“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.