The media provides the resources we all need for the conduct of everyday life.
Roger Silverstone

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Introduction to the POLIS Intellectual Agenda: Mission and Scope

POLIS is a joint initiative of LSE’s Department of Media and Communications and the London College of Communication, which brings together a broad range of stakeholders with the dual mission to:

  • provide a forum for public debate and policy intervention on key issues of news journalism
  • produce outstanding research on the impact of mediation and journalism in our societies

Recognizing the rapid and radical developments in media technologies today, POLIS seeks to address the promises and risks that such profound changes have on our pubic life and cultural experience. POLIS is particularly interested in the ethical and political implications of journalism as it expands in geographical scale and cultural scope while still grounded in local-national contexts but also as it expands its production capacity to include everyday citizens as news-makers and new political actors.

To this end, POLIS’ commitment is two-fold. It is committed to promoting open and substantial dialogue on the changing structures, policies and practices of journalism, inviting diverse stakeholders to reflect on the dilemmas that journalism faces today. At the same time, POLIS is committed to enabling high quality, interdisciplinary research on the emerging challenges posed by formal networks and informal trajectories of news production and circulation. This is how the world is made available to us as a political, cultural and ethical reality.

POLIS is thus a hub of people and ideas which regards journalism not simply as a practical skill but also as a historical-political practice to be situated within broader changes in public life. It is also a theoretical project to be approached in the light of social and cultural theory and political philosophy. In bridging the applied with the theoretical, POLIS is uniquely positioned to engage with journalism at once as a set of contemporary challenges, around topical issues of professional sustainability, impartiality or democratic transparency, and as a set of long-standing ethical and philosophical questions about the very nature of technology, public communication and social change.

POLIS Rationale

Journalists and scholars have always grappled with the relationship between changes in public life and changes in mediation – in the technological, economic and cultural processes of spreading information across time and space. The formation of public opinion, the ideals of global citizenship, the marketization of information and the pleasures of mediated consumption are fragments of such an agenda on mediation and journalism. But ethical questions have not been addressed directly. Only recently is there an emerging interest in how the media’s transformation of space and time also transform our sense of self, our moral and political sensibilities within and beyond our communities of belonging. This raises a number of questions:

  • How can we conceptualise the experience of a world so multiply, continuously and intensely mediated as distinctly ethical experience?
  • How can we identify the forms of responsibility and effective action that emerge , or crucially, fail to emerge, in our mediated encounters with a world far beyond our reach?
  • How can we co-ordinate our efforts to develop concepts and practices that address the ethical implications of mediation as politically significant in a world traversed by unequal relations of power and multiple forms of social injustice and military conflict?
  • How can we work together to make journalism more sensitive towards issues of access, representation, power and difference?

These questions inform POLIS’ rationale. Indeed, the concept of POLIS plays precisely upon the suggestive, though controversial, idea that mediation turns the globe into one single realm of public life. Echoing the virtues and vices of its Athenian predecessor, POLIS throws into relief both the historicity of the ethical dilemmas we face today and the singularity of these dilemmas as they are now thoroughly defined by new technologies of mediation.

In times of privatization of the media and the subsequent commodification of news, POLIS reminds us that engaging with public life, through global networks as much as through the theatrical performances of antiquity, is part of our moral education as citizens of the world. In times of intense mediated proximity but also cultural distance and political conflict, POLIS further reminds us that public life cannot simply rely on the pursuit of what is useful to the polis or most likeable to its people, but it must principally rely on the pursuit of the good – some idea of how we can develop qualities that enable us to co-exist and flourish together.

POLIS is thus both an assertion about what contemporary public life is and a question about what kind of public life we would like to conduct. In this sense, POLIS’ focus on the ethics of public life concerns not only those strictly interested in journalistic ethics, media law experts, policy makers or regulators, as is often assumed- but every single citizen in our societies.

POLIS Profile

POLIS addresses the ethical impact of mediation and journalism in public life along three distinct but interrelated dimensions: 1) the expanding scale of mediation, which refers to the complex relationship between media, globalisation and public action, 2) the emerging scope of mediation, which refers to the controversial fusions of civil life with market forces that mediation has today intensified to an unprecedented degree and, finally, 3) the civic styles that mediation enables through new practices of deliberation, participation and consumption.

The three themes make up the programmatic agenda of POLIS. Around them, POLIS clusters together an array of specific issues and topics, addressing them in the form of research projects and publications; debates, seminars and conferences as well as graduate courses and summer schools. While providing a coherent structure that conceptually integrates distinct activities, the three agenda themes are simultaneously broad and independent enough to allow for diversity, flexibility and relative autonomy in POLIS’ planning.

1) Globalisation: POLIS sees globalisation as an uneven process, marked by inequalities in media access and representation, by parallel but insulated communications across national or regional media publics and by journalistic hierarchies of place and human life. This begs for a theoretically-informed understanding of global journalism as a dialectic between the trans-national differences in the politics and cultures of journalism and the ethical universals of fair access to technology, justice in representation and a cosmopolitan outlook towards distant others.

Moving away from mainstream views of the global as the sum total of world regions and of journalism as a practical skill, POLIS focuses on three ethical challenges that journalism faces in a globalised world: the political question of plurality, the cultural question of the ‘other’ and the humanitarian question of world suffering.

RELEVANT POLIS TOPICS OR PROJECTS:

  • The cultural question of the ‘other’, addressing the ways in which journalism mediates the often contested relationships between distant others, their understandings of each other and their capacity to act in ways that acknowledge and respect difference rather than foster conflict
  • The political question of plurality, addressing the ways in which media confront us with political difference at a global level; the increasing diversity of local publics; the uneven and often difficult development of media markets and their publics around the world, i.e. China, India, Russia etc
  • The humanitarian question of world suffering, addressing the ways in which media confront us with the issue of action in humanitarian emergencies; but also addressing action as the mechanism of legitimation of ‘just wars’ (Jihad; ‘war on terror’)
  • The economic question of inequality, addressing the ways in which incentives are created for investment in the media and communication industries in a way that forecloses many opportunities for the disadvantaged to access communication networks or to contribute to ongoing dialogue promoted by international agencies.

2) Market: POLIS approaches the relationship between media and the market as a multi-faceted phenomenon that effectively transforms relations of power, civic identities and public practices and therefore needs to be addressed at more than one level. Inevitably, POLIS is seriously concerned with the ongoing privatisations in the media industry and the liberalisation and deregulation of media markets, seeking to explore the extent to which these impact on journalistic practices and values as well as reconfigure the relationship between information and entertainment, public and private, global and local.

An important dimension of this process refers to the spread of a ‘corporate’ spin across domains of the social- such as politics, in political marketing, humanitarianism, in NGOs’ corporate communication and the nation-state, in place branding. Another dimension of the increasingly tight link between media and the market points to corporate institutions using the media to promote an image of transparency, public accountability and corporate social responsibility. In drawing attention to the multiple dimensions and tensions that traverse the relationship between media and the market, POLIS broadens the critical scope of a political economy of the media, by connecting these new and often ambivalent challenges for journalism with contemporary transformations in the exercise of political power, the democratic process and its forms of citizenship.

RELEVANT POLIS TOPICS OR PROJECTS:

  • Challenges located in media industries: privatisation of media industries; expansion and deregulation of commercial media networks; digitalisation of media services and individualisation of media consumption
  • Challenges located in corporate organisations: risks of mediated visibility (scandals and crisis management); ethical pressures on transparency (CSR and the rise of corporate citizenship; financial journalism); new media and emerging communicative spaces in organisations (blogs, online brand communities)
  • Challenges located in public life: the production of the media celebrity; political marketing; place branding and national identity; humanitarian branding; consumer ethics (the ethicalisation of food and fashion; tourism; toys and games); the role of financial journalism in democartising-cosmopolitanising corporations

3) Citizenship: POLIS is interested in identifying the changing civic cultures that the media enable today, by providing people with new technologies, information and practices to act as citizens in increasingly marketised, globalised and virtual environments. Part of this process of change is a reconfiguring of the concept of citizenship itself along a political and a cultural dimension. Whereas political citizenship is transformed through the emergence of novel ways in which new media, in particular, engage people with online forms of participation and political deliberation as well as facilitate offline civic action and activism, cultural citizenship is cultivated through the ways in which the immediacy and ubiquity of the media increase our awareness of the world at large and of our own sense of belonging to and engaging with it. There is an inherent empowering potential in such practices, as in the mobile media users now becoming generators of often powerful and subversive news content or in the new trans-national spaces of sociality such as Facebook and YouTube. Yet, insofar as such ways of being a citizen are harnessed by market interests and rationalities, there will always be ambivalence as to their implications on our civic cultures and public life.

The figure of the citizen-consumer captures the ambivalence between empowerment and consumption that such practices of citizenship entail and, at the same time, formulates the ethical challenges for news journalism in broadening our thinking about what a political community is about, what a cosmopolitan engagement with the world may be or how civic deliberation make take place in and through the media.

RELEVANT POLIS TOPICS OR PROJECTS:

Civic participation and social action: exploring how changes in the regulative regimes, policies and uses of media and communications affect civic cultures and public participation practices of ordinary people; how the use of new satellite technologies and interactive media in trans-national news networks contribute to new trans-national connectivities or help re-map the globe in terms of regional, insulated public spheres

Journalism and public deliberation: exploring how new media, specifically internet blogs, web sites and online networks and communities are changing the role and functions of the journalistic profession, the nature of news production and, broadly, the spaces of public information and communication; how financial news is becoming a driving force in global broadcast networks and a regulating factor in global transactions and corporate transformations.