Last week, I explained in general terms why those invested in media and politics should also pay attention to media policy. In this follow-up post I will explore in greater detail how media policy can affect both political behaviors and political media. As individuals who are invested in the intersection of politics and our diverse media ecosystem, media policy should always be somewhere on our radar because of the power this particular policy arena carries in shaping our mediated political behavior and our democracy.
In the second part of the video interview with Tom Glaisyer, who is head of the Media Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, he describes the intersection of media and politics as dealing with the “possibilities of participation.” He articulates how comprehensive media policy can have lasting, positive effects on communities. With all the fantastic media options we now have – and those we will have in the future – we have to continue to engage in the hard work of ensuring that these options will be accessible and that they will provide meaningful ways of engaging in politics for everyone.
In addition to Glaisyer’s insights, I detail below the three ways in which media policy is becoming increasingly important for scholars and practitioners working in the fields of media and politics.
Because media policy affects our access to information.
As mentioned in my previous post, net neutrality continues to be a major debate in media policy-making. If the thin net neutrality regulations established late last year disappear, the companies who license the spectrum our mobile devices use, or the cables through which we get our home Internet, could decide to choose what to display and how to display it to the public (or force companies to pay to have their content carried). By extension, media companies could control what we see when we go online if they are controlling the content flowing through their networks. This would have profound effects on our access to information, limiting what we can do with the powerful tools of the Internet.
Media policy also affects journalism. Newsrooms are struggling for proper funding that will allow them to maintain the quality of news. As we have witnessed over the last decade, various traditional newspapers have ceased operation due to plummeting readership, advertising and budgets.* Journalists provide an invaluable resource to our democracy by reporting news and stories that citizens need to know about in order to stay informed participants in society, such as turning out to vote. While new media sources such as blogs and hyper-local news sites have stepped up admirably over the years, the hard work of investigative journalism still often requires the resources and experience of the traditional newsroom. If the news industry continues to struggle, then our information ecosystem will be poorer for it.
One recent positive development in providing access to information has been the public file and political file rulings enacted by the Federal Communications Commission. Beginning on Aug. 2, 2012, major broadcasters were required to begin putting their public inspection files online so that the public could search through them and understand what the broadcasters are (or are not) doing in the public interest. This includes supporting local journalism, including local interest television or radio shows, and other actions in exchange for the spectrum and airwaves stations use. These also include their political files, which contain the contract data from every political advertising agreement the broadcasters sign.
Because media policy affects access to media used for political engagement.
The gap between those who have access to information technologies and know how to use them – otherwise known as the digital divide – is closing in the U.S., with over 94 percent of Americans having access to broadband. However, there are still wide gaps in who has access to information and devices, as well as the internet speeds necessary for the public to actively participate in online political behaviors such as contacting government institutions, accessing information and news sources or creating and distributing political content. The U.S.’s internet is slower than many other developed nations (we rank about 14th on the Akamai’s State of the Internet Report Rankings of internet speed by country). Furthermore, major cities in the U.S. pay more for slower internet than those in most other developed countries. In those communities that have multiple internet options, high speed internet might be out of the price range that many people can afford. As political content online increasingly includes video, audio and other multimedia that requires speed in order to be usable, this situation could hurt the creativity and vitality of political discourse and content that relies on the Internet for uploading and delivery.
One interesting way that the digital divide is closing in the U.S. is through mobile devices. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that “Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic internet access are using wireless connections to go online. Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.” However, with the decrease in the number of carriers that allow for unlimited data, and the price of higher data caps for many cell phone plans, people who rely on their phones as their main point of access to the Internet may also find themselves unable to access rich content that could inform them as citizens. Mobile devices are also increasingly important for engagement for all citizens. Policy debates on what cell phone carriers are allowed to do with their plans, and other debates surrounding spectrum policies, can have a deep impact on how users can interact through mobile devices. The bottom line is that people should not be priced out of democracy, and our media policy should adapt to the ways in which citizens are consuming information.
Because media policy affects our freedom of speech.
Cell phone use at protests has lead to multiple new frontiers of media policy as courts request cell phone records and the legality of recording police actions at protests is not always clear.
Image credit: Keoki Seu under a Creative Commons Share and Share Alike Liscense.
Joshua Stearns, who I worked for at Free Press, tracked every journalist arrest that occurred at the various Occupy protests and beyond. Since Sept. 2011, he recorded 83 journalist arrests in the U.S., a chilling thought in a country where the freedom of the press is institutionalized in the First Amendment of the Constitution. As the ability to record and monitor events becomes easier for ordinary citizens, especially with mobile devices, debates over the legality of recording and posting of content on the Internet becomes ever more important. For example, if someone witnesses a police action or a politician they think is engaging in bad behavior and is arrested just for recording and posting it to YouTube, then their freedom of speech has been harmed and our access to what could be important—and damning—information has been limited.
During her discussion at a Winnipeg Free Press-sponsored event earlier this summer, GeorgetownProf. Diana Owen observed, “Social media companies have gotten much more involved in the political process…They are trying to keep skin in the game so that they can influence the policy agenda when it might come down to the fact there be some guidelines or policy restrictions on how they can manage information or personal data.” While this largely deals with privacy concerns, any group or organization could also choose to use the speech we contribute in ways we don’t want or intend. It is important to remember that what we say online, including our political interactions, occur through media choices that are privately owned. While sometimes benevolent, social media companies ultimately control what is said on their sites (though not without occasional backlash, as was the case with journalist Guy Adams who angrily tweeted the publicly-available email address of an NBC executive and was later kicked off Twitter). Researchers need to be aware of how this private, corporate structure can affect political discourse online, and practitioners especially need to heed how those sites can shut them out or shut them down.
eM&P exists to provide a space for the study and innovative practice of media and politics. The behaviors under examination here, and the practices of political media we engage in, are dependent on a media system that is open, accessible and invested in encouraging new and meaningful “possibilities of participation.” If you are engaged in politics today, then you need to be engaged in media policy as well. As Nicholas Johnson, a former U.S. FCC Commissioner put it, “Whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, progress in your primary area is far less likely.”** Our democracy needs a media system that achieves those goals as well. This is why progressive media policy is so important, since it can strengthen the information and participatory framework for our democracy.
*A good source of information on this topic is the Pew State of the Media Report, released annually.
**Robert McChesney attributes this quote to Nicholas Johnson, saying he paraphrased it in the book he co-edited, The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century.
This is part two of a two-part series. Click here to read part one.