In terms of the movement’s own media, no doubt activists think a lot about how they represent themselves, their message, and the channels they have for this symbolic work. And yet, movements need the professional press for mobilization and validation. Movements also need the professional press to widen the scope of conflict outside of their ideological niches, particularly with regard to the elected officials and interest groups that may share similar policy and strategic goals but are not expressly affiliated with the movements.
Your past work has explored the idea that new social media tools can level the playing field and help create a more participatory democracy. With the increasing effect of big money on campaigns, do you think any media outlets, new or old, have the power to truly level the playing field in 2012 and beyond?
I have actually always been skeptical about the possibility of new and social media tools to level the playing field. Indeed, my colleague Mike Ananny and I actually wrote a piece arguing that this is because, in large part, of financial disparities that enable producers to differentially address publics. We called for a way to subsidize citizen media production through an alternative to copyright, what we call “public domain journalism.”
The resource story is still very much the central one. Money helps get message out, although it does not wholly determine the ability of groups to do so. We argue there are still systematic disparities in terms of which voices are heard in the public sphere that often break down on class and race lines, and that new media has not necessarily brought about a qualitatively different conversation about public life or a more inclusive set of participants in this conversation. Even more, with the erosion of the resource base of the professional press, there are fewer intermediaries responsible to the general public able to fulfill the traditional watchdog function.
You’ve also explored the relationship between new media and collective action. For 2012 in North Carolina and other swing states, what kind of collective action among media do you expect? Do the characteristics of new media facilitate cooperative work? And is there a separation between “new,” independent new media and “old” new media like Huffington Post and Daily Kos? Certainly traditional and new media influence each other, but how do you measure and capture influences? How do you determine where ideas and narratives originate?
There is a lot of good work that details the interaction of professional and new media. Generally, the professional press is believed to largely set the agenda for amateur or citizen new media outlets given their resources for original reporting. But there are numerous confounding factors. For one, it is not always clear what terms such as “professional,” “traditional,” “citizen,” or “amateur” even mean. The most trafficked political blogs, for instance, often explicitly coordinate messaging with elected and party officials. In general, there is research that suggests that elected officials and other bureaucratically credible actors set the agenda for public discourse as a whole. There is also a body of work that suggests that at extraordinary times, citizen journalism and blogs can set the professional agenda. Frankly, we just do not know enough yet about these new media producers to say how they interact with one another and the paths their content travels.
This is something you’ll be studying at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in early September. How are you planning to do that research? What are you expecting to find?
An interdisciplinary team of researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Information and Library Science are heading to the convention to conduct work at the media site for non-credentialed producers called the PPL. The convention is interesting because there is a shortage of scholarly work on conventions as sites for the production of public discourse. After violence spilled into the streets during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the leaders of both parties decided that the drama of producing a nominee would play out in the voting booth. As a result, scholars have argued that the conventions have become anodyne and tightly scripted media events, denuded of political passion.