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Media and Social Justice: A Rationale for Teaching and Scholarship

The mission statement of the Media and Communication Department at the editors’ institution, Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts college, embraces commitments to social justice based on the following rationale. It meets the criteria Sen establishes for social justice; that is, it is a position based on public reasoning that can be sustained reflectively when subjected to critical scrutiny by those who recognize First Amendment legal precedents and international human rights agreements.40 We share our rationale as one among many possible rationales for this kind of work:

Social justice is a normative term.41 Attempts to define it are almost invariably contentious: like democracy, it is an “essentially contested term.”42 That is, diverse groups may agree that social justice is desirable, but they frequently disagree about what it is and how to achieve it. The pragmatic solution to this impasse [for us] has been to define social justice plurally and contextually by taking into account the specific histories, legal traditions, social institutions, and cultural values in which claims to social justice are made.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution privileges communication, freedom of speech and freedom of press, and it prohibits overt political censorship. Academic study of communication took root within this context. The first university departments dedicated to the study of communication were established in the United States. As a result, freedom of expression has been a normative value of communication scholarship since its inception.43

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, lent moral force to claims for a global “right to communicate.” Article 19 of the Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” This expansion created the foundations for human rights scholarship, activism, policies, and the development of international laws. It also helped foster a renewal of interest of justice studies, and generated new inquiries into the nature of deliberative democracy and communicative ethics.

The study of media and communication within a liberal arts context requires recognition of these developments and engagement with the intellectual contributions and controversies they inspire. Because communication and information are fundamental sources of power, the right to communicate is increasingly recognized as the fundamental human right upon which other rights depend.44 It includes rights to participate in public communication (the right to voice), rights to fair representation in and by media, and rights of access to media and mediamaking technologies.45

What this means from a practical curricular perspective is that the study of media and communication from a social justice perspective requires critical scrutiny of media and communication industries, institutions, policies, processes and representational practices. A social justice approach models ethical practices in media making by embracing pedagogies that respect both the human dignity and the communication rights of others. That is, it seeks to equip students with the conceptual tools necessary to monitor how effectively contemporary media industries and public communication practices are facilitating the right to communicate, and it encourages them to engage in communication practices and media making in ways that realize and expand this right.46

These values were modeled for us by the life of our late, revered colleague, James D. Schneider (1939—2005), to whom this book is dedicated.

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