Citizen media – social cohesion connection

[excerpt from longer report that I completed recently]

Evidence shows that communication and the use of the media can be a powerful tool for integration (Melkote & Steeves, 1991, p. 355).  What is very recent and perhaps momentous in connecting the link between citizen media and integration is that “now governments are not just acknowledging, but declaring the connection” (Jakubowicz, 2009, p. 119).  One example of this is The Council of Europe, which just last year issued a Declaration stating that community media “can serve as a factor of social cohesion and integration” (Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, as cited in Fairbairn, 2009, p. 22).

Access to voice is powerful.  Waisbord (2005, p. 19) wrote that “Community-based forms of communication . . . could provide opportunities to identify common problems and solutions, to reflect upon community issues, and to mobilize resources.” Hamelink (1990, as cited in Waisbord, 2005, p. 19) stated, “Group media has helped marginal groups to speak to one another, to articulate their thoughts and feelings in the process of community organizing.”

This “mobilizing” is seen in the growth of minority, migrant media:  “Multicultural broadcasting is gaining popularity vis-à-vis the separate/separatist ethnic media” (Georgiou, 2003, p. 39). The growth of ethnic media advocacy.

Media Advocacy

Media advocacy is “…the strategic use of mass media to advance social or public policy initiatives” (Wallack, Dorfman, Jernigan, & Themba 1993, as cited in Waisbord, 2005, pp. 23-24). If the aim, as Waisbord says, is to promote responsible portrayals, mobilize groups in support of certain issues and policies (like immigration), change public perception (that integration is a failure), and disseminate  information through interpersonal and media channels towards gaining social acceptance (and/or political acceptance) on specific issues (Waisbord, 2005, p. 23), then there is a strong argument for using media advocacy for development initiatives in Malmö.

Waisbord (2005, p. 23) goes on to say, “Existing linkages could also provide agents that were familiar with (or even from) the community who could assist in creating organizations and networks to stimulate participation.”

In the course of field research, I met several people who I believe would champion such initiatives and take leadership in their development.

Community members, rather than ‘professionals’, should be in charge of the decision and production processes.  This is precisely what ‘small media’ offer: an opportunity for media access in countries where the mass media are usually controlled by governments and urban elites (Waisbord, 2005, p. 20).

Participatory Radio

In spite of the advancing speed of change in media technology, already zooming past web 2.0 to web 3.0, and with the global shifts in participatory government via the web, immigrants interviewed in field research did not have computers.  And though mainstream radio may seem like a dying medium, the literature shows that community radio is more than strong.

Among the people advancing research in this field is Georgiou (2003), who has provided evidence that there are “. . . a growing number of new generation multicultural [media] programmes” (p. 38).

According to the international participatory media agency InterNews, in the past eight years or so there has been growing academic interest in situating citizen or community media—typically called “third sector media,”—within theoretical perspectives:

Public sphere theory (including modifications of Habermas so as to recognize alternative or counter-public spheres is the area most drawn upon by commentators (e.g. Rodriguez 2001) but other theoretical sources include hegemony (Gransci), social capital (Putnam, following Bourdieu) and Paolo Freire’s  pedagogical writings, in particular his notion of conscientisation which, whether consciously acknowledged or not, underlay much of the practice throughout the 1970s (Atton 2001, 2004; Cammaerts & Carpentier 2007; Couldry & Curran 2003; Downing 2001; Howley 2005; Jankowski with Prehn 2002; Rennie 2006; Rodriguez 2001. (as cited in Fairbairn, 2009, p.10)

Some of this research, as well as that of Lewis (2008a), has shown that community radio can lead to social cohesion. Studies done in places such as Australia, Ireland and Scotland show very positive associations among participatory radio, empowerment of marginalized populations, and integration.

Vasta (2004) asks whether:

. . . identity formation can contribute to a form of separation and ethnic closure or can communities, based on identity formations and identity politics, enhance their levels of civic virtue and collective action; secondly, are ethnic communities in Australia rallying together through various forms of collective action to achieve social justice goals within their own ethnic groups and across the broader community? (1 [abstract])

I contend that there is:

§  evidence that dispels her first concern,

§  evidence that supports her middle thought that community radio enhances civic-mindedness among an ethnic population,

§  evidence that provides hope that her third stated possibility, of furthered social justice both within a cultural community and in the broader community, shows much promise.

A 2003 report to the representative organization for community radio in Ireland (CRAOL) concluded: “. . . there is a high level of collaborative work between community radio and community bodies.  This is especially true of community-based groups that have a focus on social inclusion issues” (Unique Perspectives 2003:41, as cited in Fairbairn, 2009, p. 22).

In Scotland, a report commissioned by the Community Media Association stated: “. . . community media provides a platform for those who are often voiceless in society . . . powerful campaigning tools to bring attention to inequality and injustice in communities . . . [and] to present their perspectives and challenge negative images of themselves (Paul Zealey, 2007, p. 5, as cited in Fairbairn, 2009, p. 22).

One question that could be raised is that increasing agency of immigrants wouldn’t necessarily improve integration in any way if these radio programs are by/for their own communities.  Lewis’ response is perhaps one of the strongest statements to include when approaching governments with arguments for supporting migrant media:

On the question of whether third sector media contribute to social cohesion or threaten it, the evidence points to the sector being an important factor in social cohesion and citizenship, particularly for minority ethnic communities and refugee and migrant communities. (Lewis, 2008, p. 7)

An Australian report not only links community media to empowerment, but also (significantly for governments considering funding) links community media to increasingly active citizenship of immigrants:

. . . where community voices can be heard—and for many marginalized communities, it is the only places their voices can be heard . . . empowerment at another level comes through . . . an awareness of the monolithic nature of mainstream media and frustration at its increasing inability to take account of cultural difference . . . . It is clear . . . that the community broadcasting sector is playing a significant role in revitalizing the idea of active citizenship media. (Meadows, Forde, Ewart, and Foxwell, 2007, pp. 102-3)

The data indicates “. . . that different projects of alternative minority media can challenge exclusion and can get involved in areas of minority participation in multi-ethnic societies” (Georgiou, 2003, p. 44).

As a result of these studies and government announcements linking integration and cohesion with immigrant-produced media, almost weekly now I am coming across a related new initiative, such as The Migrants and Media Project, involving five EU countries: UK, Ireland, Spain, Hungary and Greece.

Community Radio as Social Capital

As for community radio specifically, “. . . community broadcasting contributes towards empowerment in that it trains individuals in broadcasting skills (DoCA, 1997); it forms local and extended networks (Melzer, 2000); and it can provide ‘a sense of local community identity’ (Elson, 2000)” (all as cited in Van Vuuren, 2001, p. 3).

Perhaps the most interesting element in community radio is, as Waisbord (2005, p. 20) argued, that “…the value of participatory media is not in being instruments of transmission but of communication, that is, for exchanging views and involving members.” Dagron (2001, p. 6) says that “…radio in fact has been the most important medium for development and social change worldwide,” and that:

. . . the smallest and most precarious community radio station already makes a difference for community.  The presence of a community radio station…has an immediate effect on the population. . . .  Radio has been instrumental for social change and moreover, has invented participatory communication, as we know it today.” (Dagron, p. 13)

Here is one media initiative that has been attempted in the U.S., allegedly to improve civic engagement:

An example of a “big media idea” currently being tested by the Voice of America (VOA) to ignite democratic sentiment among Middle Eastern youth was described by Marc Nathanson and a colleague on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Tom Korologos. Instead of all-talk cerebral fare, the VOA is experimenting with a pop music format modeled on the American Top-100 FM style. Broadcast in Arabic, interspersing American songs with songs in Arabic, the goal of Radio Sawa (which means “together”) is to attract listeners for the news segments sandwiched into the music. In a matter of months the service has acquired a sizeable audience. (Shister, 2003, p. 40)

“Voice of America” is large radio, not community radio.  Audience numbers it may have had, but I am skeptical about what social change benefits actually resulted if it is neither participatory, nor—as Dagron insists is critical ( A. G. Dagron, personal communication, March 2009)—located and run at the community level in the most marginalized community.

Social capital is a new idea gaining worldwide recognition (Baron, Field & Schuller, 2000, p. 1)—one with many definitions. According to Fukuyama (1995, p. 6), it is the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups, organisations, and at the workplace. Snoxell et al. (2006) suggest that it is a key factor in the development of conflict-resilient cities, and that three types of social capital—bonding, bridging and linking—together capture the elements of building trust within and across groups. “Bonding capital” means relationships among people who see themselves as sharing a common background.  “Bridging capital”’ refers to relationships between people without a common background (p. 77).

A study of three communities in Greater Belfast since the 1960s found that only the community with high levels of bridging capital—with mixed associational and sports clubs—was able to avoid the human insecurity that was plaguing much of Northern Ireland (Darby, 1986, as cited in Foreign Affairs Canada, 2006).   The third type of social capital, “linking capital,” means relationships among people of different power levels. Snoxell et al. (2006) stated that all three types of social capital are necessary for integration to work, and that it is critical that they are built simultaneously. He also stated that a failure to pursue all three elements of social capital can generate negative social capital (p. 77).

A side note worth considering is that this could be useful as an argument in support of diasporic organizations—something that field research in Sweden revealed can be quite controversial with taxpayers.

According to Onyx and Bullen (1997), social capital is generated

. . . through the participation in networks, and can be produced almost anywhere where there are people interacting voluntarily (most likely in voluntary associations) in the common interest.  It is therefore not limited to geographic communities but whenever people come together.  Finally, social capital requires a proactive citizenry, that is, active and willing individuals with a sense of personal and collective capacities to produce desired outcomes (or empowerment). (Onyx & Bullen, Mapping Minorities, (5-6; 24-25), as cited in Van Vuuren, 2001)

Some scholars, however, argue that social capital methodology limits the results from being translated to interpreting social capital’s effects at the grassroots:

Social capital, however, has much in common with a pluralistic research tradition. This argues that voluntary organizations enable individuals to directly participate in political activity, or in the case of organisations without political aims, widen people’s interests and contacts, and provide them with leadership skills which ultimately results in political mobilization.  Pluralist studies are mainly based on quantitative survey research of large populations. As such they are unable to shed light on the nature of participation at the organisational and individual level. (Pickvance 1986, pp. 225-6 as cited in van Vuuren, 2004, p. 4)

It could be argued that the strongly worded statements about Sweden in the URBACT Secretariat report (2007) are unbalanced and that their lens is  pluralist discourse.   My perspective on this is perhaps influenced by two things: 1) by being Canadian, where multiculturalism/pluralism, though not popular with scholars and policy-makers elsewhere, is one of our most strongly held values; – and 2) by my work in Sri Lanka, where the Tamils have lived for so long yet are still, in policies and government discourse, treated as though they should be grateful for whatever they get and should quietly integrate, and as such have no right to make demands.  The reality is that the Muslim and Iraqi populations are now in Sweden.  This means that new policies and a re-formed concept of what is meant by “Swedish” are necessary. A new concept of the country will have to be negotiated, not based on what the population makeup has been in the past, but based on the population that exists in Sweden—and in Malmö—now.

I believe that the international evidence around participatory communication and community media for integration proves that communication initiatives can make a significant difference to splintered communities.  I also point to the World Bank 1999 study that asked marginalized people globally what they wanted more than anything else, and their responses were not to do with housing or food, or anything structural or systemic, but rather they wanted “access to a voice” (Wolfensohn, 1999).

One comment

  1. Interesting article. I don’t know how familiar you are with VOA, but there’s a lot of radio programming that is highly participatory, and some shows that are designed specifically to bring different ethnic groups together. Radio Sawa is now actually part of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (rather than VOA), so I don’t know as much about it. But VOA broadcasts to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, for example, rely heavily on call-in shows and audience participation. I’m not a PR person, but I can try to help if you have questions.

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