This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the first Necessary Knowledge for the Public Sphere conference at the Annenberg School in Philadelphia. Sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, the Center for International Media Action (CIMA), and the Media Mobilizing Project, the conference was a chance to reflect on what it meant to be an “engaged” scholar, how we define impact (both in terms of our own research and in terms of the media itself), and the funding opportunities available for scholars researching communications and the media.
The following are some random thoughts about what impact means (in terms of media impact) and where impact is measured (in terms of “the impact of meaningful research.”) A lot of these ideas can be found in more systemic form in the paper on power and authority in communications research that I’m presenting at the ICA this May.
Traditionally, communications scholarship has defined media impact in at least three ways. Under the first definition, a particular event or group can impact something else (for example, society) through the media. This understanding of media impact is most common in traditional social movement research. Here, the media is seen as a channel or conduit through which framed messages must pass … or as a tool which can be used in a strategic way to advance political goals. In this research, the primary analysis is of a) the group doing the framing or the “pushing,” and b) the target of that message or force. “The media” itself is secondary, though not entirely irrelevant.
In short: people or groups or social forces use the media to have an impact.
According to the second definition, the media itself is seen as its own force that “impacts” something else. This tradition parallels (though it does not exhaust) both the long-standing “media effects” research program as well as its erstwhile academic rival, hegemonic or Gramscian studies of the media. The model of media impact articulated under the first definition:
SENDER –> MESSAGE –> CONDUIT (MEDIA) –> RECEIVER
still largely applies, but the focus has now shifted to the middle of the model, to the media itself as a force that either impacts the message (as originally crafted) or the receiver … and without necessarily needing a “message” defined at all. According this model of media, the media does things– to people, or culture, or society, or politics. In short: the media, by itself, has an impact. It makes people vote a certain way (or doesn’t); or or serves to maintain hegemony (or doesn’t).
Under the third model, the media comes to be seen as an institution with a particular concentration of power (usually economic capital) that has a structural impact on politics and society. As in the second model, the media is still something that “does things”– that has an impact– but it is now seen as more of an institution than a medium, more of a collection of offices and people and practices than a signal or a conduit or an electronic wave.
In short: the media, through its institutionalization in social space and through its possession of economic capital, has a structural impact.
(as a side note, I think its safe to say that hegemony, as defined by Gitlin and others, is really a combination of model two and three. In fact, its obvious that none of these categories are mutually exclusive, but sometimes making broad distinctions is useful.)
As we’ll see in a moment, this third understanding of media impact is the closest to my own perspective, though not entirely so. And under all three of these models– this is the key point– the media is treated as an independent variable (how does “the media” impact “x”?)
To turn these questions into funded research, the next step is usually to ask how these impacts operate at the level of policy. One relevant example of the way this works goes as follows: a researcher examines how media concentration impacts the diversity of voices populating the public sphere. The critically engaged scholar (and remember, not every scholar is critically engaged) then takes the next step and advances an argument, either on her own or in collaboration with social movement groups, about how policy choices (usually in the form of government regulation) can affect, mitigate, exacerbate, or retard the impact just documented.
Now, all these are perfectly fine ways to think about impact. Indeed, the very fact that we’re now considering the media as a collection of powerful (capitalist) institutions that have a deep structural impact is a wonderful research advance. The fact that we’re now seriously talking about the additional steps an engaged academic might want to take when confronted with these political and social questions is even better, But, this isn’t the way I think about my own research. And it might be nice someday for grant makers to think about impact the way I think about it, and to thus give me lots of grant money. Until that day, however, I’ll be perfectly content to present my thoughts at the ICA, and on this little blog.
My own research takes the final understanding of the media and adds to it. I see the media as a cluster of institutions that possess both economic and symbolic (cultural) power ALONG WITH cultural authority. Without getting into the entire distinction here between power and authority, let me just say that they are not the same thing, and while power usually refers to the ability to command, authority refers to the right or legitimacy of command (I talk about this a lot more in my paper). Drawing on Bourdieu and John Thompson, we can visualize media institutions (journalists, newspapers, etc) as being composed of multiple types of power and, correspondingly, multiple types of authority. And various external forces then impact these media institutions (technology changes, competition from other social actors and social movements, legal and regulatory decisions, etc) correspondingly affect this power and authority.
In short: the media is seen under this model as a dependent variable (how does “x” impact “the media.”
There is a problem at this point; at least, there’s a problem when it comes to thinking traditional types of funding. Impact under this model must be measured at the level of the media institutions themselves rather than at the policy level. In other words, researchers are forced to look at the relevance of “development y” (for instance, the emergence of new networked technologies)” for journalism rather than the relevance of “development y” for public policy.
What would it mean for foundations to fund this kind of research?
For one thing, grantors would have to become comfortable looking at how social developments impact non-public institutions (ie, market-driven private companies), something they’ve seemingly been quite reluctant to do. Often, the only places willing or interested in studying these institutions are tied to the industries themselves or have overlapping interests (a la the Knight Foundation News Challenge)
Even more importantly, grant makers would have to start thinking about democracy and policy in a different way. In this new way, changes in journalism (as the democratic art and practice par excellence, a la Carey) would, quite obviously, have a profound impact on policy and democracy in the larger, political sense. If we want to understand how democracy is changing, how could we not attempt to understand how journalism is changing? In the end, ironically enough, we are back at the original insight of James Carey– while journalism is possible without democracy, democracy is impossible without something much like journalism. To study one is to study the other.