Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Community Media and Information Literacy in the Digital Age

Published:  June 22, 2010
Photo credit: Colin Rhinesmith
computerCENTRAL at Cambridge Community Television (Photo credit: Colin Rhinesmith)

By Colin Rhinesmith

Last month, danah boyd, Microsoft Researcher and Berkman Center for Internet & Society Fellow, told the audience at the Gov 2.0 Expo: "If you want information access because you want a better-informed citizenry and a fairer society, you must start embracing the importance of information literacy and the need to provide infrastructure to help people build these skills."

Access to information alone is not enough. Knowing how to sift through that information, how to evaluate which information is being shared and which is being withheld, how to search for the information that will empower you to participate in civic life—all of these are crucial to informed democracy, but they are not skills with which people are born. As a Commissioner on the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, boyd argued that people need access to multiple interpretations of information and the training required to contextualize.  She concluded her talk with a call to action, saying that while information is power, interpretation is even more powerful and government transparency is not enough. The facts do not always speak for themselves, after all.

Therefore, as boyd explains, government transparency is only one part of the equation. Literacy through engagement is often the catalyst that brings private citizens into public life. However, information literacy is still reserved for the privileged few.

The Knight Commission report recognizes that people of all ages and backgrounds need digital and media literacy skills. The report defines media literacy as "the capacity to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a variety of media." Digital literacy, or "the understanding of and capacity to use new information technologies," is becoming an essential part of our daily lives.

In her talk, boyd directed the audience to Eszter Hargittai's research that shows how information literacy is not evenly distributed. Hargittai found in her study of diverse groups of youth that higher rates of digital literacy correspond with higher levels of income. These findings suggest that more work needs to be done to balance the information literacy scales.

But what kind of work needs to be done, and by whom? Community media and technology centers, including Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access cable television stations, can address these complex information challenges by providing communities with the following services:

  • Video of local government meetings
  • Digital and media literacy training
  • Information and communication infrastructure.

Local governments use cable access television to share public information and foster civic engagement. Some Government Access Television (GATV) stations, as community media and technology centers, are adopting broadband platforms to distribute video of government meetings to the public in more convenient ways. For example, the Seattle Channel (featured in MPI's information case study) and the Center for Media and Democracy in Burlington, Vermont, both give residents greater access to, and control of, local information through on-demand viewing options online. As CCTV's Executive Director, Lauren-Glenn Davitian, explained to me in a recent interview:

"We chaptered government meeting agendas and created what we call clickable meeting agendas, so that a person can go online and pick what they want to see. They can get these little bits of information, which is how people consume content now. And it’s hugely successful and very popular in our communities."

Easier consumption of information is only part of the picture; since Web 2.0, information access has been supplemented by a desire to use information sharing to foster engagement. Davitian also acknowledged the importance of government encouraging collaboration through its digital outreach: "Another important service that a community media center can provide is to be an intermediary between local government and the citizen," she said. Cambridge Community Television(where I work) played an essential role in connecting residents and the city through our Bridging the Digital Divide pilot program. The pilot provided thirty-five low-income families with refurbished computers, digital literacy training, and access to the city's community wireless network at a housing development in the Area 4 neighborhood of Cambridge.

Community media centers are poised to foster this collaboration. In addition to airing video of government meetings, many community media centers also provide public access to computers and broadband technology.  The Grand Rapids Community Media Center's Information Technology services, Gorham Community Access Television public computer stations, and computerCENTRAL here in Cambridge are just a few examples.

As local governments become more transparent in making data more available, through Gov 2.0 and Citizen 2.0 initiatives, community media and technology centers can become local leaders to help individuals and groups learn how to interpret and make use of public information such as crime statistics or active building permits. PEG access TV stations can build on their role as community storytelling centers to provide information literacy education so that all residents have these competencies, not just the elite.

In order for these initiatives to be realized and sustained, communities need access to information and communication infrastructure. As the New America Foundation, Free Press, and Media Access Project's Future of Media FCC Comments explain, existing local media access centers are in a prime position to provide this infrastructure to the public, and in doing so, the comments note, "[t]his infrastructure will facilitate and expand communication by communities underserved by existing media institutions, both within a community and with the outside world."

PEG access centers face significant challenges within the current cable policy framework. Community media organizations require new policies in order to better respond to community broadband needs. The Alliance for Community Media and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors addressed this issue in a recent letter asking the FCC to hold a Future of Media hearing to discuss the role of community media as "a means to achieve many of the goals of the Future of Media Project." The hearing would be an important step forward in helping to establish, as the Knight Report recommends, a public policy framework to ensure that everyone has the capability and the opportunity to participate in the digital age.

Colin Rhinesmith is Community Media and Technology Manager for Cambridge Community Television in Cambridge, MA, and an Affiliate with the New America Foundation's Media Policy Initiative.

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