Where Citizens Gather: An Interview with The Future of Public Media Project’s Jessica Clark (Part Two)

    by Henry Jenkins
    March 31, 2009

    Today, we continue our discussion with Jessica Clark, co-author of Public Media 2.0, an important white paper recently issued by American University’s Center for Social Media.

    What does your research suggest about the relative roles of professional media producers and Pro-Am media makers in the new ecology of public media?

    Professionally produced content is central to public media 2.0—right now, more people than ever are consuming and linking to newspapers and broadcast news sources. Some forms of public media are expensive to produce and difficult to make using only volunteer energy and resources: investigative journalism, long-form documentary, international coverage. Those should continue to be subsidized by taxpayers, by new business models for news, and by social entrepreneurs interested in supporting “double bottom line” projects.

    What’s different in this new ecology is the way in which publics are using content. They are adopting roles up and down the production chain —funding news and information through projects like Spot.us, collaborating in investigations on sites like Talking Points Memo, reporting directly via mobile phone from war zones using tools like Ushahidi , analyzing and critiquing news sources at sites like NewsTrust and disseminating relevant content through social networks, Twitter, Digg, and many other channels. This fundamentally challenges the agenda-setting powers of legacy media, making it much harder to create and maintain an artificial consensus, a “conventional wisdom.”

    Jay Rosen writes about this in a January Post on his PressThink blog titled “Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press.”

    In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized—meaning they were connected to BigMedia but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the echosphere of legitimate debate as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

    In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the echo chamber, which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

    We can see this expansion of public dialogue in action via new tools for visualizing connections and authority online. One really fun tool is the Political Video Barometer, designed by Morningside Analytics. This shows the dissemination of online videos across the spectrum of the political blogosphere. Some of these videos are clips from mainstream media, some are produced by advocacy groups, some by individuals. Some are strident, some are artistic, some are snarky. The range of expression and debate is wider than we got used to seeing on TV, but now these new forms of communication are expanding the boundaries of legitimate public discourse.

    You note that public media is “rarely loved,” yet participatory culture is passion driven. How can you build the base of support for public media in the absence of the passions that fuel other kinds of fan culture?


    Audiences are actually passionately loyal to public broadcasting, and for many it’s the most trusted source for news. Politicians sometimes love it less, because it can generate controversy or cast a critical eye. The main problem is that many of the programs and stations haven’t kept up with either technological changes or shifts in tone over the last two decades. It’s hard to make the case that public broadcasting, especially PBS, serves the whole country adequately—the programs tend to appeal to the very young and those approaching or enjoying retirement. Finding ways to connect with people’s civic passions through new platforms and new voices will be paramount if public media is to maintain a broad base of support as its core audiences age. The idea that the populace at large is apathetic is not only wrong, it’s condescending; by opening up and innovating, public broadcasting can evolve into public media 2.0.

    Does Public Media 2.0 rest on the assumption of a generalized public or do the same arguments apply to smaller scale niche audiences and social networks?

    We think the concept of a generalized public is a fiction perpetrated by pollsters and demagogues. Not only are there very few issues that engage the entire adult population of a country, but in our framework, publics can form across national boundaries, and in places that don’t yet have stable democratic governments. For example, online censorship is an issue that mobilizes a discrete but impassioned group of people around the world. The Global Voices Access Denied Map is an example of public media 2.0 dealing with that issue. Here’s how they describe it:

    The Access Denied Map will lead interested readers to content that enables them to support anti-censorship movements and keeps readers abreast of the filtering situation in various parts of the world. It will also facilitate collaboration between activists, allowing them to find each other, share tactics and strategies and experiences.

    So, public media 2.0 definitely applies to niche audiences and social networks. In our definition, we privilege debate over partisanship. The idea isn’t to make media that attracts a group of like-minded users around an issue or a figure—what you note as “pools” or “hubss” in the terminology of Lara Lee from Jump Associates. It’s to offer up high-quality content around an issue and provide contexts/platforms that allow people to grapple with it.


    A public is also distinct from a “community,” which might form casually through physical proximity or shared interests. Publics can rise out of communities, but are more pointed.

    Your report defines public media around primarily political and civic functions, yet public broadcasting has tended to define its mission much more around cultural programming—in part because of the ideological climate around its funding process. Does the new media environment free media producers to embrace a more explicitly political mission?

    Right now what we’re terming public media 2.0 is in its “first two minutes”—many projects are taking place outside of the context of federally funded outlets or production companies, which means they can be as political as is appropriate to the issues being tackled. In the future, separating the funding and production of content from that of online engagement will help to heat-shield public media 2.0 from political attacks. If publics themselves are producing, curating and discussing content, it’s harder to unilaterally dismiss them as biased or hegemonic. Individual discussions and projects might draw fire from partisans, but the idea is to create contexts and platforms that allow users from across the political spectrum to access and engage with reliable information. The result will be more wide-ranging, honest and authentic interactions. Of course, there will be flame wars, commercial incursions, and propaganda in the mix. But those existed in the analog world too. We’re still early in the process of negotiating new standards and rules for open media, but we’ll get there.

    A range of explicit policies will be needed to support public media 2.0. These range from infrastructure policies (net neutrality, universal broadband access), to support for content (via taxpayer funding and tax incentives), to copyright reforms (for instance, making it easier to use copyrighted works when you can’t find the author, or orphan works) and copyright education (for instance around the utility of fair use), and support for public engagement and media literacy.

    Some forms of public media have historically been paternalistic— giving people what they think is good for them rather than commercial culture’s desire to give people who they desire. There are all kinds of problems for this framing, but in so far as this stereotype has some truth, how do we shift this mindset to embrace much greater public participation in framing issues and shaping content? Are most of the current public media producers ready to embrace the kind of relationship to the public you describe here?

    We’re seeing all kinds of interesting experiments within traditional public broadcasting, many of which we document in our white paper. There is also a long-running strain of participatory media in public media, as embodied in projects like StoryCorps or This I Believe. Sharing significant cultural and social experiences, crafting personal narratives, capturing reality in all of its bumpy, quirky texture— these are all impulses intrinsic to oral history and documentary, practices central to legacy public media. The difference now is that people can participate directly in producing public media 2.0.

    Jessica Clark is the research director of the Center for Social Media at American University, where she heads up the Future of Public Media project. She is currently working on a book about the evolution of the progressive media sector with Tracy Van Slyke of The Media Consortium. Together they edit a related blog, Build the Echo. She is also the editor-at-large for In These Times, an award-winning monthly magazine of progressive news, analysis and cultural reporting.

    Tagged: civic media

    One response to “Where Citizens Gather: An Interview with The Future of Public Media Project’s Jessica Clark (Part Two)”

    1. Andrew H says:

      You leave out one of the more ambitious and successful participatory public media projects: The Public Insight Network, run by American Public Media. It’s 6 years old, and is informing daily news programming at Marketplace, Minnesota Public Radio, and APM programs. http://www.mpr.org/publicinsight

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