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"Media and democracy" is a set of ideas advocating reforming the mass media, strengthening public service broadcasting, and developing and participating in alternative media and citizen journalism. The stated purpose for doing so is to create a mass media system that informs and empowers all members of society, and enhances democratic values. It is a liberal-democratic approach to media studies that advocates the reformation of the mass media with an emphasis on public service broadcasting and audience participation, through the use of citizen journalism and alternative media channels. A media democracy focuses on using information technologies to both empower individual citizens and promote democratic ideals through the spread of information. Additionally, the media system itself should be democratic in its own construction  shying away from private ownership or intense regulation. Media democracy entails that media should be used to promote democracy as well as the conviction that media should be democratic itself; media ownership concentration is not democratic and cannot serve to promote democracy and therefore must be examined critically. The concept, and a social movement promoting it, have grown as a response to the increased corporate domination of mass media and the perceived shrinking of the marketplace of ideas.
The term also refers to a modern social movement evident in countries all over the world which attempts to make mainstream media more accountable to the publics they serve and to create more democratic alternatives
The concept of a media democracy follows in response to the deregulation of broadcast markets and the concentration of mass media ownership. In their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, authors Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky outline the propaganda model of media, which states that the private interests in control of media outlets will shape news and information before it is disseminated to the public through the use of five information filters. In this way, the construction of the mass media as a for-profit enterprise behaves in a way that runs counter to the democratic ideals of a free press.
Media democracy advocates that corporate ownership and commercial pressures influence media content, sharply limiting the range of news, opinions, and entertainment citizens receive. Consequently, they call for a more equal distribution of economic, social, cultural, and information capital, which would lead to a more informed citizenry, as well as a more enlightened, representative political discourse.
A media democracy advocates:
- Replacing the current corporate media model with one that operates democratically, rather than for profit
- Strengthening public service broadcasting
- Incorporating the use of alternative media into the larger discourse
- Increasing the role of citizen journalism
- Turning a passive audience into active participants
- Using the mass media to promote democratic ideals
The competitive structure of the mass media landscape stands in opposition to democratic ideals since the competition of the marketplace effects how stories are framed and transmitted to the public. This can "hamper the ability of the democratic system to solve internal social problems as well as international conflicts in an optimal way."
Media democracy, however, is grounded in creating a mass media system that favours a diversity of voices and opinions over ownership or consolidation, in an effort to eliminate bias in coverage. This, in turn, leads to the informed public debate necessary for a democratic state. The ability to comprehend and scrutinize the connection between press and democracy is important because media has the power to tell a society’s stories and thereby influence thinking, beliefs and behaviour. The concept of "democratizing the media" has no real meaning within the terms of political discourse in Western society.
Media ownership concentration
A key idea of media democracy is that the concentration of media ownership in recent decades in the hands of a few corporations and conglomerates has led to a narrowing of the range of voices and opinions being expressed in the mass media; to an increase in the commercialization of news and information; to a hollowing out of the news media’s ability to conduct investigative reporting and act as the public watchdog; and to an increase of emphasis on the bottom line, which prioritizes infotainment and celebrity news over informative discourse.
Cultural studies have investigated changes in the increasing tendency of modern mass media in the field of politics to blur and confuse the boundaries between journalism, entertainment, public relations and advertising. A diverse range of information providers is necessary so that viewers, readers and listeners receive a broad spectrum of information from varying sources that is not tightly controlled, biased and filtered. Access to different sources of information prevents deliberate attempts at misinformation and allows the public to make their own judgments and form their own opinions. This is critical as individuals must be in a position to decide and act autonomously for there to be a functioning democracy.
The last several decades have seen an increased concentration of media ownership by large private entities. In the United States, these organizations are known as the Big Six. They include: General Electric, Walt Disney Co., News Corporation, Time Warner, Viacom, and CBS Corporation. A similar approach has been taken in Canada, where most media outlets are owned by national conglomerates. This has led to a reduction in the number of voices and opinions communicated to the public; to an increase in the commercialization of news and information; a reduction in investigative reporting; and an emphasis on infotainment and profitability over informative public discourse.
The concentration of media outlets has been encouraged by government deregulation and neoliberal trade policies. In the United States, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed most of the media ownership rules that were previously put in place. This led to a massive consolidation of the telecommunications industry. Over 4,000 radio stations were bought out, and minority ownership in TV stations dropped to its lowest point since 1990, when the federal government began tracking the data.
Media democracy movement
Several activist groups have formed on local and national levels in the United States and Canada in response to the convergence of media ownership. Their aim is to spread awareness about the lack of diversity in the media landscape, and direct the public to alternative media. Additionally, these groups press for political solutions to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to "oppose any further media consolidation".
In India, the non-profit Media Access Project is a public interest law firm that advocates media democracy by "protect[ing] freedom of expression, promote[ing] universal and equitable access to media outlets and telecommunications services, and encourag[ing] vibrant public discourse on critical issues facing our society." The group has raised numerous concerns with the neoloiberalization of media in the United States in recent years, particularly with regards to media ownership, net neutrality laws, and access to the wireless spectrum.
In Canada, OpenMedia.ca is a similar group that promotes media democracy by encouraging open communication systems through online campaigns, events, and workshops. In particular, the group's "Stop The Meter" campaign to petition against proposed usage-based billing was the largest online appeal in Canadian history.
Internet media democracy
The World Wide Web, and in particular Web 2.0, is seen as a powerful medium for facilitating the growth of a media democracy as it offers participants, "a potential voice, a platform, and access to the means of production". Because the web allows for each person to share information instantly with few barriers to entry across a common infrastructure, it is often held up as an example of the potential power of a media democracy.
The use of digital social networking technologies to promote political dissent and reform lends credibility to the media democracy model. This is apparent in the widespread protests in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring where social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allowed citizens to quickly connect with one another, exchange information, and organize protests against their governments. While social media cannot solely be credited with the success of these protests, the technologies played an important role in instilling change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. These acts show a population can be informed through alternative media channels, and can adjust its behaviour accordingly.
Though the model aims to democratize the opinions expressed within the mass media as well as the ownership of media entities themselves, feminist media theory argues that the media cannot be considered truly inclusive or democratic insofar as they rely on the masculine concepts of impartiality and objectivity. Creating a more inclusive and democratic media would require reconceptualizing how we define the news and its principles. According to some feminist media theorists, news is like fictional genres that impose order and interpretation on its materials by means of narrative. Consequently, the news narrative put forward presents only one angle of a much wider picture.
It is argued that the distinction between public and private information that underpins how we define valuable or appropriate news content is also a gendered concept. The feminist argument follows that the systematic subversion of private or subjective information excludes women's voices from the popular discourse. Further to this point, feminist media theorists argue there is an assumed sense of equality or equalness implicit in the definition of the public that ignores important differences between genders in terms of their perspectives. So while media democracy in practice as alternative or citizen journalism may allow for greater diversity, these theorists argue that women's voices are framed within a masculine structure of objectivity and rationalist thinking.
Despite this criticism there is an acceptance among some theorists that the blurring of public and private information with the introduction of some new alternative forms of media production (as well as the increase in opportunities for interaction and user-generated content) may signal a positive shift towards a more democratic and inclusive media democracy. Some forms of media democracy in practice (as citizen or alternative journalism) are challenging journalism's central tenants (objectivity and impartiality) by rejecting the idea that it is possible to tell a narrative without bias and, more to the point, that it is socially or morally preferable.
Critics of media democracy note that in order for the system to function properly, it assumes each member of society to be an educated and active participant in the creation of media and exchange of information. In countries with a high illiteracy rate, for example, it would be next to impossible for average citizens to take part and fully engage with media, and adjust their behaviour accordingly in society. Instead of promoting democratic ideals, this would in turn fracture society into an upper-class that actively participates in creating the media, and a lower-class that only consumes it, leaving individuals open to the manipulation of information or media bias. This is not far from Nancy Fraser’s critique of the Habermasian public sphere, with regards to the bracketing of personal inequalities.
There is also a problem when trying to blend the role of journalists and traditional journalism within the scope of a media democracy. Although many media outlets are privately owned entities, the journalists whom they employ are subject to intense training, as well as a strict code of ethics when reporting news and information to the public. Because a media democracy relies heavily on public journalism, alternative media, and citizen engagement, there is the potential that all information exchanged be treated as equal by the public. Not only would this negatively affect an individual's agency in a democratic society, but run counter to the notion of a free press that serves to inform the public.
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