The 21st Century Project


Community Media and Policy

Why is media policy important?

The media frames the news and therefore helps shape public opinion on important matters. How an outlet chooses to portray a policy subject, or not portray it at all, influences our understanding of social, cultural and political issues. Every issue, from health care to welfare, from immigration to education, is presented to the public through the media filter. Many critics of current communications policy feel that the media are failing in their duty to serve the public interest, and that the Federal Communications Commission is failing in its duty to ensure that media outlets do serve the public. The key to creating the best media that accurately reflects our world is through good media and communications policy.

We are currently undergoing major technical changes in the media environment. High-speed broadband Internet access is becoming more widely available, and consequently photos, audio and video can be transmitted easily at the click of a mouse. These changes are leading to economic shifts as well, including government deregulation and increasing media ownership concentration. It is this ownership concentration that creates a "powerful economic incentive to ignore local programming needs." Mainstream media, according to Charles Benton, founder of the Benton Foundation, "are in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers." It is the profit-seeking model of mainstream media that leads to a focus on producing content that reflects the needs of advertisers rather than the general public, and often disenfranchises underrepresented groups and issues. Community media, by contrast, go beyond media serving the public interest to "embrace practices that increase citizen participation in media production, governance, and policy."

Community media is one issue that should be of particular interest for media policymakers right now. The term "community media" encompasses the following types of mediums: public access cable television, low-power FM radio, community radio, public broadcasting, ethnic media, civic journalism, media arts organizations, community networking, and satellite. Some of the major important distinguishing characteristics of community media as described by the report "What's Going on in Community Media" are localism, diverse participation, storytelling and deliberation, and empowerment. These components differentiate community media from commercial media because they are made "by the people, for the people."

The economic survival of community media is essential, because these outlets are one of the few places people can still find these important aforementioned characteristics within their media. The economic structures that affect funding for these types of outlets are endangered to say the least, especially in Texas. Statewide franchising laws for cable television threaten to eliminate local public access channels altogether, and the state of the economy today does not provide hope for funding in other community media outlets. Promoting policies which support community media is one part of the solution to media consolidation.


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