Citizen journalism and Civic Inclusion: Access Dorset
Einar Thorsen, Daniel Jackson, and Ann Luce
The prospect of disabled and older people making films speaks to the great potential of civic media to shape individual representations, develop a public voice and connect with a community, especially in light of disempowering mainstream media representations typically faced by disabled and elderly populations. Central to this potential is citizen empowerment through participation, which can enable mobilizing to challenge established forms of power and representations through creative use of civic media.
Access Dorset TV (ADTV) is a pioneering community media partnership based in Dorset, UK, aiming to provide a voice to over 4,000 disabled people, older people and their caretakers through citizen journalism.
Produced by and for its user-groups, ADTV provides web-based peer support, information and lifestyle videos about disabled and elderly experiences, events, social action projects, and independent living. The citizen journalism initiative is influenced by how the participants conceive their roles, relate to power, and represent their imagined audience.
As with other marginalized groups, research has historically shown "a problem of disability representation" (Wilde 2010), typified by little cultural recognition of disabled lives and lack of inclusion, both quantitatively and qualitatively in cultural industries as producers and as audiences. Critics argue this is manifest in consistent under-representation of disability, use of stereotypes and a failure to challenge society’s prejudices. Despite some encouraging progress, this still persists.
Alongside popular cultural representations of marginalized groups, the UK political landscape provides a harsh backdrop of austerity and on-going cuts to welfare and disability benefits. Those claiming disability benefits in the UK have found themselves under attack from sections of the press, who are peddling an agenda of benefit fraud and waste (Briant et al 2011). “With statutory services being cut and increasingly focused solely on those in most critical need,” ADTV CEO, Jonathan Waddington-Jones argues, “there are growing numbers of disabled people, older people and their caretakers who are unable to access the support they need to live independently, healthily, and with dignity. Many, whether in rural or urban areas, are isolated from peer support and lack opportunities for civic engagement.” Indeed, much of the problem for many disabled and older people is access and voice in the media—being able to offer counter narratives to those in the mainstream.
ADTV was conceived in 2013 to overcome these challenges of exclusion by creating a participatory platform of otherwise marginalized voices that communicate directly to diverse networked publics. Citizen journalism in this form holds the potential to empower ordinary citizens to connect with their communities. Hyperlocal initiatives based on a narrowly defined geographic specificity arise, according to Metzgar, Kurpius, & Rowley (2011), due to the “public's dissatisfaction with legacy media" and as an "attempt to fill the perceived gap in public affairs coverage" (Metzgar, Kurpius, and Rowley 2011, 782). Examples abound where disadvantaged or marginalized groups have adopted different forms of citizen journalism in this way to challenge their own civic exclusion—such as feminist movements, repressed indigenous people, or increasingly globalized social movements (Allan and Thorsen 2009, Thorsen and Allan 2014).
For Access Dorset, the core issues were to foster enhanced community cohesion, address issues of representation and participation, and finally challenge the political landscape. Outputs from the ADTV project have primarily been video based, with stories reflecting the different interests and motivations of participants. Videos produced can broadly be classified as 1) information and lifestyle, 2) campaign and advocacy, and 3) reportage on marginalized issues. Participants have made videos about living with cancer, anorexia, emergency medical treatment for older people, inaccessible footpaths for disabled people, and overcoming attitudinal barriers to disability to name a few.
ADTV has evidently had a positive impact on the participating citizen journalists and their ability to vocalize concerns, even within its first year of operation. Three distinct areas of empowerment of participating citizens emerged through interviews conducted during the project: community cohesion, civic inclusion, and accountability impact.
Community cohesion of marginalized groups
From November 2013 to January 2014, Bournemouth University delivered a five-week intensive training course for twelve Access Dorset volunteers on foundation principles of video journalism. This provided participants with the skills and confidence to develop the ADTV project alongside the organization’s advice and support functions. Since Access Dorset is an umbrella organization for various local and regional charities, these workshops brought together people with very different backgrounds, ages, and disabilities. Participants in the workshops established new friendships and strengthened their sense of shared purpose in an otherwise diverse and disparate organization.
Giving people a voice: empowerment and civic inclusion
Including disabled and older people in the production of online video empowers people who are otherwise marginalized from both production of news and representation of issues that concern them. Participants in the ADTV project were given responsibilities and opportunities many of them thought they would never have experienced. For them, it was not only about gaining access to the modes of production, but also making a difference through a creative project about their disabilities. Participants in ADTV are actively self-identifying as citizen journalists. Referring to professional journalists, one person observed how “their motivations are completely different.” (Participant A, interview) She expressed that they valued their own “freedom,” reporting on “issues that are directly affecting you on a local level, on a personal level and from the perspective of a person living everyday life rather than from the perspective of media trying to sell it.” (Participant A, interview) Another Bournemouth resident and Access Dorset citizen journalist, made a similar distinction, based in part on the participants’ experiences of mainstream reporters:
“But when you’re on your own, a reporter comes into your life and then he fucks off. And then he can leave devastation if the job’s not done. And that’s not what I want. I’m not going to be ruthless against and make somebody really uncomfortable.” (Participant B, interview)
Holding power to account and accelerating impact
Some emerging tensions were cognizant of the group we were working with and speak directly to the contradictory nature of citizen empowerment. For instance, of all the barriers to having their voice heard we explored with interviewees, physical and mental disability were virtually absent; but the fear of publicly criticizing the government was a genuine barrier for many who felt vulnerable in the face of the government “assault” on welfare and benefits. They felt they could be targeted. “Historically in Dorset, disabled people have been very passive because they are frightened they are going to lose their care,” Participant B commented, “so they’ve always remained not expressing any desire to challenge anything.” Participating in ADTV and the journalism workshops helped some overcome these barriers by working alongside those more experienced at trying to engender change.
One of the most high profile reports supports a campaign to make a local railway station accessible for disabled people. The funny, playful yet powerful video shows the protagonist being repeatedly told there is no way for him to access the station platform in his wheelchair. The film pretends to be shot over several decades, with creative use of a newspaper stand marking various landmarks in the development of disabled people’s rights since 1960. The video and campaign has made local headlines, gained the support of local politicians, and has even been discussed in the British Parliament.
Several participants highlighted the video format of ADTV for having a more immediate impact than the traditional campaigns they had previously experienced. “I think in the journalism and in the filmmaking we found a medium that people are more interested in listening to,” Participant A commented. “Before, when we’re talking about engaging and making ourselves heard, it’s an email, it’s a letter, it’s a phone call… They (local government) get a lot of those. Making your point through a film and quite publicly has had impact multiple times.” In other words, video based citizen journalism has enabled these marginalized groups to dramatically accelerate action for issues they campaign on.
The Access Dorset project is one model of citizen journalism, with some early successes, that is adaptable and expandable to regions or community groups across the world. Those involved in the project have experienced different dimensions of empowerment and enhanced civic inclusion. In this sense, there is a growing body of evidence for the potential of digital technology use to improve (if not transform) civic engagement and challenge established power relations. However, decades of research into forms of Internet use warn us that technologically driven panaceas for civic engagement should be met with caution. Indeed many challenges of access, inclusion, and voice remain for the groups represented by ADTV; something the participants are well aware of. But in video-based citizen journalism they have found an effective way of facing such challenges, one story at a time.
Allan, S. and E. Thorsen. 2009. Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, Volume One. New York, Peter Lang.
Briant, E., N. Watson, and G. Philo. 2011. Bad News for Disabled People: How the Newspapers are Reporting Disability. Glasgow, UK, Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Unit, University of Glasgow.
Metzgar, E., D. Kurpius, D., and K. Rowley. 2011. "Defining hyperlocal media: Proposing a framework for discussion." New Media & Society 13 (5).
Thorsen, E. and S. Allan. 2014. Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, Volume Two. New York, Peter Lang.
Wilde, A.. 2010. "Spectacle, Performance and the Re-Presentation of Disability and Impairment." The Review of Disability Studies 6 (3).