Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

How community access television is meeting the information needs of communities: Beyond the Future (of Media), and Back to the Knight (Commission)

Published:  February 21, 2011

Guest post by Rob McCausland, author of the past post Mapping Community Television #3

Beyond the FCC’s Future of Media inquiry, the focus of my earlier posts, I'd like to go back to last year’s Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy and its original question: What are the information needs of communities in a digital age?
 
In a section titled "Envisioning and Measuring Success and Failure," the Knight Commission Report says:
 
In a perfect world, citizens could reliably measure their information needs and gauge their satisfaction. Community members could quantify the assets of their local information ecology. Researchers could correlate information assets with positive social outcomes. Citizens and their representatives could formulate recommendations to improve social outcomes by making specific, measurable improvements in information handling.
 
However, information researchers have not developed the tools to perform these tasks with precision. The Commission has viewed international efforts at such indexing with interest. It has looked at efforts to create tools that would be useful locally to assess a community’s information ecology. Such efforts do not yet enable us to measure information flow successfully or relate that flow to other community outcomes.
 
In the very next section, the Report goes on to add:
 
(T)he problem is not the lack of information; it is an absence of engagement—personal involvement with the larger community based on accurate and timely information. [emphasis added]
 
There is a rich tradition of looking at the relationship of information production and distribution to civic knowledge and community engagement and the Commission points to some of this research in its footnotes. 
 
I believe additional sound research would show us there are three major areas where community access television is meeting these needs right now, in ways that other forms of media can't or won't--and community engagement is a core function of at least two of these.
  • Local election coverage (candidates interviews and debates, proposition and ballot question forums, etc);
  • Gavel-to-gavel coverage of local government meetings; and
  • Public-produced public affairs talk shows with viewer call-ins.
In many of the discussions about communities' information needs, the focus has been on the kinds of information communities need, and on the systems, old and new, for producing and distributing that information - not on the factors influencing how individuals seek, process, and ultimately use that information. However, communications research points us to some ways in which public access may be an indispensable part of the “information needs” solution - the pre-exposure expected use and the post-exposure actual use of the information encountered.
 
In his research reported in Mass Media Use and Political Knowledge (Journalism Monographs Number Sixty-One, May, 1979), Phillip Palmgreen studied the effect of people’s interpersonal discussions about political information they encountered. He compared the differential impacts of these discussions on national and local affairs. With respect to local affairs, he found:
 
Here, attention to the media does not result in the direct acquisition of significant amounts of information, but does stimulate discussion. It is this discussion, particularly with fellow members of local political groups, which contributes strongly to levels of information holding.
 
I made a similar point about the unique value of viewer call-in shows when I trained public access producers in Boston and Beverly 10 years ago. To the viewer at home, a non-call-in show is just more incoming information, more “TV.” But a call-in show gives the viewer a chance to be part of the process, to use in a socially meaningful way the information she or he has acquired. Equally important, the viewers calling in are modeling engaged behavior, encouraging other viewers over time to do the same.
 
Similarly, public access television (programming produced by the public itself) provides opportunities for people to use and meaningfully process information that the other forms of access television cannot. Comparatively, non-public access television is just "more television," while public access television is actually community engagement.
 
Likewise, an important but little-noted benefit of government meetings coverage--no matter who provides it--comes from the showing of citizens' involvement in the meetings' business - just their mere attendance, not to mention any comments they may make. Here, too, engaged behavior is being modeled - and it’s a highly-prized type of engagement: civil and respectful community problem-solving. (That’s doubly true when the governmental body itself is composed of citizen volunteers.) Such coverage helps establish an expectation that this is indeed the public's business. This coverage and the engagement it’s predicated upon increases the likelihood of further community-based discussions, I believe. The overall effective transfer of needed information--I bet research could show--is increased by this “force-multiplier” effect of community access television.
 
Where to Next?
 
In its footnote # 11, the Knight Commission Report refers to a number of current directions in research.  Footnotes can often get overlooked; because community access television could play a significant role here, the sources referenced in this one especially I commend to your attention:
  • "At USC Annenberg, Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach has developed the thesis that local communication infrastructure plays a critical role in three components of civic engagement: neighborhood belonging, collective efficacy, and civic participation. She has even developed a measure that she calls Integrated Connectedness to a Storytelling Network (ICSN), which she has determined—at least for the local communities she has studied—to be an effective summation of the relationship between what she calls local media connectedness, their scope of connections to community organizations, and the intensity of interpersonal neighborhood storytelling." (This is her paper on the subject with Yong-Chan Kim.)
  • "Researchers Mark Lloyd and Phil Napoli, in addition, have proposed a local media diversity index that could be used to correlate elements of media diversity with local levels of both civic participation and civic knowledge." (Read their article here.)
  • Finally, the Knight Commission points to a seminal article on the "sense of community" by D.W. McMillan and D.M. Chavis, as well as the National Conference on Citizenship's Civic Health Index.
Projects such as the ones listed above, the Knight Commission Report states, “point the way to the possibility of a deeper understanding over time between the precise elements of local information ecologies and other positive social outcomes.”
 
With the inclusion of community access television in local media ecology studies such as these, I think we may finally arrive at a place where we’re able to show how to best "move the needle" in the direction of positive change for civic competence and civic engagement.

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