May 1 2009

Media Justice: Out of the Margins

Media policy & the fight for social justice

Most people in the United States don’t interact with Congress or the Federal Communications Commission on a daily basis. Most know little about who owns our media system, or the array of laws and rules that regulate media ownership and public access.

What some do know, however, is that accessing these media is harder when you’re poor, a person of color, a woman or queer; it’s harder when you’re living in an isolated rural community or a segregated and policed urban neighborhood. These communities also know that misrepresentation in news and entertainment shapes the contours of their public and private lives.

Traditional strategies for reforming media have failed to make media policy change that these communities can feel. Despite the fact that journalists of color and civil rights advocates have historically led the fight for media policy change and ownership diversity, the communities these leaders represent often find no entry point into the contemporary movement to transform media policy. As a result, the structural barriers to media access and ownership that most impact their lives are rarely the subject of national advocacy.

Structural racism and other forms of institutional inequity have shaped and continue to dictate power relations in our media system. People of color are disproportionately underrepresented as governmental decision-makers, media owners, producers and journalists. Poor people in rural and urban communities struggle to gain access to high-speed broadband and retain access to basic communication systems like phones, free TV and books.

To address these conditions, media activists and community organizers have to view media change beyond the narrow—though critical—scope of federal policy change, and begin to see it as a clear social justice issue: When communities already pushed to the margins of public debate are further excluded by diminished media access and communication rights, it is a crisis of democracy and a threat to fundamental civil and human rights.

In every region in the country, media activist groups and cultural and social justice organizations are organizing for media change using an emerging model called media justice. Media justice is a political framework for understanding and transforming media conditions with the goal of progressive social change. Its strategy for lasting policy change centers on collective organizing, collaborative campaigns and local-to-national alliance-building to create regional constituencies of underrepresented communities and social justice organizations.

Media and technological infrastructure are like the nervous system that holds the body politic together, communicating hope or pain, safety or disconnection. The media justice framework suggests that transforming media rules and conditions is in service to the primary goals of racial justice, economic and gender equity, and human rights. That means we must prioritize deep and lasting alliances with mass-based social justice organizations and their members—both as constituents and partners in the fight for a new and better media system.

Media justice seeks to ensure a democratic redistribution of power in which our media, like our democracy, must be produced, regulated and owned in partnership with a diverse and engaged public, with legal mechanisms to restrict corporate power and ensure respect for the First Amendment and human rights.

What does media justice look like?

In Kentucky and across Appalachia, the regional media organization Appalshop is working to ensure the communication rights of rural Americans—including prisoners in rural jails. The New Mexico Media Literacy Project is working with its partners to pass a state bill mandating media literacy as an elective in public schools. In Philadelphia, the Media Mobilizing Project worked with taxi drivers and others to win a campaign for municipal wireless. (See p. 10.) In Seattle, Minneapolis, San Antonio and the San Francisco Bay Area, media and cultural organizations are providing services and advocacy to ensure that communities of color and others aren’t left behind by the DTV transition. (See p. 7.) These groups are members of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net)—a national alliance of regional organizations working together to engage disenfranchised communities where they live on the issues they care about—and build a powerful integrated movement for media change through the lens of media justice.

Media change is about more than transforming the rules and conditions that reduce democratic engagement for under-represented communities; it demands participatory regional-to-national organizing that achieves new social conditions, builds community and reclaims progressive power for us all.

While a small band of committed individuals is beautiful, a majority inspired to demand the media system we all deserve is infinitely better. To inspire and build this majority, what was once a small band of committed Beltway lobbyists must now engage millions of organizers and everyday people from all walks of life.