Home Sociology Media and Social Justice
As we write, MRAP is rapidly approaching its twenty-fifth year. Perhaps like many silver anniversaries, we find the experience bittersweet; our quest to advance media justice has not escaped the growing pressure on universities and nonprofits from market forces. We have seen individuals and far too many organizations come into and leave the media justice field. While not ignoring the steady expansion of transnational media conglomerates in these decades, we have also observed, and in a modest way contributed, to the rise of a global communication movement. Lawrence Frey and Kevin Carragee’s anthologies of Communication Activism suggest the breadth and richness of that movement.10 We have also witnessed increased attention to communication justice by all social movements. Now communication is increasingly included in human rights charters.
MRAP’s primary objectives have been twofold: (1) to document structural inequalities in media institutions and (2) to collaborate with social justice movements to address these media inequities. While we are far from having achieved those objectives, we have learned much about how to build media justice collaborations between scholars and movement organizations. We would stress the need to attend to the following factors:
While the decision by scholars and collective actors to engage in the work described may be costly and slow both the activists’ agenda and academic work, the ultimate result is infinitely superior. Given limited space, a story may best illustrate this. One of our community partners, Project RIGHT, complained repeatedly to local TV news stations regarding negative portrayals of their community and Boston’s communities of color as crime ridden. They asked not that crime reports be stopped but that news coverage of communities of color put crime in economic and political context—for instance, that youth crime be covered in the context of public and private disinvestment in jobs, education, and so on. Working together, the Boston Association of Black Journalists, MRAP, Project RIGHT, and other organizations surveyed community needs, documented weaknesses in coverage, and developed proposals for change that they presented to general managers of local TV stations. Having researched and strategized carefully, we were able to counter the media outlets’ token responses and push beyond them. While our long-term impact was modest, the experience thrilled all involved. For us, it represented public sociology at its best, synergistically linking uncommon partners to deepen knowledge and equalize social resources.
A tough-minded assessment of the safe space MRAP created would force us to recognize that we also benefit from distinguishing between wishes and reality. MRAP scholar-activist partnerships fall short of their full potential: in the absence of sufficient resources to develop infrastructure, sustain working relationships, and amass learning, how could we expect otherwise? MRAP’s participants struggle, often unsuccessfully, to bridge the often lonely divides of American academia and American life.
For the kind of public sociology represented by MRAP to survive in a university, perhaps the institution must incorporate a larger vision of the value of such engagements. Not every tub can stand on its own bottom. Programs committed to addressing structural inequalities may not always be able to be self-sustaining. The issue of short-term costs versus long-term benefits arises: would not liberal education including academic sociology benefit from longterm investments in a more equitable society?
As tough-minded assessors, we consider the alternatives—the corporatist drift of much of the academy versus the costs of collaborative scholarship that resists that drift. In our judgment, the effort has been worth it. Our shared strengths bolstered individual weaknesses. Together with partners, we managed at times to use ideas and community to launch strategic challenges to media inequalities—“to put a heart where a gash has been,” in the words of radical planner, Mauricio Gaston. For us, the imperfect whole has far exceeded the imperfect parts.
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