Community Media Discussion – Civic Deliberation

This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about the need for us to invest in community media as a platform for civic deliberation. We’ll be looking at how mainstream media shapes political and civic conversations, and asking if community radio and podcasting can be used to challenge the way that a multiplicity of diverse conversations can be fostered?

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The fear that we live in an increasingly fragmenting society is widespread. Many people are concerned that we have less and less in common with one another. We no longer have an encompassing sense of belonging, with many people feeling that they are losing their moorings as they are exposed to an increasing precariousness in our way of living. A way of living that has resulted in a sense of transience and a feeling of disassociation from what was once a common culture. We no longer share a robust sense of collective identity, but merely tolerate one another. As Charles Taylor reminds us, “this fragmentation comes about partly through a weakening of the bonds of sympathy” (Charles Taylor in Etzioni, 1995, p. 211).

In our hypermediated world, the feeling of dissociation is compounded by the way we use and consume communications technology. Conversations that take place across television and radio, or in newspapers and via social media, are either superficial or antagonistic. As Charles Taylor goes on to note,

“Fragmentation arises when people come to see themselves more and more atomistically or, otherwise put, as less and less bound to their fellow citizens in common projects and allegiances. They may indeed feel linked in common projects with some others, but these come more and more to be partial groupings rather than the whole society: for instance, a local community, an ethnic minority, the adherents of some religion or ideology, the promoters of some special interest” (Charles Taylor in Etzioni, 1995, p. 211).

What often passes as discussion in this fragmented society, in the media realm at least, is frequently a display of rhetorical prowess by manipulators of public opinion. Our politics, for example, has become a game between well-equipped public relations agencies intent on presenting incomplete information to the public. The job of political communications is to manage impressions (the horrible phrase ‘optics’), often masterfully fuelling indignation using false equivalences that are propelled into public discussion in order to shape perceptions and limit options. Climate change deniers, or vaccine conspiracy theorists are given equal billing by news programmes, despite the unsupportable assertions that are now well documented. Evidence and objectivity have given way to talking points and impartiality.

 If, as Nkosi Martin Ndlela suggests, the media in a democracy constitute prime areas for contending interests, values, and viewpoints – in pursuits of public recognition, legitimacy, and strategic aims” (Nkosi Martin Ndlela in Howley, 2010, p. 88), then we are a long way from being able to demonstrate the viability of this purpose. Accordingly, public discussion in our media takes the form of bickering and argumentation – such as the type of public discourse favoured by the likes of Piers Morgan and his ilk. Rows and rants win our attention, despite the desirability of a coherent sense of engagement between two reasonable parties. No one, it too often feels, is trying to persuade us based on their evidence, but rather we are being manipulated because of some assumed deeper emotional need.

Seldom is our mainstream media given over to long forms of conversation and discussion, in which reciprocating interlocutors are given the space to engage and pursue extended dialogue, and thereby taking the long and difficult road towards a more settled and sustainable assessment of our choices and options. In the fragmented presentation of spin, marketing and persuasion, the positions taken by the PR agents themselves become outcomes. What matter is that the argument is determined on your terms, not on the pragmatic outcome of what is being said. The ideas and beliefs that support these positional statements get lost in slogans, gestures and rhetoric. Brexit means Brexit! Grow the Pie! Drain the Swamp!

Time is always too short in media discussion, and the topics selected are often too complex to do them justice. With these limitations in the approach to civic discussion, mainstream and industrialised media is too constrained to go beyond the merest cursory appraisals. There is seldom time, or the will to open up to the sensitivity required for the discussion and deliberation of deep-rooted and complex social, economic, environmental and political problems. Discussions are never opened to emotional appreciation, except perhaps for fuelling indignation and anger.

It is seldom that informed discussion is held in the mainstream media that is prepared to go ‘fishing’ from within the unknown and unconscious for ideas that we have not yet formed. When one is at the limit of one’s reliable and tested thoughts, then learning can take place. However, and as Kevin Howley reminds us of the words of Raymond Williams, “the scale and complexity of modern industrial society [has] made it increasingly difficult for people to discern the connections, dependencies, and relationships that give structure and meaning to human communities” (Howley, 2010, p. 9). We are left unsure whether we can know the world with any certainty. As Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis noted, “everything is permeated by ambivalence; there is no longer any unambiguous social situation, just as there are no more uncompromised actors on the stage of world history” (Bauman & Donskis, 2013, p. 5).

One area that may offer some hope of a broadening of the willingness to enter into extended dialogue can be found in podcasting, which has demonstrated that there is an appetite for open-ended discussion that isn’t bounded by time and programming conventions. A podcast can be as long or short as required, and so there is no need to curtail a conversation to fit within an artificial period of engagement. The open nature of many podcasts has been a significant benefit to people who are prepared to engage with topics over longer periods of time. Unfortunately, there is a danger of these longer form podcasts being swamped by the ‘format’ style of engagement, but for the moment they can demonstrate that not every media interaction has to be structured around repetitive talking-points, which are compressed into short sequences, within a rolling programme format.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green reminds us that we live in a “society of many commodities, many knowledges, and many cultures.” In this society, we applaud diversity, but are not so sure about what we gain from having a multiplicity of forms of expression from a wide range of contributors to our civic discourse. We want diversity of voice, but not the multiplicity of systems and platforms that necessitate and support the diversity of voices.  As Jenkins et al. argue, “multiplicity is a prerequisite for diversity, but it does not necessarily entail it – more can all too often be more of the same. Equally, diversity thrives on multiplicity, but does not necessarily produce it” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. 260).

While we can acknowledge that there has been an explosion in the number of pundits and columnists in our media, to the extent that being a ‘thought leader’ is now akin to the ‘influencer’ as a phenomenon of our age, the multiplicity that this demonstrates does not itself signal increased diversity in the points of view that are accounted for and addressed. Being a television pundit or newspaper commentator takes great skill, but then the modes of address that need to be mastered are really only suited to a few people who have been trained to speak in certain ways, or make their point in certain distinct ways. Pundits and commentators have mastered the skills of defining and articulating a statement in such a precise and functional way. It doesn’t mean that they are representative of anyone other than themselves. As Bailey et al. remind us, “greater pluralism may be regarded as threatening the fragmentation of democracy rather than being its solution” (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 95).

Community radio, however, doesn’t have to be bound by the formatted programming expectations or the public relations manner that other forms of industrially produced media tend to take. Indeed, community radio can wilfully and openly experiment with its mode of address in a number of ways. Firstly, because one of the principal dynamics of community media is to de-professionalise the whole process of dialogue, and thereby enabling a wider range of voices to be heard and issues to be discussed. Zygmunt Bauman gets to the point, and provides a powerful motivating notion for community radio to take on the role of the facilitator of civic discussion when he reminds is that

“It is unjust that some individuals and groups are denied the status of rightful partners in social interactions, simply on the basis of institutionalised schemes of cultural values, in the building of which they did not participate on equal terms with others, and which discredit qualities which distinguish them or are attributed to them” (Bauman, 2011, p. 91).

There is nothing intrinsically determined within the dialogue process that prohibits discussion from taking extended forms in our media. Similarly, there is nothing inherent in the dialogue process that would prohibit radio and podcasts from being a suitable carrier for these conversations. As Jennifer Henderson reminds us, “the ability to speak freely is fundamental to the human condition” (Henderson, 2013, p. 278).  Therefore, in providing this basic service for the good of society, all we have to do is take account of some basic production techniques that help to maintain the clarity and legibility of a set of voices engaging in a mutual discussion. Everything else is negotiable. Turn-taking, active listening, informed progression, conflict resolutions, and respectful/empathetic concern for each person involved in dialogue, are the only requirements for a dynamic form of engagement. Radio and podcasting is well suited to this.

It doesn’t matter if the dialogue takes place in a studio or not. Indeed, the more that one can situate a conversation close to the lived environment of the people contributing, the better. What works from a practical point of view, is to ensure that the people taking part in a discussion feel comfortable, that they are under no pressure to contribute, and that they are included in the discussion by a facilitator who is experienced at bringing forward all forms of opinion and experience, and who doesn’t throw their own personality to forcefully into the mix.

A good dialogue facilitator, then, simply has to be an effective listener. Someone who can act on behalf of the listener to shape the conversation towards a central purpose that addresses the agreed topic of concern, while allowing for necessary transgressions, recaps, reinforcements, and so on. They don’t need to engage in unnecessary signposting, as so much of industrial media seems to think is needed, Instead, a good facilitator would trust that listeners can follow a discussion in some detail, as long as the technical detail is accounted for and doesn’t dominate. Despite what some may say about declining attention spans, there is a thirst for extended forms of dialogue based on complex layers of proposition combined with the analysis and synthesis of ideas.

Donatella Porta and Alice Mattoni examine the deliberative mode of operating in some detail. They note that there is an emphasis on four elements that are typically stressed in ideas about deliberative democracy. These are: “the transformation of preferences, the orientation to the public good, the use of arguments, and the development of consensus.” Firstly, according to Porta and Mattoni, it is essential to “stress that there are no easy solutions to complex social problems, or ones derived from big ideologies.” Indeed, any conflict of social preferences and ideas must be approached, according to Porta and Mattoni by “reliance on the potential from mutual understanding that might develop in an open, high-quality debate.” The belief in a common good is evoked, as is the importance of democratic practices to serve that sense of this common good.

These practices are then “constructed through communication, exchange of ideas, knowledge sharing,” and takes the form of “discussion among ‘free and equal’ citizens” which is “mirrored in the positive emphasis on diversity and inclusion”. As a consequence, we have to pay attention, argue Porta and Mattoni, to the development of structured arenas for the exchange of ideas, with the experimentation of some rules that should allow for horizontal flows of communication and reciprocal listening”(Porta & Mattoni, 2013, p. 173).

The question we might want to ask, is how do we ensure that dialogue goes beyond the strategic and integrates the lived experiences of the participants? Different people will have different experiences, with knowledge and wisdom that can be shared because it was acquired in different ways and over different periods of time. How do we ensure that contributors to our civic discussions can find their feet through the process of deliberation itself? The advantage of recording a discussion and then sharing it as a podcast or as a radio programme is that it can be heard again, and listened to by others. Never let a good conversation stay in the room, but share it and allow others to learn from what is being discussed.

When we participate in a conversation, few of us would start with the belief that we are an effective communicator. Rather, we have to learn to hear ourselves, while learning to reflect on what we have contributed. If we take the view that our contribution to a conversation is part of a dynamic exchange of offerings, as a series of gifts to the other people who we are joining in the conversation, then we will quickly learn to reciprocate and seek the ground for mutual understanding, rather than scoring points or achieving dominance.

The reconfiguration of our modes of public dialogue is no easy task, as it has many wider social links that can’t be easily corrected or integrated. But if we can channel only a small part of the dialogue process, we may find that people are willing to regularly participate in open discussions from which they draw a sense of belonging. Dialogue introduces transparency and openness to the process of civic engagement, and stops us from being on our own, alone with our thoughts, and instead we become part of a community. As Glasser et al. point out about the role of news and journalism:

“Public journalism calls for a shift from a ‘journalism of information’ to a ‘journalism of conversation,’ to use Carey’s (1987) useful distinction. The public needs to be informed, of course, but it also needs to be engaged in the day’s news in the ways that invite discussion and debate. And engaging the public – rather than merely informing it – requires a different approach to journalism and different routines for journalists” (Theodore L. Glasser and Stephanie Craft in Liebes & Curran, 1998, p. 206).

A healthy democracy requires a dynamic and open set of platforms that enable debate and deliberation. As Janna Thompson reminds us

“A conscientious ethical agent who has taken into account the criticisms and opinions of others is disposed to believe that his view is right, not just because it is the result of impeccable reasoning, but because he thinks he has taken into account the views of others and made an impartial assessment of them. He thinks his judgement is objective because it seems to him that he has transcended the merely personal, and has arrived at a conclusion that should be accepted by all rational agents” (Thompson, 1998, p. 62).

Bailey, O. G., Cammaerts, B., & Carpenter, N. (2008). Understanding Alternative Media. Oxford University Press.

Bauman, Z. (2011). Culture in a Liquid Modern World. Polity.

Bauman, Z., & Donskis, L. (2013). Moral Blindness – The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity. Polity Press.

Etzioni, A. (Ed.). (1995). New Communitarian Thinking – Persons, virtues, Institutions and Communities. University Press of Virginia.

Henderson, J. J. (2013). Toward an Ethical Framework for Online Participatory Cultures. In A. Delwiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 272-280). Routledge.

Howley, K. (Ed.). (2010). Understanding Community Media. Sage.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York University Press.

Liebes, T., & Curran, J. (Eds.). (1998). Media, Ritual and Identity. Routledge.

Porta, D. D., & Mattoni, A. (2013). Cultures of Participation in Social Movements. In A. Delwiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 171-181). Routledge.

Thompson, J. (1998). Discourse and Knowledge – Defence of a Collectivist Ethics. Routledge.


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