To answer this question, let’s contrast two definitions of civic media: our own with that of America’s most prominent civic media advocate. If you Google “civic media” you’ll find scores of responses leading you to the Center for Future Media at M.I.T., which defines civic media as “any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents. Civic media goes beyond news gathering and reporting.”
By contrast, we define civic media as any media that makes citizens and government responsive and accountable to each other in shaping the future of any community: local, state, national or even international. Civic media, as we see it, is inherently dialogic and outcome-oriented: its ongoing public dialogs exist in order to make citizens and government responsible to each other in the formulation of intelligent policy decisions.
Note the different core relationships in these definitions. At MIT, it’s communication among citizens that matters most. With us, it’s communication between citizens and government. (At the international level, civic media facilitates decisions reached by the c0mmmunity of nations with citizen input.)
These definitions are complementary. They can enhance each other. Where the Center for Civic Media focuses on technological advances developed in conjunction with MIT’s Media Lab, we were able to create a functioning civic media in Chicago in the 1990’s that simply piggy-backed on existing print and electronic community and mainstream media. And while the Center for Civic media seems primarily focused strengthening civic engagement at the local level, our more recent civic media formats focus on civic engagement at the national level. They respond to the mood of the electorate in the 2006 and 2008 elections: to a desire for a cleaner government that listens to citizens and gives them an informed voice in the political decisions that affect their lives.
As we see it, the timing for a dialogic, problem solving civic media is perfect. Not only has President-elect Obama promised something like it, but it is technologically feasible. The bond of mutual responsibility between citizens and government that marks it can be sustained by modern interactive communications technologies already in place. Can this media-mediated bond transform the current, deeply rooted hostility of citizens towards government to a working and productive partnership? That’s the challenge, and we think the time for it has come.
To go deeper into the definition of civic media, check out the What is Civic Media? forum held at MIT in September of 2007. (I’ll have some comments later, this account requires close reading that I haven’t done yet.)
Hey, people at the Center for Future Media at MIT, what do you say?
It’s a free country: are there any OTHER definitions of civic media out there?