becoming less powerful or being bought out by big money, the government is big money using public policy to reward itself and its partners.

Who should pay for democratic media, the public or the private sector? Commercial media, just like public media, is not free. Consumers pay for commercialism through the costs of advertising (5.5 billion in Canada and 150 billion in the U.S.) added on to the price of goods and services and citizens pay for commercialism through the costs of pollution, working longer hours to buy more stuff, personal debt, and social service taxes. People pay for everything. Deals for increased corporate media consolidation with public interest spin-offs are a scam. The problem isn't how do we balance public and private needs, but what system serves people first and how do we build and pay for it.

How can commercialism colonize our culture (as some say its doing) when our culture is already an instrument of colonization? It's no coincidence that our models of democracy are learned from sexist-slave-owning Greece rather than First Nation band councils and tribe federations. It's fascinating that progressive academics or anti-globalization activists can see consumerism as a virus attacking the host culture, yet obscure the past and present violence of that culture toward the indigenous people of North America and African slaves and their descendants. How is Disney different from Christianity? Stock markets from slave trading? Marketing demographics from Euro-American nation-building? Our understanding of capitalism needs analytical dimensions beyond class or commodification. Production and consumption are equally about gender and race. Without stolen land or forced and unpaid labour, there would be no capitalist North American economy to speak of. We need an anti-oppressive perspective that examines the interlocking forces of power otherwise we continue the obscurity and violent lessons of history.

As a Canadian, would I rather watch Canadian commercialism or American critical consciousness? Within a multi-dimensional perspective on democracy or commercialism, debates over foreign ownership seem ridiculous. Rogers or Sprint? Bell or AT&T? My solidarity sticks with the rights and needs of marginalized groups, not corporate citizenship. Whether the millions of dollars a media conglomerate steals from the public's airwaves go to a Canadian or American company or shareholder I don't care. Canadian culture industry jobs v.s. American jobs? French or English or Spanish sound-bites? Ottawa's or Washington's tax bases? These debates don't interest me since the borders that separate us (and keep out millions of others who can't afford citizenship) are secondary to the task of social justice. If democracy is about having a say in the decisions that affect your life, then every Canadian would have a vote in the U.S. presidency or in the stock market for that matter. But we don't. My kind of democracy isn't about making the poor of Canada richer than the poor of the United States or any other state. This interplay between democracy and justice needs to be seriously considered.

In a democratic media system, what do people have access to, with who are they equal to, and from what standard is diversity measured? In my Media Democracy Day organizing I talked a lot about access, equality, and diversity, but I helped maintain the invisible hierarchical social relations that make up our society. Through my readings in anti-oppression and environmental justice, I now see that each of these terms needs to be examined and applied to this new media justice framework. People are not all the same nor need or deserve the same things based on their individuality and systemic levels of cultural, political, and economic power. Access to the airwaves is important, but without access to financial, legal, technical, and political resources or to a sizable audience, access is impotent. Plus, if access is only access to the existing structure of media injustice its value falls again. When equality and diversity are championed by activists, let's be clear about the invisible level or center we are talking about. If this measure is based on the privileged proximity to a middle-class, white, male ideal, doesn't this mask the unequal relations that caused the power difference in the first place? The ideal should not be seen as the marker of progress, but the agent of injustice and target of transformation.

Does an alternative media system just change the type of product consumed and does it change the process of making and using the media? While I wish there were more choices of critical media products, I don't see media democracy as an act of critical consumption. Three white guys uploading digital photos of a mostly white demonstration on their $3,000 laptop isn't alternative. Reading best selling books don’t necessarily lead to action. Even the best critical consciousness media need time, space, and tools for connecting with people's political reality. What are the issues being presented in the media? What's my response? How can I demonstrate my new ideas? What support do I need? Who else is feeling and thinking the same thing? I know community television in Canada has been reduced to community relations, but I still believe that the transformative potential of people making media, becoming the storytellers of their own lives, is central to democratizing the media. Not only does this add grassroots diversity, but the act of making one piece of media demystifies the gear, gaze, and glamour of modern media.

I wish I had more strategic and constructive answers to my questions, but for now this is all I have. My reading of history tells me that movements of good intention are not enough to lead us toward greater democracy or justice. The Media Justice conference ( last summer renewed my interest in media activism and comments on this article are welcomed at pjbaines [at] yahoo [dot] ca. This contribution is brief and direct because I want to invite as much interpretation and feedback as possible.

Paul Baines is an anti-oppression activist using media literacy as a tool for education and organizing. He has a Masters degree in critical pedagogy and media education and is always looking for paid work in this area. Paul lives in a collective house-hold in Toronto and is a support worker for two men living with disabilities.

Originally published in: Democratic Communique: A Publication of the Union for Democratic Communications. Spring 2004, Vol. 19

Media Democracy Day
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