What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Communication

October 3-5, 2013 – Oxford, UK

The meeting, held at Balliol College at Oxford, explored how the changing media environment created by proliferation of media platforms and providers is affecting the kind of information and entertainment the public receives. Director of Oxford University's Reuters Institute, Robert Picard, served as Academic Director.

Media have always been influenced by social developments and the rapid and remarkable developments in technology and global economics are today significantly altering lives, community, and established social institutions—including media.

This meeting explored how the changing media environment created by proliferation of media platforms and providers is affecting the kind of information and entertainment the public receives and the effects of those changes on individuals and society. The topic illuminated what individuals and society need from media, the extent to which they are getting it, and what might be done to improve contemporary provision of information and entertainment.

Certain elements of the transformation of the media are unambiguous: There is increasing importance of audio-visual media, accompanied by decreasing use and prominence of text-based media (newspapers, magazines, and books); there is a proliferation of market-funded, highly commercialized content that is often influenced by global rather than domestic concerns; digitalization has and is producing new platforms for content distribution; and the amount of news, information, and entertainment available to the public has never been higher. All of these developments alter the economic basis of legacy media and the content we receive.

"What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Communication" Meeting. Participants

Since the development of media there have been tensions between its service of needs for provision of information, social commentary, art, and entertainment and supporting social, and cultural and commercial functions. Societies have sought a beneficial balance through a variety of public policy approaches including protections of expression, content requirements, non-market provision of some content, and subsidies for other provision. The central questions for the workshop are: Is the content we are receiving adequate? What is the balance of the content today? What is affecting the content provided? What are the implications of contemporary content provision? What might be done about it?

The changing media environment is producing both beneficial and deleterious effects to content provision. The meeting explored how the changes affect content of both commercial and non-commercial content providers, how it alters production of certain genres of content (news, information, debate, entertainment, drama, comedy, etc.), what it does to the range of topics addressed in media content, how it creates tensions between provision of domestic and international content, and how it alters perceptions of the world, relationships among people, relationships with society and institutions, and social norms and culture.

The meeting brought together participants from communication and media studies, sociology, cultural studies, policy, philosophy and history and other fields to contribute knowledge and views from their perspective on these vital issues.


Post by Social Trends Institute.

Principal Inquiries

  • Does society receive adequate content from media?
  • What is the current balance of content (information, commentary, entertainment, commercial interests...)?
  • What forces affect the content that is ultimately offered?
  • What are the implications of the types and qualities of content that is provided today?
  • Should anything be done to address those implications?  And if so, what?
  • How does the changing media environment affect both commercial and non-commercial content?
  • How does it influence the class of content produced?
  • How does it alter people’s perceptions of society and culture and their relationships with other people and with institutions?


Academic Leader

Robert G. Picard – Reuters Institute, Oxford


Robert G Picard – Reuters Institute, Oxford
Introduction by the Academic Leader and Moderator 

Wolfgang Donsbach - TU Dresden
Participation v. Disorientation – Why the New Media Environment Needs Old Roles 

Renee Hobbs – University of Rhode Island
The Role of the Media Industry in Advancing Digital and Media Literacy

Chandrika Kaul – University of St. Andrews
Communications, Media and Societal Needs: Reflections from the Indian sub-continent, 1780s-2013             

Douglas Kellner – University of California, Los Angeles
What Do We Need and Not Need from Media in an Era of Information Explosion and the Proliferation of New Media and Social Networking?

Lucy Küng – Jönköping International Business School, Sweden
What Can and Should Society Expect from the Leaders of Media Organizations?

Esteban López-Escobar and Francisco J. Pérez Latre – University of Navarra
The Paradoxes of Digital Media and a Fragmented Community –What Should (and Can) be Done

Jolyon Mitchell – University of Edinburgh
Peacebuilding through the Photographer’s Lens

Thomas Moring – University of Helsinki
The Role of Media in Language, Identity and Community

Aimée Vega Montiel – Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
For the Women’s Human and Communication Rights: What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Communication

Katrin Voltmer – University of Leeds
Media, Democracy and the Paradox of Plenty

Paper Abstracts

Wolfgang Donsbach - TU Dresden, Germany
Participation v. Disorientation – Why the new media environment needs old roles

The focus of my paper will be the quality of political communication. We observe in our studies several trends, most of which are interrelated. As longitudinal data indicate, citizens in most western democracies show a decreasing interest in and knowledge of news on politics and public affairs. Those who show an interest in politics direct their attention increasingly to partisan sources and interact, for instance on social media, with people who think alike. Value changes in ‘post-post-materialistic societies’, the consequences of experienced ‘attacks on the self’ through complex realities in the news, and a decreasing awareness and use of professional media are some of the reasons for these developments. Consequences are (1) a growing proportion of people’s cognitions that are not based on professionally created accounts of reality, and (2) a diminishing proportion of such cognitions that are shared with other members of society. The former attacks the validity of world views, the latter the coherence of society. This makes the existence of professional journalism and exposure to its products more crucial than ever.  

Renee Hobbs - University of Rhode Island, USA
The Role of the Media Industry in Advancing Digital and Media Literacy

Most people lack a good understanding of the economics and political context of media industries, even though they are quite attentive to the incessant promotional hype of new digital media products and services. With the proliferation of media platforms and providers, people experience a surfeit of information and entertainment choices, which require them to use increased discrimination in evaluating the content and value of media messages. The complex economic structures and political contexts that support digital communication at the local and global levels may be insufficiently transparent to be easily understood by young people, their parents, their teachers and ordinary citizens. How are these concepts and ideas best introduced to people of all ages? To learners in K-12 and higher education? Educators and scholars have long debated the merits and liabilities of the media industry’s involvement in helping people develop the competencies needed in accessing, analyzing, evaluating, creating, reflecting upon, and taking action using media texts, tools and technologies. In the US and across Europe, there are debates about the appropriate role of government, education, private industry, and philanthropy in supporting the need for all citizens to be digitally literate. What knowledge and skills are most essential for citizens, producers, users and consumers today and what is the appropriate role of the media industry in meeting these needs?

Dr. Chandrika Kaul - University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom
Does contemporary media environment really change communication needs?

Media and communication networks of the 21st century are increasingly international, multilingual, and cosmopolitan, transforming the public sphere into a lively, diverse global space of dialogue and discord, and presenting new challenges for media historians and other scholars. Simultaneously, we are informed, this also creates new expectations and demands from the consuming public and imposes new responsibilities upon media providers.  Or does it? What and how much is fundamentally new in this paradigm? What lessons can be learnt from the recent past to help understand contemporary dilemmas and inform approaches to providing solutions? How do previous arrangements and structures of communication continue to influence communication concerns?  Situating the case of the Indian subcontinent within a global and transnational context, I hope to reflect upon continuities and change over the past two hundred years, as well as highlight more contemporary communications concerns facing India today.  In other words, does history matter and how far can it help make a difference today in considering the role of the media?

Douglas Kellner - University of California, Los Angeles, USA
What do we need and not need from media in an era of information explosion and the proliferation of new media and social networking

The paper will begin with examples of how new media can be used for critical pedagogy and democratic politics, providing some examples from media spectacles, insurrections, and uses of new media in education. It will employ a critical theory of technology that articulates positive, negative, and ambiguous effects of technology and raise questions concerning the limitations of technopolitics and virtual education. The paper will argue that while technology can contribute in important ways to democratic politics and critical pedagogy there are increasing dangers that people are becoming immersed in virtual worlds that are displacing real ones.

Lucy Küng - Jönköping International Business School, Sweden
What can and should society expect from the leaders of media organizations?

The age of digital communication has thrown the established media industry into disarray. Unceasing technological advance, convergence between once distinct sectors, and profound changes in how consumers engage with content has brought dynamism, complexity and uncertainty. Virtually no ‘traditional’ media organizations occupy positions in new media markets equivalent to the ones they held in the ‘old’ mass media ones. It is unclear how well, or in some cases how long, traditional media organizations will continue to fulfill mass media’s traditional roles in the age of digital communication. The most important change agent in any organization is the leader.  It falls on their shoulders to find a transition – or even survival – route in the age of digital communication. The fact that very few traditional media organizations occupy a position in new digital markets equivalent to the one they had in traditional markets attests to the scale of this challenge. Although the leaders of media organizations are frequently in the public spotlight, and their broader societal contributions (or otherwise) often critiqued (think of Rupert Murdoch, Steve Jobs, or the BBC’s recent Director Generals), surprisingly little research has been conducted into the role and responsibilities of the media leader. This paper draws on management theory and interviews with serving and post leaders in the media industry to explore the implications of digital transformation for leadership. It reflects on role of leader from the perspective of the organization, but also from that of society. How can media leaders not only sustain economic viability of their organizations (for some a very significant challenge in itself), but also meet wider responsibilities? How can and should they maintain quality as they inform, educate and entertain? How can they respond to the opportunity that digital communication represents, and foster growth and technological advance?

Esteban Lopez-Escobar and Francisco Perez-Latre - University of Navarra, Spain
The paradoxes of digital media and a fragmented community –What should (and can) be done?  

Some perplexities due to the accelerated technological changes that provoke a generational divide and undermines the media structure, underlining some need for orientation. Possibly, in this fragmented landscape, an individualistic set of beliefs will not suffice to build a community. A “conservative” vision tends to be pessimistic and sees media as culprits of many social evils; a “progressive” vision considers that there are no downsides to ever connected audiences that consume media nonstop, and a more “realistic” vision that digital and mobile environments are here to stay, lights and shadows included. Media have always been paradoxical. We can have a global audience, but we can end up isolated from relatives and friends; the speed of digital environments is positive but it could also be a source of errors; the quantity of information does not always means better service to the public; the web is open and “transparent” but there are also noise and rumors associated with real time communication, etc. What should (and can) be done? Family, education and media could be considered as the key influences people receive. Our goal is to seek the possible balance between the familiar, educational and media forces that shape and are shaped by the digital world, and its future implications.

Jolyon Mitchell - University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Peacebuilding through the Photographer’s Lens

Many of the world’s most memorable news photographs have violence or the effects of the violence at their heart. This is a common area of scholarly research and popular discussion. Less common is consideration of photography in relation to peace. In this essay I consider how far it is possible for the craft of photojournalism to contribute to the building of peace. This question is complicated by the evolving nature of photography in a digital age. Mobile phones with high quality cameras have turned the individual into an amateur or accidental photojournalist. The ease with which almost anyone can now alter an image has led scholars to speak of ‘post-photography’or even ‘the death of photography’. Nevertheless, photographs now have an afterlife online: they are commonly recycled across time and space, given new meaning by new audiences. Through several case studies I analyse how photography can represent the related processes of peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilidng. On the basis of this analysis, I go on to explore the ways in which photography can not only represent but also contribute to the development of sustainable and peaceable environments, as well as building postive, as opposed to negative, peace.

Marc Raboy - McGill University, Canada
Communicating with and across cultural, national, and other Identities

Media access is unprecedented, as is the abundance of information, yet despite the ‘participatory’ nature of new digital media one senses that citizens are generally no better equipped to participate in public life than they were before. This is particularly true on the global scale, where most of us are at best observers and rarely actors. A key question to ask in this regard is: How well are media helping people communicate within and across cultural, national, and other identity divides? Public policy has not even begun to address this question. Traditionally, societies have sought to orient the role of media and communication by adopting (or refusing to adopt) appropriate mechanisms at the national level. But the current political and technological context of “globalization” has meant a radical shift from the national to the global as the site where public policy is played out. Although national states remain sovereign, they are less able to ensure the accessibility and delivery of the types of media services they deem necessary for their citizens. At the same time, increasing numbers of people are eluding national policy nets and mixing their own media and communication cocktails according to their own perceptions of their needs and interests. On the surface, this should be a good thing, but we live in an increasingly interdependent environment in which media and communication have a global role to play. How are public policy issues with respect to media and communication to be resolved in this new global environment?

Aimée Vega Montiel - Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
For the Women’s Human and Communication Rights: What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Communication

The new media environment, defined by convergence, diversification and concentration, is producing several social, political and economical changes.  The effects of those changes, are not neutral. Because of  the gendered division of power, the status of women’s human rights in the digital age—particularly, their human right to communicate—are precarious: Even interactive society has grown, the gender digital divide defines the access, use and restrictions women face in the information society; sexual division of labor and even exploitation are characteristics of women’s employment in new media; women are underrepresented in the leadership positions in new media industries; and there is a lack of new media literacy programs with a gender perspective. One of the most problematic areas of analysis is that related to the contents: the dissemination of sexist representations has increased with the diversification of channels; pornography has become part of everyday life as it is accessible now through different platforms; discriminatory advertising fills Internet webpage; there is a proliferation of violence of gender in media contents. At this point, the question is: To what extent does the new media environment promote the women’s human and communication rights or contribute to sustaining the oppression of women in society?

From a feminist standpoint, the aim of this paper is to contribute to a constructive debate on the effects of the changing media environment in society and to provide some keys to face those challenges.

Katrin Voltmer - University of Leeds, United Kingdom
Media, Democracy and the Paradox of Plenty

This paper approaches the media as a democratic institution that is essential for the viability of democracy as a system of participatory and accountable governance. While the traditional media of press and broadcasting have been widely criticised of falling short of these expectations, the Internet has been embraced as the ‘agora’ of the 21st century. However, this paper argues the new information environment of digital media has created both new plenty and new scarcity:

- More choice has led to less diversity. With the proliferation of media platforms citizens seem to restrict their media consumption to only a few outlets. As a consequence, public communication is increasingly fragmented along partisan divisions, identities and sub-cultures.

- More transparency has led to more secrecy. Faced with a more adversarial journalistic culture and unpredictable disclosures, such as the Wikileak releases in 2010, political power has responded with new strategies of secrecy, thus effectively reducing transparency and accountability.

- More information has led to less certainty. Meaningful decision making not only requires information, but also interpretation, evaluation and morality. With the decline of ‘legacy media’ modern societies are at risk of losing the main forum where these debates can take place.