Ethical Values of Participative Community Media – Some Notes

This is the first draft of a set of notes in which I sketch some thoughts about the ethical principles I try to keep in mind when working on community media projects. I intend to develop and explore these ideas, establish reference points for them, and report back from my experience of working on different projects. An ethical approach can’t be developed by one person alone, and must be part of a wider conversation, which I hope this contributes towards.

Introduction

I have suggested on many occasions that community media practice is different from forms of mass media practice. The distinction can be found in the inherent intentionality of community media as an ethical practice that seeks to empower people to represent themselves with and through media platforms and practices. At the heart of these practices are a number of ethical outlooks and principles that differentiate how, and in what way, people achieve a meaningful sense of self-determination within the collective enterprise of our social life, our community life, and the civic structures that shape the society we are part of. I am not deterministic about these principles, because my critical approach is both pragmatic and developmental. But I do expect that these principles should be open for discussion, consideration and challenge, from friend or foe alike. I don’t regard these ideas and concerns as permanent and fixed, but see them, instead, as temporary agreements that are part of an ongoing journey. A journey that is defined, not by a clear destination, but a journey that is defined by the continual revision of our experiences.

Accountability

At the centre of any ethical model is the precept of accountability. This can be intrinsic or extrinsic accountability, such as when we are subject to the oversight of an external authority in the public domain. This external body is empowered through precedent, tradition or law to supervise the practices and actions of individuals or groups who purport to be acting for the public good within the common domain of social interaction. An intrinsic model of accountability might best be expressed as personal conscience which is derived from personal reflection. Many people draw on the metaphysical frameworks offered by religious faith to shape and legitimise their intrinsic beliefs and conscience; while others seek to achieve a sense of ethical practice without a codified metaphysics to support their ethical considerations, and are simply motivated by humanistic moral concerns for collaboration and respectfulness.

An extrinsic model of accountability tends to be rules-based and codified in terms of social practice, whereas an intrinsic model of accountability tends to be values-based, with individuals free to apply and resolve ethical concerns in different situations, and according to the unique properties and characteristics of those situations. Some religious practices are focussed more on extrinsic observance, while others are focussed on intrinsic deliberation and reflection. For example, social legislation as enacted in law and statute, is capable of providing a clear and recognisable externalised framework of regulatory practices, but what this legislation can’t do is look inside people’s heads and hearts to regulate their beliefs and their values.

The limitation of law as an extrinsic mode of ethical practice, therefore, must be compensated with the development of educational practices that support and promote valued-based engagement. The law can proscribe different activities, but civic education must promote pro-social values that enable the family, the neighbourhood and the community to function and thrive. We can discuss what is included in the framework of operation of these values, but they must include: our respect for the environment and our stewardship of the world; our respect for one another and the recognition of our differences as we seek to mitigate the extremes of our perceived differences; and our ability to act freely and willingly in the changing circumstances we encounter. Accountability, therefore, has a dule role in community media practice. While broadcasting, as it is currently defined and understood by many professional practitioners, policymakers and lawmakers, is subject to a set of rules and expectations of standards of practice.

While these rules are subject to inspection through the process of legislation and public regulation, community media is also defined by a set of expectations that suggest that practitioners must be able to police themselves, without reference to an external public authority. The ethical practice of community media, therefore, might be loosely defined as a communications practices that intends to do no harm to those involved, those who are associated with a project, and those that are depicted in a production and sharing of media products. Harm in this instance must be recognised as a practical consequence, not just to the individuals involved or depicted, but to others who may be directly or indirectly associated with production and distribution of different forms of media. Usually this is defined in terms of audiences and segments of an audience, such as children, but it has a wider social ramification in terms of short term and long-term impact on models of civility, social cohesion and the equitable distribution of media power.

Community media practice, moreover, seeks to support individuals to develop the capacity to understanding that the actions they undertake may, in whatever form or other, may impact detrimentally or positively on those that are associated with the media that we create, share and consume. There is considerable concern at present, as we have seen in the United States, that the views, utterances and opinions that are shared on social media platforms are having a detrimental effect on the body politic. Some argue that the platforms that distribute these utterances should be free from the consequences that may result from the circulation and sharing of those forms of media. In an ethical society, no one can be entirely free from the consequences of their actions. We each have a responsibility to ensure the good order of our society. The protections that are given to internet platform providers, for example, offer them protections under the law which ordinary members of the public do not have, and which sets them free from legal restrictions that other publishers have to face when held accountable for their distribution practices.

What makes community media different from other forms of media, then, is that accountability is founded at the lowest level of operation. To adapt a dictum, that which is being done at the lowest level is accountable at the lowest level. With commercial media, the accountability chain is usually regulated through management and monitoring systems which lead, ultimately, to the satisfaction of paying consumers. Alternatively, in public service broadcasting, accountability has typically been structured in accordance with corporate policy-making guidance and editorial regulations. In community media, however, which lacks a systematic and hierarchical infrastructure, accountability has to originate with the practitioners and advocates themselves, and the communities that they immediately seek to serve. In community media practice, responsibility cannot be foisted to an external management authority, but must be satisfied through the engagement practices within communities themselves, and then expedited to regulators.

This places additional burdens on the shoulders of the community media practitioner, who have to police and keep themselves in check. They have to continually ask if the media they are independently generating meets their values of ethical accountability? It would be impossible to produce a rule book for every eventuality encountered in community media practice, but it is entirely possible that we can collate conversations and discussions that reflect and depict different matters of ethical concern about community media production techniques, and discuss these concerns within a supportive network of shared and collaborative deliberation. Open discussion is therefore a necessary corollary for ethical community media practice. The question, however, is how do we create this safe and supportive environment for these discussions to take place and move forward?

Transparency

To facilitate accountability there must be due regard for transparency. In mainstream broadcasting the decision-making and resource allocation processes for programming tends to be shrouded in mystery. The producers of news and social affairs programmes, for example, seldom face questions from the public. There is seldom much open discussion and deliberation of the process of creating and producing mainstream media programmes. The arts of programme making are practiced with little reference to the views and concerns of the public, except through opaque public opinion surveys that the broadcasters keep confidential and hidden from scrutiny. Most broadcast programmes, on both television and radio, are offered as a pre-packaged consumer product in the marketplace of competing service choices. Accountability is limited to occasional editorial feedback and management oversight from the commissioning organisation, or just occasionally from the public regulator Ofcom. Seldom, however, are decisions, planning and preparations for programmes open to civic deliberation and discussion.

The world of the media producer is largely defined by a set of internal, mysterious and murky practices that don’t often get shared or discussed in public and with those they are meant to serve. Part of the reasoning behind this well-established approach is the expectation that audiences are too nebulous to be engaged with purposefully, or too limited in their collective mental capacity to engage with the issues and the production processes that are being deployed. In other words they are too stupid to deal with the complex matters of programme making. This is because the audience development model intrinsically separates the production of content from the consumption of content. In this model there can be no hindrance that distracts the expert producers from their tasks. Members of the public may have awkward questions about the way that a programme is created, and for what reason it was put together in the first place, but producers of content are seldom asked to account for their assumptions and decisions.

The model of accountability that defines community media therefore seeks to maximise participation in the process of programme making, programme sharing, and particularly the organisational management and governance of the platforms and organisations that enable the production of these programmes. The bast way of doing this, as many community media practitioners can testify, is to ensure that programme making processes are discussed publicly and shared in the public domain in an open and transparent manner. If the Linux operating system, for example, can be developed and operationalised using open platforms for development and deliberation, there is no reason why community and public service media cannot make use of, and further develop, similar systems and practices to ensure transparency. As issues are raised and discussed, deliberated and decided on, the forum model of engagement offers a well-tested method for collaborative discussion. The open forum, whether online or in person, is an established process for collaborative decision-making. The open forum model enables ideas to be shared widely, and it opens-up the scope of who can present and engage with those ideas. Community forums are not a perfect solution, but they do point to examples of deliberation that allow a community of interested people to come together to decide what their social purpose is, and how they might achieve it.

This form of transparency is a radical option that enables conversations and discussions to take place in plain sight. There are no hidden topics, no matters discussed in secret, no exclusionary professional practice. All contributors are open and visible to one another in the network. The process of engagement can be followed, tracked and reviewed. If the expectation is that transparent decision-making is built-in to a community model at the start of the process, then it is more likely that the public and the participants will trust those who are making programmes. Many may want to advocate for the retention of commercial confidentiality by maintaining the veil between the producers and the consumers of a programme, which is fine in the commercial economy. However, should funding for programme making come from any form of public body, then all discussions and conversations should be undertaken in the public domain as a share resource within the creative commons. If you want your programme making enshrined in commercial confidentiality, then don’t take any money from the public, because you will be subject to high levels of scrutiny and public engagement about what and how you are creating content. The scale of a broadcaster or media organisation is not an issue either. Big or small, well-funded or run on a shoestring, the principle stands. If you want public funding for your content, then the public must be involved with the process of making it.

Learning

With the take-it-or-leave-it forms of media that we are used to, any sense of learning or development is too often defined in terms of one way processes. Community media seeks to put learning at the centre of its practices, and as such should be regarded as a developmental process in its own right. That we might seek to understand the changing nature of our world and ourselves, is not something that media production practice is commonly coupled with. Usually, there is a high degree of compartmentalisation between the media that is created to entertain us, and media that is designed to inform us, to empower us, to educate us. However, just because we are engaged in an educational process, it does not mean that anyone is learning anything. A lot of what is made for distribution through the mass media is designed to confirm our knowledge and assumed sense of understanding of the world. Learning, however, in this developmental view, is about increasing and expanding our sense of comprehension.

Too much of our media is established on the basis of a set of narrow expectations of what is already possible. Commercial media largely defines what we already know, and it sticks to that paradigm. There is little scope for expanding our understanding and demonstrating that we can learn from one another about the world we share. Topics get reduced to repeating memes, rehashed statements and regurgitated points of view. We imitatively stick to what we already know about one another, rather than creating space for the exploration of what we don’t know, and fostering a sense of what is possible and what is potential.

The questions I would like to explore in my future work include: what does learning mean in practice? How do we know that anything is being learnt or anything different being comprehended? What are the different levels of learning and comprehension that are being facilitated? What is the model of learning and comprehension development that is best suited to community media projects and situations? We tend to be dominated by a transactional model of learning, in which our established and publicly funded education sector has become grounded. Like a once free roaming ship, we have been grounded on the rocks of the market and are no longer free to explore our own paths but must service the needs of commerce. The education industries that have taken the place of once independent learning institutions, now view learning as solely serving the needs and purposes of the economy. The education industry proposes that individuals drive the economy based on the skills and information they are able to acquire, master and collect, which they realise for their exchange value in the marketplace. What this model forgets, however, is that learning is difficult and challenging, and that it must be defined by the unique needs of those who put themselves forward to face the challenge of looking at the world in a different light.

Learning is not about the conformation of knowledge, but rather the incremental push into new fields of comprehension and understanding. The community-focussed model of learning raises questions, therefore, about the legitimacy of those who occupy positions of authority and thought leadership. It allows those who are often ignored to raise legitimate questions about their social position, based on their inherited experiences and the presumed relevance to others. Community and open learning should not, therefore, seek to shut down discussion and debate when it comes to attempting to understand how the world works. Community media should ask, instead, how those who have assumed a position of unchallenged dominance in which their take on the way that the world works is held as the primary view, should step aside and let others contribute to the conversation.

The assumption that only some categories of privileged people are inherently best placed to express a legitimate opinion about the way the world works, is itself best questioned, not by deplatforming and silencing those people, but by opening-up and building forms of engagement and exchange that ensure that many more people able to have their voices heard and take part in the discussion. Learning, and the open-learning model, therefore, are core values of community media, because they demonstrate, in practice, that alternative models of engagement are possible. Open learning suggests modes of engagement that are inclusive, deliberative, and transparent. Open learning suggests that decisions about what to include in the curriculum and the cannon are taken in open public forums, through a process of civic deliberation, and are therefore designed to serve the lives of those typically excluded from the decision-making process and its associated roles. Yes, skills are essential. Yes, knowledge is essential, but wisdom is essential also. The way that we bridge tacit and at-hand community knowledge, so that it interfaces with technical expertise, is fundamentally important. Community media has the potential, in my experience, to bridge this learning divide, because it offers a space that isn’t defined by rigid boundaries of assumed knowledge, but instead, seeks in its own way to explore and discover what the future topics of concern might be.

Inclusion

Inclusion is a touchstone issues for many, but what do we mean by inclusion and how is it best defined in terms of media participation? A straightforward definition of inclusion would indicate a desire on the part of those operating and running a social organisation to involve as many people as possible from as many different backgrounds as possible. No voice should go unheard, and no person should be left out because of what or who they are or represent. This can be defined on a number of levels, some of which may mutually contradict the intent of the other. Inclusion, in my experience, is not the same as access based on merit. The meritocratic model of engagement with our media does not challenge or change the terms of inclusion. It does not ask who and how some people get to define what counts as merit above others. It does not make clear what the process and structure is that enables some individuals to demonstrate that they are worthy of the labels of merit that are ascribed to them. So much that is claimed to be merit is in fact guarded social status.

The bias that is built into the media economy, moreover, is heavily weighted towards people from certain economic, cultural and ethnic social backgrounds. British media organisations still largely recruit employees from a small number of ethnic groups, they tend to recruit from well-established educational institutions, and they tend to prioritise the experiences of white middle-aged men, especially when it comes to allocating executive power. Merit, then, cannot be viewed as the same as competence. There are many people who are marked as worthy of significant merit within our communities, though many of them do not carry any practical skills, expertise or competence. They have assumed their status because of their sense of entitlement. If anything, community media offers to open up an alternative space where merit is stripped away from the calculation of who gets to speak and share their views. Community media, when it is run progressively seeks to question the established assumptions that it is those with status who are most entitled to speak, and challenges this privilege by asking who, in turn, is competent and experienced to speak.

Competence is built not just from acquired knowledge, but also from practical experience. Community media has the potential to create and offer spaces for people to define themselves, as measured by their experiences and their competence, not by their acquired status. To work effectively this process of inclusion, as it is based on the recognition of different levels of competence, has to remain open. It must encourage a continuous questioning of the assumed competence capacity of those involved. Those who assume they are competent must be reconciled with those who are not assumed to be competent, but who in practice may demonstrate their growing competence. Our understanding of what it means to be competent in practice, then, must be continually reformed through conversations, deliberation and discussion. For advocates of community media, this means putting oneself in a humble position in which we recognise that others may offer greater insight than ourselves, and that they may speak more directly to a topic of concern than we are able.

Inclusion, therefore, is also about restraint. It is about those with greater experience and status holding back, while supporting those with less experience as they seek to develop the confidence to come forward and demonstrate their competence. Inclusion is about equitable access to resources and platforms that allow us to express our personal and social experiences. It is about appreciating oneself as a participant and a contributor with something valuable and worthwhile to offer. Inclusion is not just about opening the doors so that people can service their own needs, but is, instead, about opening the doors so we can service one another’s needs. We all have personal needs, but a truly inclusive society is one that enables us to restrain our individual desires to satisfy or confirm those needs, and instead help to define and create a public space that puts other people’s needs ahead of our own. Much of what is called public service broadcasting today is actually the organised, industrial servicing of private needs. Public service broadcasters are neither inclusive nor equitable. Community media, therefore, offers some potential space for a genuinely inclusive model of media participation to be realised and established. Inclusion should be seen, therefore, as the establishment of mutual and reciprocal interest in which we put our skills and talents to service of the greater good.

Action

To be truly ethical, though, actions must speak louder than words. We can’t bring about progressive and inclusive change simply in theory, we have to roll our sleaves up and demonstrate how this is achieved in practice. Action, therefore, is the defining factor. It is through our actions that we demonstrate our virtue. Many people – myself included – can talk masterfully about the actions that we should or ought to take, but few of us are able to show what they might be like in practice. What people say they will do is often different from what they actually do in practice. Similarly, we can’t measure or appraise our success simply by recording and noting activity in principle. This has to be demonstrated in practice, and as it works on the ground, with real people who are empowered to make a difference in their own terms.

We cannot separate policy and principle from practice and participation. They are indivisible. The adage ‘that is all very well in theory, but how does it apply in practice,’ is our guide. Likewise, the pragmatic mantra should be that we are seeking to understand the ‘difference that makes the difference.’ Community media in my experience is about deprioritising management models that focus on projected outcomes which are measured by statistical performance indicators. Community media works more effectively when deploying an alternative model of community development, with its focus on enabling and empowering people though participatory activities that are close to people’s lived experiences. This community development model has a principle focus on development through action. The Asset Based Community Development model is a good example of how a community media project might be successfully realised. ABCD looks at the assets that are at hand in a community. These assets are often seen in the tacit skills, community knowledge and practical wisdom that usually gets overlook or displaced by professionalised forms of management engagement and planning. Asset based planning, alternatively, allows community media to be developed in a way that is close to the forms and patterns of community life, based on the exchange of community knowledge. In this way, community media when practiced in accordance with these principles, provides a space for the sharing of community concerns.

The cycle of engagement, moreover, is limited when it is informed by the cycle of practice, and vice versa. We can spend lots of time searching for a model of community engagement that fits with our ideological outlook, or we can, instead, change the frame of our expectations and look at what surrounds us and what works in practice. Community media must be alert to the practices that will enable, foster and support practical action at the lowest and least competent level of society, and in the broadest possible terms. Community media, moreover, can do this because it is founded on the principles of social accountability which reverse and pull in the opposite direction to the toxic exploitation of social media, the inbuilt biases of corporate media, and the bureaucratic cycles of regulation that sustain public service media.

Summary

To summarise, these principles – accountability, transparency, learning, inclusion, and action – are simply a starting point for further discussion. The advantage of working from a set of principles, however, is that we can afford to be more flexible in the way that we try to implement them. We must face up to the differential impact that our principles have when they are applied in practice. Responses will be mixed and asymmetric. I would like to get away from thinking about outcomes altogether, because they usually take care of themselves in both intended and unintended ways. I would like, instead, to concentrate on the values that drive what we are willing and able to contribute, because, I believe, it will ultimately lead to deeper rooted capacity for change that goes way beyond blunt performance indicators and headlines in press releases and newspapers. As Aldus Huxley noted the need for a model of the politics of the good to replace the politics of power. The most easily overlooked part of the transformation process, according to Huxley, is the change we bring about for ourselves. I believe that community media has the potential to involve more people in this process. People who are more open to the involvement of others in our conversations. We can’t simply wave a wand and change society, but we can start to change things about ourselves.

Liked it? Take a second to support Decentered Media on Patreon!