Grassroots media are small-scale, developed by and accessible to members of a local community or group, and conceptualized as a key tool in the process of social change. They have developed out of concerns with problematic representations of women and other marginalized peoples in mainstream media, as well as limited access to the media and political participation for marginalized groups, especially women, around the world. Women’s movements worldwide have thus worked to develop grassroots media that are conceptualized and based locally and that operate very differently from mainstream commercial or state-run media. The goals of feminist grassroots media are varied, but generally involve the desire to strengthen the self-confidence of women and other marginalized peoples, and to empower them to challenge, change, and take charge of the media and their representations. Another increasing concern encouraging the development of grassroots media in the era of global capital is the protection and preservation of local cultures and cultural diversity.
Grassroots media have resulted from a vibrant history of struggle and research on gender and communication, focusing on representations of women and marginalized peoples in mainstream media and on women’s access to media. In Beijing in 1995, the media were included for the first time in the history of UN women’s conferences as a separate area of analysis, especially due to this history of concerns over lack of access to media and over mainstream media representations (Pandian 1999). Research has shown that there has been little improvement in recent years in the quality or quantity of news and information about women in the world’s news media, and that when such news does appear, portrayals of women are sexual in nature, focus on their victimization, or are confined to the private sphere (Gallagher 2005; Pandian 1999). In addition, feminists have continued to question the relevance of mainstream media content to the lives of women, arguing that it lacks useful information about women’s rights or the significant problems they face in their lives.
One result of these critiques has been the development of grassroots media that involve women and other marginalized peoples as central to their production. This is especially important as research on media and social change has led to the recognition that social change does not occur merely through the provision or diffusion of information via official or mainstream media channels. Social change, including processes of democratic decision-making, is best served through a variety of media, especially grassroots, participatory media that work to stimulate dialogue at the local level and to shift conceptualizations of power through empowering people at the grassroots. These shifting conceptualizations of power include the recognition of women and other marginalized peoples as significant social actors whose communication experiences and ways of communicating are varied, but always rooted in their daily experiences within specific social environments. These differences, therefore, must be recognized and heard in order to democratize the circulation of ideas and redistribution of power (Riaño 1994).
Principles Of Organization
The emphasis in grassroots media on bottom-up or lateral forms of communication and social change developed from a typology of women’s participation in communication and social change, described by Riaño (1994) in Women in grassroots communication: Furthering social change. The history of these developments begins with top-down forms of development communications, generally originating outside the control of the community and aimed at mobilizing a community to change their behavior. Such projects have been seen as one of the most serious obstacles to the development of grassroots media, as a result of their top-down nature. They have been critiqued for their conceptualization of the local community as subjects to be mobilized by outsiders in processes in which participation is understood as acceptance of the message and the proposed set of corrective actions. The primary aim of such projects is not to empower the community to control the projects themselves or to question the hierarchical position of the sender and receiver of media messages.
This model was followed by conceptualizations of participation as development, in which women are understood to be participants in a two-way interaction that is still primarily controlled by the information source. This model does not recognize differences in power and access to resources, on both personal and societal levels, that make it difficult for people to participate as equals. Projects conducted using this approach can result in unequal distribution of resources, prompting the question of who ultimately benefits.
Arising out of the critiques of development communications and participation for development approaches to media use have been alternative communication models that encourage participation for social change, promoting a more horizontal communication model in which women at the local level conceptualize and develop their own media uses and define for themselves the social change they are working toward. This model encompasses forms of popular communication, including community media, group media, grassroots media, and “citizens’ media” (Rodriguez 2001), which are owned and operated by nonprofessionals, and emphasize access to and participation in the production of media (Riaño 1994).
Women’s Grassroots Media
The trajectory of research and experience that moved conceptions of media use from more top-down development communication models to alternative, community-based models of media nevertheless did not consider gender as part of the analytical framework. The ways in which gender influences participation in media production or mediates experiences of subordination for men and women were not considered in these models (Riaño 1994). As a result, feminist communication research began including a gender perspective in these analyses, conceptualizing women as active subjects of struggle.
Women’s grassroots media movements have shifted over time. Critiques of second wave feminism found fault with its problematic, essentialist notion of global sisterhood in which all women were assumed to share the concerns of white, professional-class western feminists whose goal was to gain legal equality with men through the integration of women into the patriarchal public sphere. These efforts corresponded to conceptualizations of the relevance and success of alternative media in terms of the extent to which they challenged or changed the messages or structures of mainstream media. Feminism’s “third wave” shifted focus from an essentialist understanding of women to a recognition of the need to embrace multiple identities, tactics, and causes. This led to the awareness of the impact of differences among women based on race, class, sexual orientation, and geographical location, and that everyone’s different experiences of oppression affect their communicative interactions with others. The resultant emphasis on building solidarity across differences globally has occurred alongside shifts in structure from traditional social movements to new social movements, which are more loosely constructed and fragmented than earlier, more centralized structures, and to conceptualizations of grassroots media as key to the process of media democratization.
Many of these changes in theorizing communication and media have occurred in response to shifting conceptualizations of power, from a binary conception of the powerful and the powerless to more complex models of power as contextual, contested, and continually shifting. These more complex models conceptualize the individual as having multiple and shifting identities and degrees of power, depending on context. This view understands individuals as creating power by taking a stand when they engage in actions that shape and reshape their environments, rather than as passive recipients of rights provided and protected by the state. This model of power widens conceptions of political action to include efforts toward social change made in the quiet events of everyday life, a conceptual move that blurs the traditional public/private divide that has centrally concerned feminists.
Another fundamental shift in thinking about these issues is related to feminist critiques of the public sphere as conceptualized by Jürgen Habermas. Feminists have critiqued the assumption that everyone can equally participate in the public sphere, arguing that such an assumption denies inequalities and differences and acts to strengthen patriarchal hegemony in the public sphere. For example, Nancy Fraser (1992) has problematized the Habermasian notion of the public sphere. Her conceptualization of multiple public spheres and counter-publics provides a theoretical framework for understanding feminist grassroots media and how they interact with more traditional media and political structures to enact social change.
A central contribution of women’s grassroots media projects around the world has been the recognition that differences of race, class, gender, geographical location, and sexual orientation must be acknowledged in order to bring about individual and collective transformation. This has led to women’s grassroots media movements around the world that are challenging existing hierarchies of power by foregrounding voices unheard in mainstream media, by providing women with access to resources, and by working to develop collective, consensus-based, and nonhierarchical organizational structures.
Participation And Observation
A major focus of grassroots media projects is their attention to process, where the emphasis is on marginalized people learning by doing through a process intended to be empowering to the community or the group involved. And yet this empowerment is arguably not the end stage of grassroots media production processes, which often give rise to complex new problems as the empowerment of previously marginalized peoples challenges existing power structures. The focus on process over product in grassroots media has included a challenge to the concept of objectivity and its tendency to dehumanize media representations, the blurring of the producer/audience dichotomy, the promotion of personal testimonials as valuable media content, and the recognition of indigenous knowledge as valuable (Cottingham 1989; Crafton Smith 1989; Riaño 1994; SrebernyMohammadi 1996; Werden 1996).
Grassroots media have incorporated participatory research methodologies as a means of involving women and other marginalized peoples in the process of identifying specific problems and coming up with possible solutions. Media messages produced using participatory research methods involve collective processes in both the discussions that lead to problem identification and the collective production of media to address or solve problems at the community level. Grassroots media also promote participation in that they work to demystify the processes of production through training and skill-sharing workshops, so that the technologies become accessible to those who would otherwise not have access, including the illiterate. In just one example of many, grassroots video production has been very successful in the efforts of women, many of them illiterate, to increase their skills and advocate their rights. Producing community videos has led women to develop themes centering on practical problems in their productions, which have then been used to influence policymakers.
While research on grassroots media has demonstrated its usefulness for empowerment and individual and community identity-building, years of grassroots media activism do not seem to have produced much noticeable change in regional or national communications policies, especially in the global south (Pandian 1999). Gender issues generally remain off the radar of mainstream media as well as the agendas of media policymakers globally. This includes development news, which remains a focus of much of the mainstream media in the global south and which does not often challenge the patriarchal attitudes of societies. The increasing privatization of media worldwide has not helped in this regard, either, as with increased privatization, the nation becomes less accountable to the concerns of its women regarding media (Pandian 1999). In addition, regional and national cultural differences regarding what kind of media content is seen as “decent” or “sexist” make it difficult to draft international or even regional codes of media conduct. Nevertheless, the power of grassroots media to transform individuals and communities and challenge power structures continues to encourage the development of new grassroots media projects globally, as well as research on their impact in the age of globalization and commercialization of the media.
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