To formulate answers to this question, the Media & Democracy program at the Social Science Research Council facilitated a workshop on the information needs of communities. Participants were invited to assess the current state of information needs, and to make media policy recommendations about how to address the provision of high-quality information that can promote community decision-making, coordination, accountability, and connectedness. What gaps persist in the provision of this information? Whose information needs are being well-served, and whose are not? How can actionable information be provided efficiently in a time of crisis? What role do large online platforms play in providing—or hindering—the provision of this information? And what can be done by regulators and others to help mitigate these issues?
Led by Nikki Usher, Josh Darr, Michael Miller, and Phil Napoli, the workshop took stock of the changes that have occurred in the decade since the landmark 2011 report from the Federal Communications Commission “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.” The January 2023 workshop will culminate in a special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which will come out in June 2023. The workshop was sponsored by the Knight Foundation.
Scholars at the Information Needs workshop evaluated where media policy has been, and where it is currently headed. Media policy in the twentieth century focused on business issues, like media ownership and competition; content issues, such as indecency and public-interest programming; and broadcast spectrum and internet infrastructure. At the end of the century, It was marked by a retreat from government taking a more active role in shaping the media industry, culminating in the notion, prominent at the turn of the twenty-first century, that new internet technologies had solved media policy goals such as competition, localism, and diversity.
Twenty years later, the picture looks quite different, and it is clear that these issues have not been addressed by a relaxed regulatory climate nor the rise of new communications media. The reach and scope of local news media has continued to shrink; scholars at the workshop examined the shifts in ownership that has led to the decline of local news, as well as the regulatory approaches proposed that have thus far not been enough to meaningfully stem the tide.
The workshop explored how community members manage to obtain the information they need in a fragmented media environment, balancing different sources—local news, social media, and in-person social networks—to inform themselves. Papers addressed how information needs were being met in cases where news media cannot, or will not, serve certain communities, such as how financial information circulates among racially and economically marginalized people. In addition, scholars covered how the new media has historically left marginalized communities out of their vision—or actively worked to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and undermine independent media that served Black and brown communities.
Another theme of the workshop was to examine the downstream effects of the migration of community information infrastructure from local sources to global platforms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials took to Facebook to communicate health information and correct mis- and disinformation in their communities. This “platformization” of community information needs has created gaps and distortions in the provision of information. Local events, like racial justice protests in a specific town, can be cast as national news when they are disseminated on platforms with a national reach. These local events can be stripped of local context and relevance for the communities in which they take place in the process, or even become fodder for national disinformation or harassment campaigns.
The workshop’s specific focus on media policy initiatives—what has been tried and what has not yet been tried—at the local, state, and federal levels has the potential to spark meaningful discussions among policymakers and potentially spur action.