Community Development & Growing Democracy Series, Part 6: What role does the media play in community development efforts?
By Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Arlington (and former Growing Democracy project manager)
Media outlets- including local, regional, and national newspapers as well as radio stations, online news sites and neighborhood newsletters- vary in the roles they play in covering, supporting, and potentially harming community development efforts.
Some outlets devote a beat to a variety of community-based projects. These might include real estate development, neighborhood beautification, affordable housing efforts, and community organizing work. Other outlets might cover individual events, should they be deemed of importance to the readership. Still others might be created specifically and devoted entirely to covering such projects for the community/neighborhood.
When media outlets cover stories on community development efforts, they often send a reporter or two to attend an event or meeting. Sometimes they will speak with attendees or those involved with the effort who are not in attendance. The reporter(s) will usually provide a write up and contextualize the discussion, actors, and issue. The editor of the media outlet might make some changes or ask for additional information. When the piece is finished, the outlet will publish it and generate additional attention for the community effort.
Sometimes, this additional attention is ignored. Other times, the media attention generates new interest and people might find out about things they were unaware of or learn that they do not agree with the actions that are being taken. In this way, the media can be a powerful force for community development- providing new information and context for those who might have been unaware.
On the other hand, media attention to an issue can sometimes misrepresent or malign the effort, generating backlash or even cancellation of the agenda or project. Media members often have little stake in the specific project and cannot learn all of the complex politics and historical knowledge necessary to fully understand the story. Without time and additional resources, reporters often will convey the events as they understand them, without enough attention given to the particulars of the community needs.
Media outlets can also impact community development efforts by serving as a mouth-piece for community leaders. Opinion articles, direct interviews, and tips from leaders to reporters can all generate new insight and support for community development work. Still, when these efforts are conducted without knowledge of the particulars of the community- and without the voices of community members- they have the potential to degrade community development or else further marginalize groups that have historically been left out of these revitalization efforts.