What is Participatory Civic Media?
December 13, 2017 | Perspectives | Journalism & Media


Senior Program Officer Jennifer Humke explains the Foundation’s commitment to supporting participatory civic media.

Civic media is not new. It has been used throughout the centuries to shape public discourse and enable greater participation in the public sphere. Women suffragettes created and circulated cartoons, pamphlets, and postcards a century ago to expand women's rights, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s gave rise to a vibrant alternative press advocating for equal rights for African-Americans. At different points throughout history, people have come together to use the civic storytelling technologies available to them to influence social norms and shape policies that govern their lives.

Today, advancements in technology and communications have dramatically expanded the ability of everyday people to use media and storytelling technologies for social change. The Movement for Black Lives, for example, has been enabled and fueled by social media and mobile technologies. Through the use of a hashtag – #BlackLivesMatter – the Movement for Black Lives has recast public narratives about police brutality in communities of color. Social media and digital technologies have made it possible to shine new light on issues, such as police violence and the miscarriage of justice, that for decades had been marginalized from public debate because these issues disproportionately affected communities that held little political power, and as a result didn't have access to traditional gatekeepers of news and information.

Our grantmaking in participatory civic media is designed to expand and accelerate citizens' participation in our democracy.

It should be noted that the power of #BlackLivesMatter lies both within the information it circulates, but also in the social connections it creates. Civic media has always been participatory by nature, and today social media and digital technologies have both facilitated the spread of information among networks of individuals and reduced barriers to community building and organizing across geographies. In other words, civic media is not new, but the pace and ease with which it can be spread has increased exponentially in the last decade.

In 2016, MacArthur expanded its Journalism and Media program to include support for what we're calling participatory civic media. It grew out of an interest in exploring the ways in which new media are empowering everyday people to contribute directly to public discourse. It was clear that platforms such as YouTube and Twitter had been facilitating new kinds of unmediated public conversations, amplifying the voices of communities that may have otherwise been stifled, and enabling citizens from across the globe to build community and organize for change.

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Since making our first participatory civic media grant in early 2016, MacArthur has focused on supporting organizations working at the national level to expand the use of new media tools, platforms, and practices among historically marginalized communities, including youth. Some grantees, such as the Opportunity Agenda and Black Youth Project are integrating new media tools and practices into their long-standing efforts to engage their constituents in social change efforts. Others, such as Define American and DoSomething.org were borne out of the opportunities created by the emergence of new media and social technologies. They represent a new breed of media and social change organizations whose models are based on the ubiquity and participatory nature of mobile technologies and social media.

We also have supported research, innovations, and field building activities to better understand opportunities at the intersection of new media and civic engagement. A grant to the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California has supported field building activities to begin to define and cohere the vast and varied landscape of participatory civic media organizations. Our support for Emerson's Engagement Lab is funding a series of case studies of participatory civic media projects, which will help us better understand this emerging "field" and its needs.

Although civic media is not new, we believe the opportunities presented by new media to engage more American's in our democracy is untapped. Our grantmaking in participatory civic media is designed to expand and accelerate citizens' participation in our democracy. We believe that this grantmaking, along with our support for professional nonprofit reporting and nonfiction multimedia storytelling, will create the conditions for a truly engaged, pluralistic society.

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