Just hit the red button

May 4, 2007

With party politics and voter turnouts waning but many citizens active on local and global issues, experts ponder what might stir a democratic revival

Today's interactive media can help both people and communities become powerful participants in the political process, argues Stephen Coleman

Like every communication innovation from the printing press to the internet, television has been condemned for undermining civic culture. It has been blamed for distracting viewers from worthier social activities, appealing to the lowest common denominator, reducing politics to spectacle and personalising the impersonal, but at the same time being praised for making politics more accessible, transparent and meaningful.

Research findings can be found to support either perspective, but we should be uneasy about generalisations relating to the effects of watching TV.

According to uses-and-gratifications theory, different people use the same sources and content for quite different reasons and with contrasting expectations, and watching TV shows results in a range of gratifications derived from these differentiated combinations of needs, motives and expectations.

The great historic aim of public service TV in Britain has been to spread knowledge by exposing viewers to stories, images and ideas they might not have set out to find for themselves. Citizens are invited to expand their expectations and derive unexpected gratifications from content they encounter, at least in part by accident. In the era of industrial broadcasting (vertical transmission from a small number of production centres to a dispersed mass audience), the public-service objective was relatively easy to promote. Panorama, Election-Night Specials and News at Ten are examples of television productions that came to assume an institutional significance in British civic culture, stimulating national conversations.

But industrial broadcasting is in its death throes for three reasons.

First, in the past ten years television has moved to a multichannel spectrum in which no single broadcaster can claim to speak to or for the public.

Second, the terms of the relationship between broadcaster and audience are changing fast. In the past, television was about the transmission of symbolic content from producers to receivers, conceived as a mass audience.

Digital interactivity allows viewers to respond to television content in ways that reconfigure the concepts of broadcasting and audience.

Third, media technologies are no longer concentrated in the hands of broadcasters. Today, more films, documentaries and records of everyday experience are made by ordinary citizens than by professional broadcasters.

From the YouTube website to the camcorder pictures of police arresting suspected terrorists, one witnesses the migration of creative and filtering powers from the studios to the streets.

As with the invention of television, these changes engender moral panics as well as idealised expectations. But one thing is certain: if democratic citizenship is to be well served within the new media landscape, thinking about how that will happen needs to move beyond the language and assumptions of the broadcast model.

First, there is a need to give new meaning to the concept of public-service communications. Just as in the 1920s Europeans realised that public-service broadcasting organisations were essential if the new medium of radio was to serve public purposes, so today we must discover how we can help citizens use interactive technologies to access hitherto closed and mysterious structures of power.

This amounts to more than allowing cameras into Parliament or making fly-on-the-wall documentaries about policy-making. The public, whose power as consumers has been enhanced by opportunities to talk back to companies and form networks around common interests, is still largely locked out of the political system.

The Government has been depressingly slow to engage in and respond to the numerous conversations taking place in the online world, to which most politicians are strangers. Broadcasters have been generally unimaginative and risk averse in their use of the red (for interactivity) button; they have preferred to promote dubious quizzes and inane, self-selected polls rather than to find creative ways of expanding the public sphere. We need to conduct a comprehensive national review of all the spaces of mediated civic interactivity with the aim of finding ways to integrate and replicate communication networks to genuinely empower citizens and communities.

Second, we need to develop a concept of media literacy relevant to interactive media convergence. People need to know how to make sense of the diverse narratives that are features of everyday citizenship, from audience discussion shows to blogs, from online communities to reality television, from user-generated news stories to interviews on Newsnight . Making sense of these narratives is no longer a question of old-style media literacy, which aimed to help viewers to think critically about the messages transmitted to them via their television sets.

Viewers are now more mobile in their access to communications, more active in their responses, more creative as producers and more likely to question the authority of official information. Nurturing people's capacity to enter media space as critical participants rather than as passive recipients is one of the most pressing educational tasks of this complex media age.

Stephen Coleman is professor of political communication, Institute of Communications Studies, Leeds University.

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