This month, noted media and technology scholar Ethan Zuckerman takes over as the director the MIT Center for Civic Media. “I have no idea what civic media is, and that’s a weird place to be as director of the Center,” he said. “This is a new field.” In a KDMC@USC interview, Zuckerman outlined how the Center is defining and exploring the possibilities for civic media around the world—something that should interest news organizations, activists, and all other significant players in the ever-shifting digital media ecosystem.
This month, noted media and technology scholar Ethan Zuckerman takes over as the director the MIT Center for Civic Media. “I have no idea what civic media is, and that’s a weird place to be as director of the Center,” he said. “This is a new field.”
In a KDMC@USC interview, Zuckerman outlined how the Center is defining and exploring the possibilities for civic media around the world—something that should interest news organizations, activists, and all other significant players in the ever-shifting digital media ecosystem.
By Amy Gahran
The MIT Center for Civic Media began life in 2007 as the Center for Future Civic Media—a project funded by a $5 million Knight News Challenge grant. Since then, it’s evolved into a joint effort between the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program—with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
In a recent presentation to MIT students, Zuckerman included a slide showing overlapping circles representing how participatory media (the “read/write web”) is intersecting with civic life.
“There’s a whole lot of participatory media that’s purely personal,” said Zuckerman. “Lots of what we do online—interacting with friends, sharing pictures with family—doesn’t have civic implications. but there’s a complicated subset of online activity which does have civic implications. This can be as explicit as political blog or newsletter, or more subtle like fiction or art that challenges stereotypes or addresses issues.”
(In his talk at the 2008 O’Reilly ETech conference, Zuckerman explored this theme in his talk on the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.)
In addition to being the Center’s new director, Zuckerman’s other title there is principal investigator—a role he shares with MIT professor and mediamaker Sasha Costanza-Chock.
In their discussions of where to take the Center, Zuckerman and Costanza-Chock have mapped out four organizing principles:
1. Media is an ecosystem
“Getting people to speak up via participatory media isn’t the hard part,” said Zuckerman. “Getting heard and having influence, that’s the hard part. To accomplish that, you need to think about the relationship between participatory media and mass media.”
He described his recent meeting with a Boston-based civic action group focused on stopping local home foreclosures. This group conducts about three or four actions per week: protests outside banks, sit-ins at homes when the sheriff comes to foreclose, etc. They document all this in photos and video, and they share that media and engage with various constituencies via social media.
“They actually have relatively few Facebook friends, not a massive social media presence,” said Zuckerman. “but because they create all that content, they get mainstream media coverage, because that’s a massive resource that provides hooks for news coverage. Understanding those kinds of relationships in the media ecosystem is the key to producing media that’s effective. I’m trying to map those out so we can utilize them better.”
2. For media to be “civic,” it must lead somehow lead people toward participation
Says Zuckerman, “when something has civic impact, that means it makes you do something, take action. Simply informing you doesn’t go far enough.”
That argument is likely to make many traditional journalists (who venerate “objectivity” and eschew “advocacy”) squirm.
Acknowledging this friction, Zuckerman noted: “I think this is something we have to reconsider as people who take journalism seriously: is telling people how to take action always bad? I think participation changes your behavior as a media consumer. I’m very worried that we often report on stories that mainly piss people off and then don’t give them anything they can do about it.”
For example, he noted coverage of an ongoing international crisis: refugees fleeing conflict and famine in Somalia. “In most news outlets, if you read their coverage, you don’t know what to do about it. Finding out what you can do takes independent effort and resources—which is more than most media consumers will do. so the net effect is that this problem just appears intractable, hopeless, there’s nothing you can do can fix it. that just encourages people to move on to pay attention where they can be more influential.
“I think understanding how to build media that teaches people to participate ultimately creates better media consumers.”
“We want to ensure that at the Center we’re not just handing out more microphones, but more and better amplifiers,” said Zuckerman. “We have to find ways to help people reach audiences.”
So among the Center’s efforts will be projects focusing on services for translation, cultural bridging, contextualization, and filtering.
“This is the idea that you never want to invent a cool technology and drop it into community to let them use it. You’ll never get a useful result that way,” said Zuckerman.
“We think the smart way to develop media tools is to work closely with communities up front to understand their needs and jointly design something with them. Then we roll it out together.”
The co-design approach greatly enhanced the development and deployment of VozMob, a platform for immigrant and and low-wage workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones—something Zuckerman discussed in his June blog post, Visions of Civic Media.
The MIT Center: What’s in it for news orgs?
So far, it’s unclear how exactly news organizations might learn from and constructively engage with the work at the MIT Center—but Zuckerman says the’re open to hearing news organizations’ reactions to their projects and ideas.
But some projects may be of special interest to news orgs.
For instance, the Newsflow project is “a dynamic, real-time map of news reporting, which displays both the latest top stories as well as the news organizations which covered them in the last few minutes. Viewing such data in real time offers a chance to see how journalists shape national attention as stories unfolds.”
Zuckerman also mentioned their Media RDI project, which is in its early stages: “take the idea of nutritional information labels and apply that to news production. can we assess a news outlet for period of time and produce summary information about its news? What’s different for the Boston Globe and New York Times during a given period? How could you track your personal media consumption over a period of time?”
The Center is also working on tools that can help people in news outlets closely examine what they are and are not covering. This could become an analytics tool for figuring out on where your organization or outlets fits into the media ecosystem—and whether you’re fitting in the way you think you are.
“Let’s be clear about the Center’s role,” said Zuckerman. “I think Knight is funding us with the notion that this program is about long bets. Knight has funded a lot of other work connected to schools and newsrooms—but that’s not what we’ve been challenged to do.
“our job is not to serve news organizations, but rather to develop bigger ideas and paradigms. I suspect that being able to look at the media ecosystem analytically will be profoundly helpful to many parts of that ecosystem—including news organizations.
The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.