This, Too, is Media and Politics: The Importance of Media Policy for Understanding Political Media

Editor’s Note: This post introduces a two-part series featuring a video interview with Tom Glaisyer, who is the current head of the Media Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, as well as an essay on the importance of understanding media policy. The interview, conducted by eM&P’s Jennifer Young, covers a range of topics, from the importance of open, accessible technology for democracy, to the challenges journalism faces, and what the Media Policy Initiative does and its research. The first video will be posted August 29, 2012. We hope you will enjoy these videos and the opportunity to learn about this fantastic center for knowledge and policy advocacy in Washington, D.C.


Media policy has had a contentious year, and it looks like more challenging years lie ahead. Legislation such as SOPA and PIPA, which were defeated earlier this year in Congress, could have had deep effects on creativity in mass political discourse and content creation, including the memes which Andy Lewandowski has researched and written about for eM&P.  If net neutrality rules loosen – and they are currently being actively challenged by telecom giants such as Verizon -  access to political content on the web could look very different, with those sites willing to pay internet service providers dominating, and all others falling into ever more obscurity. Current spectrum policy debateswill shape the potential for mobile engagement for years to come. In short, media policy debates play a big role in setting the possibilities for media and political behavior, and can structure how we engage in our democracy and express ourselves. 

This brings us to the question of what we mean when we research or discuss electronic media and politics. Especially among this rarefied audience, we probably think of the many ways of engagement on social media, the viewership of news programs, voting patterns and other specific political behaviors involving different kinds of media. If you work on a campaign, you might try to influence political behavior by spreading your candidate’s message on Twitter or Facebook, and try to get people involved – increasingly using mobile devices. If you study political media, you might invest yourself in tracking particular uses of political media, or how engagement with political media affects voting or other offline actions. What is often missing from both of these scenarios is an understanding of the impact of media policy in shaping political interactions with media.

Media policy, which is the arena of public policy that touches on access to media, journalism, political advertising and the operations of telecommunications, broadcasting and media companies (amongst a wealth of other issues), operates at a system level. Operating on such a level can make it difficult for those engaged in the research or practice of specific behaviors –such as voting patterns based on social media use - to see or understand the more environmental field of media policy. If specific kinds of political mediated behavior are the proverbial trees in a forest, media policy might as well be like today’s politically contentious issue of climate change. It can be very slow moving and hard for the uninitiated to track its effects, but it is just as profoundly capable of impacting all it touches. Unlike with climate change, which is pretty well understood to only lead to negative effects on our world, media policy has just as much potential to be used as a tool to open up and expand our democratic capabilities as it does to shut them down.

My own understanding of media policy issues comes from personal experience, especially during my years at Georgetown’s Communication, Culture and Technology program. My path there might seem a little perplexing. I served as an intern for the Federal Communications Commission’s Information Needs of Communities Report (then known as the Future of Media Project, and Andy Lewandowski, my fellow Managing Editor, also worked on the Report). Later, I interned at Free Press, a media policy shop here in DC. I also took classes in media and telecommunications policy. At the same time, I was heavily invested in political media research, including a research conference paper on political blogging by expatriates living in Taiwan as well as my thesis research on the practices of political conversation on Facebook. I came to the understanding that the media policies I was working with in my internships had the power to shape the political behaviors I was researching.

Media policy is essential to anyone’s understanding of media and politics. The policies, rules, and programs created by the FCCFTC, Congress, as well as the many stakeholders and public interest groups that act in the media arena, create the framework for our increasingly complex information ecosystem. That framework can support democracy by either creating new ways of communicating, organizing, and engaging, or it can hinder our ability to gain information or act as citizens. In next week’s post I will explore in-depth how media policy can shape our political media ecosystem and our democracy. In the meantime, if you want to be involved in the future of media and politics, consider following not just your favorite academics and journalists but also the FCC, the New America FoundationFree Press, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Public Knowledge. The policy work being at these organizations will have a tremendous impact on the behaviors you are engaging in as a practitioner or studying as a researcher. The very environment of our democracy is shaped by the policies that shape the media.