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Beyond Broadcast ’09 – Sandra Ball-Rokeach on Ethnic Media

Sandra Ball-Rokeach, professor at USC Annenberg, is interested in the ways in which communities use media to tell stories to themselves and to others. In introducing her, Dean Wilson notes that she refuses to look at one media at a time – instead, she looks at complex communications infrastructures and their interaction with “geo-ethnic communities”, groups of people with a common ethnicity in a particular community.

Storytelling networks matter because they lead to a sense of belonging, towards collective efficacy and towards actual civic participation. Networks include community organizations and NGOs, the geo-ethnic media and the residents and families of these communities. A community NGO holds an event on diabetes. It’s reported on in ethnic media, and leads to conversations about the issue. This is a conversational model of media – it succeeds when it promotes conversations.

Ball-Rokeach challenges us to think about how public service media fits into this equation. Social media can serve as a space for conversation, much in the same way as a safe neighborhood park can provide a space for people to meet and greet, and eventually share conversations about what’s going on in a neighborhood. An unsafe neighborhood, where people can’t sit on their front porches, inhibits storytelling and undermines civic engagment. How can public service media open itself as an approachable space?

Through the Metamorphasis project, Ball-Rokeach is trying to buck the trend of public media to produce a product and invite people to come. Instead, they are trying to design a citizen media model where the model is driven by the residents and local institutions. This involves doing lots of focus groups, intervies and onsite observations and letting the design be driven by the residents.

Lots of cities around Los Angeles have complex, multiethnic communities. Glendale has three main populations – Armenians, Anglos and Latinos. Each has a separate communication ecology. Anglos rely heavily on newspapers, especially the Pasadena Star News. Local television is important to all communities, but geoethnic television reaches only Armenians and Latinos. The internet only really reaches Anglos. You’d need to study and understand these dynamics if you wanted to reach the whole community with media. Metamorph needs to find ways to understand and work within these dynamics to produce media that builds bridges.

She identifies ethnic media as a form of public service media – while these papers are often for profit, the main priority is serving the community. This media allows readers to have complex identities, both living in Los Angeles and in their homeland. As her research yields a book, “Understanding Ethnic Media”, a major focus of her thought will be the way ethnic media enables and empowers this dual identity, allowing you to be both here and there.