By Robert Shalett, director of communications, The Foundation Review
Civic engagement is both a strategy and an end itself for many foundations. As a strategy, foundations may support efforts to ensure grassroots organizations involvement in addressing issues such as school reform, access to healthcare, and or other social issues as part of a larger initiative. Other funders and nonprofits support civic engagement as the goal – to engage citizens in defining what issues they want to address in their communities. (See Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement for more information.)
Regardless of the goal, funders who support civic engagement have an interest in local, independent media. Although there have been some recent victories in the fight against mega-media holdings, we have seen a trend over the past decade in this country towards corporate consolidation of media markets.
Why were media regulations established? Independent media is a vital component of a free society. Our founding fathers envisioned a media that promoted free speech for citizens that was free from government propaganda and retaliation.
As media moguls’ dominance grew in the Gilded Age, another important reason for independent media arose. Although it wasn’t the only reason for American involvement in the Spanish-American War, the powerful newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer prodded the American government into war.
Why does this matter? If the sources of media are limited to a few, so is our perspective. Let’s look at some recent examples of independent, local reporting making a big difference:
- Fort Lee, N.J. Bridge Scandal – Chris Christie was considered by many – and still may be – a frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race. His administration is currently being investigated for playing ruthless politics and causing a traffic situation for political rivals. Because of a local reporter who investigated a routine traffic story, a series of emails, which led to the uncovering of potential dirty tricks, was uncovered.
If citizens relied on a few, large, remote corporations or wire services to report their local news, would this alternative story been revealed?
- Vandalism in Grand Rapids – A few years ago, Wealthy Street businesses in Grand Rapids suffered from anarchist and anti-gentrification vandalism. Because of reporting from local media outlets such as The Rapidian, community members and citizens were able to acquire objective information about the recent transformation of Wealthy Street. As this business owner states, “Wealthy Street is always changing and always will.”
Again, if all Grand Rapids news came from a Detroit, New York, or Washington office would the community have been strong enough to band together and encourage accurate information and dialogue?
What can we do? Today, we have a much larger selection of news sources than previous generations’ three television stations, a handful of radio stations, and a local newspaper. However, the digital age brings in other limiting issues. The volume of information sources is so large, that our normal, human reaction is to, understandably, self-select. Why can this dangerous?
By self-selecting what we are comfortable hearing, we won’t know all sides. We, in fact, are hiding in a filter bubble which may be self-selected or selected for us.
And that’s the point: If a few corporations, with similar agendas, sop up media outlets in any given market, we won’t have a choice anymore. Independent media will go away, and so will the story.
Support independent media. Support grantmakers like the Benton Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Park Foundation, and others who work in this area, and support grant programs that invest in independent media. And, above all, question all media sources.