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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

media democratization? « Previous | |Next »
August 14, 2009

Around a month ago the School of Culture and Communication at Melbourne Uni held a conference entitled “Journalism in the 21st Century: Between Globalization and National Identity”. All we have to on are the abstracts of the papers to help us explore the significance of the set of shifts from mass communications media to the emergent media environment.

The abstract that caught my eye was by Terry Flew from the Queensland University of Technology, called, Democracy, Participation and Convergent Media: Case Studies in Contemporary News Journalism in Australia. It says:

The shift from 20th century mass communications media towards convergent media and Web 2.0 has raised the possibility of a renaissance of the public sphere, based around citizen journalism and participatory media culture. This paper will evaluate such claims both conceptually and empirically. At a conceptual level, it is noted that the question of whether media democratization is occurring depends in part upon how democracy is understood, with some critical differences in understandings of democracy, the public sphere and media citizenship. The empirical work in this paper draws upon various case studies of new developments in Australian media, including online-only newspapers, developments in public service media, and the rise of commercially based online alternative media. It is argued that participatory media culture is being expanded if understood in terms of media pluralism, but that implications for the public sphere depend in part upon how media democratization is defined.

What is meant by media democratization? Or media citizenship for that matter? Fortunately Queensland University of Technology has a digital archive under a common licence, and Flew's paper can be found there.

What we learn is that the media democratisation refers to the free, user-generated content created by the emergence of by the Web 2.0 revolution. Flickr is an example. It decentralizes power, erases the old distinction between professional and amateur, and gives rise to a participatory visual culture. A participatory media culture emerging with blogging in a mediascape dominated by the cultural industries enables citizens to:

have access to a wider range of information sources, to produce and distribute their own media in greater numbers, and to have greater autonomy from agencies of the state or large-scale commercial media enterprises in doing so...The important category in terms of public sphere theory is that of voice, which points in various ways to the opportunity to participate in public discourse, the capacity to use communications media to persuade others and shift public opinion (what Hirschman termed the ‘art of voice’), and the ability to use such media to achieve influence over politics and public affairs.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:13 PM | | Comments (3)


Terry Flew is a champion, but from my point of view he misses the same part of the dynamic that old media does, and that only existed in theory in the pre web 2 public sphere. People who focus on the media aspect of the thing privilege the owner/author as the information source, so we end up talking about both kinds of media as if they're both things to be passively consumed.

Participatory media lives or dies in the conversation, in the links and comments and the potential for all 22 odd million of us to participate.

Not everyone can start or run a blog or an Online Opinion or New Matilda. Not everyone has the literacy skills to write a decent essay or blog entry. More can participate in comments or lurk. So I'd argue that it's less about democratisation and more about media. Enabling a few thousand more people to produce new media outlets and contribute to agenda setting doesn't strike me as democratisation so much as diversification.

All good for the public sphere, provided we're talking the popular ideal of the public sphere, but we're still looking at a niche and confusing the processes of production with the social aspects of democratic participation. In my humble opinion, anyway.

Flew does say that re the process of democratization:

The Internet enables citizens to have access to a wider range of information sources, to produce and distribute their own
media in greater numbers, and to have greater autonomy from agencies of the state or large-scale commercial media enterprises in doing so.

This is a partial gain since it promotes a more representative public sphere in there is an expansion in the range of voices available on issues in public life and the political sphere.

However, Flew says that there are
barriers to participation presented by inequalities of access to digital
media technologies and capacities to participate in a digital public sphere. The internet does not foster deliberative democracy and a reasoning public along Habermasian lines.