Government agencies, news outlets, and community-based organisations (CBOs) play an important role in mediating civic life, however most are now struggling with their relevance in an increasingly networked and polarised society. In this climate of distrust, the Engagement Lab at Emerson College conducted a study to learn how activists and civic institutions are leveraging media and digital technology to rebuild and reimagine new approaches to civic discourse and action.
Through our conversations with over 40 civic media practitioners in Boston, Chicago, and Oakland, we published a report that provides a way of evaluating media and technology designed to facilitate the democratic process.
Prioritising the social in media
In our report, we feature two important examples of resources that support the growing movement of data journalism. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) and the Citizen Police Data Project (CPDP) both work to surface and provide access to data used for reporting on the topic of housing inequalities in urban contexts and police abuse respectively.
Through our research, we learned that projects like AEMP and CPDP are not built with the aim of solving problems like the rising cost of housing or police abuse, rather they are designed to facilitate discourse and build relationships around these problem spaces. Drawing on these findings, our report defines civic media as the work of making digital tools and media to facilitate discussion and strengthen relationships around specific problems.
Civic media takes time
The work of creating media and technology that supports democratic discourse takes time.
Social infrastructure is defined as the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support. If a group has strong existing relationships with a community, they will be on the right side of the plot. If they are brand new to a community, they will be on the left.
The second dimension of civic media practice is the objective -- how practitioners think about the impact of their work, that is, either in the short-term or long-term. Some projects are designed with novelty in mind (like a social media campaign designed to garner quick attention), and some with longevity in mind (like a publicly designed mural on a community centre).
In our report, we outline a group of activities that push the evolution of civic media projects towards becoming essential features of social infrastructure, which are used to address various social inequities.
These four activities include:
- Network building: The act of convening either in person or online for the purpose of social connectivity.
- Holding space for discussion: Ensuring that there is time and space for discussion that makes room for multiple viewpoints and is tolerant of dissent.
- Distributing ownership: The designer or convenor takes time to build capacity of all stakeholders to reproduce or modify designed activities.
- Persistent input: Inputs into products or process from stakeholders derive from long-term relationships and continue beyond initial release or implementation.
What does civic media practice look like for data journalism?
The CPDP is a website that provides access to complaints filed against police officers in the City of Chicago. The data in CPDP comes out of decades of legal work by the project’s founder, Jamie Kalven, and his collaborators to make the records publicly available. The website makes the data accessible through a graphic interface that features visualisations and summary statistics about complaints. The impetus to make these records
available to the public came from Jamie Kalven’s long-term experience as a reporter in the Stateway Gardens public housing project. There, he observed and conducted extensive interviews with residents that were regularly harassed by a group of police officers. By garnering persistent input through his long-term reporting about the lived
experience of residents in the Stateway Gardens public housing project, he represented the problem of police harassment by focusing on the concept of impunity, showing how officers working in spaces such as housing projects could act however they wanted.
Jamie shared ownership of the project with a network of activists and lawyers who were working to bring more accountability to the actions of officers in the Chicago Police Department.
Through extensive FOIA requests and an eventual State Supreme Court ruling, Jamie and his colleagues managed to gain access to decades worth of reports about police complaints.
With the content in hand, Jamie has described how he and his colleagues assumed the function in civil society of curating and making information available to the public.
In the time since the deployment of the database, Jamie has observed that relationships with institutions of municipal and state government have become regenerators of legitimacy.
This is where institutions that are viewed with increasing distrust and suspicion regain some degree of credibility, in this case, by publicly acknowledging the importance of CDPD in their work as public servants.
This shifting relationship with the City of Chicago demonstrates that the value of technological innovations for civic life are not dependent on any single user base or network of relationships, but that they are supported by a range of constituents with varying and potentially competing interests.
Reflecting on civic media practice
The case of the CPDP reveals key activities that pushed the database from a novel resource to an essential resource for activists, journalists, and public officials working in the space of accountability for police abuse.
To help others engage in civic media practice, we’ve provided a series of questions that media and technology practitioners can use to reflect on and visualise their progress along the proposed graph.
In particular, we encourage practitioners to consider the following:
- Network building: Have you developed new connections in the community you’re working in?
- Holding space for discussion: Are you taking steps to engage people outside of your immediate network?
- Distributing ownership: Are you creating opportunities for stewardship by stakeholders?
- Persistent input: Are you engaged in long-term conversations with stakeholders?
By offering these questions and descriptions of activities, we hope our report will solidify common principles of civic media and provide direction for those invested in transforming civic life through media practice.
Read the full report here.