Local grassroots organizing for media democracy

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by Jonathan Lawson and Susan Gleason, Reclaim the Media

Want to do something about the terrible media in the US, or in your town? You're not alone. It wouldn't be difficult to make a list of qualities which most of us would agree the news media ought to display in a just, democratic society. Media should be fair, inclusive of multiple perspectives, broadly informative, and independent of powerful interests. It should encourage us and enable us to participate as citizens. But a substantial majority of the American public also understands that our media are failing these basic tests. One recent poll shows that we believe, by a striking three to one margin, that news media are "often influenced by powerful people and organizations" rather than being "pretty independent" [Pew Research Center, June 2005].

We have a shared sense of being lied to, if not a shared sense of who is pulling the strings. Media-savvy progressives urge each other not to trust the corporate media; meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh and his fellow travellers find daily audiences completely prepared to lap up their endless jeremiads against the "liberal media." This shared sense of media's failures may seem disheartening to those of us who take seriously the importance of a trustworthy, independent media. But is fertile ground for effective activism which can turn public discontent into community empowerment.

Grassroots media organizing: start local

Social movement-style organizing focused on media has come into its own in the past several years. Its rise has been fueled by the growing realization that media as an issue underlies all other struggles for justice, because of the media's power to frame public debate. National groups like Free Press and MoveOn have helped popularize the idea of a connection between media issues (such as consolidated ownership or biased coverage) and larger social and political agendas. But by organizing at the local level around media issues, grassroots activists can engage people's media grievances where they already are���and place the tools of media activism directly at the service of long-term social justice struggles for a more just society.

Varieties of media activism: choose your remedy

Where to start? Media activism takes many forms in local communities. Some activists or groups focus their energies on a single type of project, while others combine approaches. The most basic form of community media activism is media literacy education���community members helping each other to become more insightful, critical media consumers���to read between the lines of the New York Times, CNN or NPR to identify institutional filters or biases. Media monitoring or watchdog projects apply and extend media literacy skills, by tracking news coverage on particular outlets or by issue, seeking to identify patterns of selectiveness or bias. Community media, whether radio, TV, newspapers or internet-based, allows regular folks to find their own voices, sidestepping mainstream filters to speak unpopular truths or tell marginalized stories. Training in media strategies offers real power to community groups struggling to get their voices into the media. Finally, media policy advocacy uses lobbying and community organizing to change the legal and regulatory structures (such as media ownership rules) that place invisible limits on what we see and hear.

Identifying community needs

Before launching into one or another of these types of projects, local organizers should assess the media interests and complaints of social change groups. In many cases, groups working on on criminal justice issues, the environment, or other issues, will already have articulate critiques of local and national media. Youth organizations or immigrants rights groups, for example, may have critiques others haven't considered. What are the most pressing local concerns regarding the media - the need for more fair and accurate coverage, more media analysis and debunking, or the inclusion of more diverse community voices? And what about access to creating and distributing community media content? Does your community desperately need its own community radio or public access TV channel?

Finding allies, resources and opportunities

There are many natural allies for media activist organizing. Unions representing media and communications workers have much to lose as media ownership consolidation heralds unionbusting and the downsizing of local news departments. Local chapters of NOW, the ACLU, and other human rights groups may have pre-existing programs around media issues. Almost everywhere you can find independent media makers already engaged in creating alternatives to the corporate media cartels, including community brooadcasting, newspapers, blogs or Indymedia centers. Organize local events to pull these folks together. Host media-critical speaking events and discussions, at which potential media activists can meet and network. Collaborate with others to organize a conference or public hearing about community media needs. Introduce media and democracy panels, workshops, and speakers to other events and conferences already being planned.

Reaching out, finding and using existing resources

Lastly, it���s important to know where to look for resources for grassroots media organizing. Community organizations, universities and unions may be able to provide facilities or even funding for events and projects. Progressive foundations and private donors are increasingly interested in funding this work.. The recent explosion of media activist work in recent years has produced a growing Internet library of downloadable, reusable education and outreach materials. For example, find information on cable franchise issues at www.grassrootscable.com; low power radio at www.prometheusradio.org; activist toolkits at www.freepress.net; and media monitoring templates via www.griid.org. A longer list of media activist groups can be found at www.reclaimthemedia.org.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey