Negotiating the Boundaries of a New Media Ecology

Nour Halabi is one of the seven 2013 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar.  Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2013 Seminar discussions.

The self-immolation of street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi in Tunisia ignited a wave of protests throughout the Arab world that ultimately led to the dissolution of the governments of Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt as well as ongoing political unrest in Syria, and demands for political reform in Kuwait, Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. The repercussions that this singular incident came to have on the entire region has since raised questions regarding the role of new media in shaping discourse surrounding an event and in mobilizing civil movements. While some have referred to the Arab Uprisings as the “Twitter Revolutions” in reference to the social networking platform through which many activists provided updates, others insist the impact of new media has been overstated. Regardless of the precise role social media and new media played in mobilizing local populations or informing international discourse, one thing is starkly evident: new media has redefined the boundaries of our media ecology as well as the relationships between media politics and diplomacy. Against the background of this debate, the Milton Wolf Seminar 2013 problematized several aspects of the emergence of new media news sources. First, it presented the possibilities offered by new media to shape, contribute to, challenge and re-appropriate dominant narratives. More importantly, this year’s seminar shed light on the theoretical and practical implications of changes that new media introduced to the media ecology. Finally, panelists extended their arguments to the analysis of both the Burmese and Syrian cases, allowing a more detailed vision of the real-world applications. For the purposes of this paper, I will concentrate on the broad theoretical arguments along with the case study of the Syrian uprisings to develop my arguments on the dynamics of the new media ecology.

The concept of media ecology, as defined by panelist Ben O’Loughlin, encompasses a system of interdependent media actors who are simultaneously local, national, and transnational. The introduction of new media news sources has thus changed the media environment and radically transformed the process of shaping strategic narratives, introducing higher levels of transparency alongside a wider set of media actors. Essentially, these new mediums have removed several legal and financial barriers of entry to the marketplace of ideas, opening the field of “making news” to civil society organizations, non-state actors, and even individuals. This opening is particularly due to the introduction of  the internet. One panelist, Ahed el Hendi working with voiced a particular belief in the importance of information technology for modern political dissent. Equally, panelist Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW Lebanon, a well-regarded news source available solely online, spoke of the centrality of the internet as a medium for news outlets. These arguments demonstrate the role that new media is playing in expanding the international democratic public sphere in the Habermasian sense, enlarging the discursive environment surrounding media events and allowing various perspectives that ultimately contribute to mainstream narratives and hold decision makers more accountable (Dahlberg 2001: 616-7).

On another front, researchers from various fields have focused on the implications of media ownership and concentration (Herman & Chomsky 1988, Carey 1988, McChesney 2007, Arsenault and Castells 2008). Placing new media within the theoretical frameworks of research on media ownership allows us to assess the theoretical implications of the new medium. When viewed through the lens of Chomsky’s propaganda model, which stresses that the media privilege the voice of governments and big business–the recent transformations in the media ecology suggest changes in the broader role of journalism. The introduction of new players into the marketplace of ideas presents challenges to established media sources, which may be more entrenched within Chomsky’s propaganda model of media governance and control. Further, the accessibility of new mediums and the sourcing of information at the grassroots level from bloggers, activists, and other civil society members minimizes operation costs and diversifies sources of information. In turn, the divergent financial and legal circumstances of new media can impact the angles taken by new media news sources in comparison to their old media counterparts. Consequently, online news sources could thus provide a wealth of perspectives that allow the public to better understand real world events. According to Ghaddar for example, the challenge for new media journalists, such as those working for her organization, is to seek out and expose “human aspects of the news at a more grassroots level.”

However, the impact of the widening sphere of media actors does come at considerable cost to professional norms of journalism. The vague concept of the “citizen journalist,” which is increasingly pervasive in new media, extends the practice of “making news” from the hands of traditional journalistic professionals to those of witnesses, community members, and beyond.  At the same time, although the propaganda model criticizes norms of fact-checking because most credible authorities have ties to political power centers, journalistic norms ensures news credibility and information quality. There is an increasing need to create reporting standards and fact-checking practices that apply to community and citizen journalists (O’Donavan 2013: 33). Another consideration raised during the Milton Wolf Seminar discussions was the impact of new media on newsrooms and newspapers of the world. Panelist Yaroslav Skvortsov, Dean at MGIMO-University placed his unwavering faith in the resilience of newspapers. Meanwhile panelist, Briar Smith, Director of the Iran Media Program, presented the results of an in depth investigation of the patterns of news acquisition among Iranians in “Finding a Way: How Iranians reach for News and Information.” The results of this Iran Media Project investigation shed light how Iranians conceive of different media within the new media ecology and the importance of each in shaping public opinion. The question that remains is whether in fact new media pose a threat to old media in terms of their agenda and readership. The example of Wikileaks discussed during the seminar, demonstrates tensions between the new media sources of information and old media news outlets already engaged in shaping strategic narratives. Primarily, as Arsenault and Castells  (2008) have highlighted, the introduction of Internet and the digitization of information has contributed to the decentralization of communications industries, and the creation of horizontal self-communication of many to many (4). Equally, such decentralized networks are beginning to overtake valuable advertising revenues, as digital advertising continues to grow its share in relation to global advertising revenues (Arsenault 2011).

Seminar panelists also sought to answer the question, are strategic narratives indeed necessary to justify policy action; and thus must they be protected? If so, what threat do alternative news sources that undermine dominant narratives pose to effective political response? O’Loughlin argues that strategic narratives serve an internal function of garnering popular support for foreign and domestic policy decisions as well as an external function of justifying foreign policy decisions to ensure the support of the global community. Consequently, despite the increased complexity of strategic narrative creation, and the accompanying incorporation of new voices, negotiations need to lead to conclusions that guide political action. To this, Ahed El Hendi, a Syrian activist, responded that exposure to divergent narratives is precisely what allows marginalized voices the space to thrive within hegemonic discourse. Using the example of the divergent narratives on Syria’s role in the Middle East following the controversy accompanying the plot to assassinate former Lebanense Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other critical moments, El Hendi argues that such moments of negotiation are essential for democracy. At a more theoretical level, the interaction of divergent narratives and information excesses allows the public a more nuanced understanding of events. The proliferation of an international network of media actors that interact and shape narratives surrounding media events places the issues of public diplomacy and global democracy in new perspective. Traditionally, scholars have viewed democracy as a political system contained within the geographic limitations of a sovereign nation (McGrew 2002, Anderson 1983). The arrival of internet-based media actors has enabled the creation of a global civil society that negotiates strategic narratives at a transnational level. This calls into question the role of government in a democracy and the practice of diplomacy beyond national borders.

In conclusion, the seminar confronted the negotiation of strategic narratives with the mechanisms of the new media ecology. Discussions recognized the interaction of all the media actors involved and identified the impact of new actors on journalistic norms and the perspectives of various narratives. Panelists also explored the implications of the new media ecology for media governance and ownership. Effectively, new media has enlarged the circle of media actors and thus the discursive environment at both the local, national and international level. It is essentially transnational events such as the Arab Uprisings that will continue to shed light on the dynamics of the new media ecology. Alongside these developments, seminars such as Milton Wolf  will be essential in outlining the professional norms and strategies best adapted to the new media environment.

Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Arsenault, Amelia & Castells, Manuel (2008). The Structure and Dynamics of Global Multi-Media Business Networks. International Journal of Communication. 2, 707-748.

Arsenault, Amelia. (2011). The Structure and Dynamics of Global Networks in the Media, Telecoms, Gaming and Computing Industries. In Dwayne R. Winseck & Dal Yong Jin (Eds.) Political Economies of Media: The Transformation of the Global Media. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Carey, James W. 1989. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.Herman, Edward S, and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Dahlberg, Lincoln (2001). The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere. Information, Communication & Society, 4(4), 615-633.McChesney, Robert W. (2007). Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media. New York: The New Press.

McChesney, Robert W. & Nichols. John (2010). The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. New York: Nation Books.

McGrew, Anthony (2002). Transnational democracy: theories and prospects. In, Stokes, Geoffrey and Carter, April (eds.) Democratic Theory Today: Challenges for the 21st Century. Cambridge, UK, Polity Press, 269-294.

O’Donovan, Betsy (2013). The (new) industry standard. Nieman Reports, 67(1), 33.

O’Loughlin, Betsy (2001). The Political Implications Of Digital Innovations: Trade-offs of democracy and liberty in the developed world. Information, Communication & Society, 4(4), 595-614. doi:10.1080/13691180110097021



About the Author

Nour Issam Halabi

Nour Halabi holds a Masters in Comparative Political Science from the London School of Economics and a first year PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on political communication, political economy of the media and media policy and regulation in the Middle East.

About the Milton Wolf Seminar

Co-hosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the annual Milton Wolf Seminar tackles contemporary issues at the nexus of diplomacy and journalism – both broadly defined.  The 2013 Seminar, “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance” explored the critical role of diplomats and journalists in shaping the outcomes of what we call global geopolitical pivots. Pivots in this case refer to emergent geopolitical shifts around which multiple stakeholders – from major powers, to multilateral organizations, to bloggers working in isolation – seek to provide input on the most appropriate outcomes. Examples of contemporary global pivots considered at the 2013 Seminar included: the ultimate resolution of the Arab Spring countries, the shifts in geopolitical approaches to Syria, calls for regime change in Iran, and the intense Western attention to reform movements and government change in Burma (Myanmar). A diverse range of academics, policy makers, and diplomats participated in the two days of presentations and discussions.  A full list of panelists is available here.

For more information about past and upcoming Milton Wolf Seminars and future Emerging Scholar initiatives, please contact: Amelia Arsenault.



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