Media Future Lab Goes to Norway
Holger Pötzsch, UiT – The Arctic University of Norway
This report is the result of a research residence at LMU Munich (January to July, 2019). There, I was introduced to both the Bavarian research association „Zukunft der Demokratie“ (The Future of Democracy) and its subproject Media Future Lab which aims at developing realistic ideas for a more open, balanced, and inclusive media system in Western democracies. Back in Tromsø, I applied the research design to the Norwegian context.
Based on ideas regarding a transdisciplinary, reflexive, and inclusive scientific practice (Vilsmaier and Lang 2014), the project Media Future Lab uses the method of Zukunftswerkstatt (Bergmann et al. 2010) to gather qualitative data about the pros, cons, and possible alternatives to the ways the media currently operate in Bavaria and Germany. By arranging series of workshop-style gatherings that bring together laymen from a variety of backgrounds (Media Future Labs), the distinct perspectives and ideas of ‘normal’ people are put center-stage to offer an informed counter-weight to discourses usually dominated by experts and elites. As such, the method behind Media Future Labs offers new perspectives and ideas ‘from below’ and this way aims at developing new and unexpected solutions. The results of the series of labs will be condensed into a citizen report and published together with other material emanating from e.g. interviews with media experts.
There is wide agreement today that the political mass media are in a state of crisis not only in Germany (see for instance Wernicke 2017, Meyen 2018, Krüger 2016, 2019, Steinbrecher and Rager 2018) but also on a global scale (see for instance Edwards and Cromwell 2018, Basu 2018, Pedro-Caranana, Broudy and Klaehn 2018). The reasons for this are constantly debated – financial problems due to competition from new media, deteriorating working conditions for journalists, growing economic dependence on a few major global publishers, too close interaction and meddling between key journalists and political and economic elites, as well as the economic logics behind click-bait epidemics and fake news. All this has far reaching consequences ranging from a highly problematic narrowing of the spectrum of published perspectives and opinion to the more or less willing submission of alpha journalists under the dictate of war-mongering politicians and austerity-focused economic elites. Most people today agree that the state of the media in western democracies is critical and that their capacity to keep an eye on those in power is rapidly deteriorating.
The problem has been identified. But what about possible solutions? Here, the Media Future Lab subproject starts and sets out to develop creative solutions that not only look good, but are also feasible and realistic. This is achieved through a three-pronged approach that leads lab participants through the successive stages of media criticism, media utopias, and (changed) media practices.
The logic of the Media Future Lab method is easy to follow; firstly, everyone is allowed to freely and widely criticize a current state of affairs. Everything one feels, believes, or knows can, and indeed should, be articulated to create a widest possible collection of criticisms from below. The emerging ideas are collected into clusters that are then subjected to deeper scrutiny in small groups. Secondly, based on the critiques, participants are invited to dream wildly about better futures. In this phase, there are no limits to the imagination. Everything thinkable should come to the fore without doubts about possible implementation. Then, thirdly, clusters combining similar utopias are formed to create foundations for phase 3 – media practice. Here, practical realization of utopian ideas based on widest possible criticism is the stated aim of the exercise. How can utopias become actualized? Where can the required funding come from? How to get people to behave in manner beneficial to the developed ideas? These and similar questions are interrogated group-wise with the aim of presenting well thought-through and realistic alternatives. Workshop leaders document the entire process by taking photographs of idea cards and posters or by recording and taking notes from discussions and debates.
So far, a series of such Media Future Labs have been arranged throughout Germany (LMU Munich, Landshut, Ebersberg, Jena). What is lacking as of now is a comparative perspective that would enable a correlation of the German-based results with data produced in labs in other countries. The initiative presented here aims at offering such an international comparative perspective by providing data from a series of labs carried out in Norway. It will be interesting to see how critique, utopias, and concrete solutions differ from or align to the German results acquired so far. The present text is a report from the first lab carried out with 15 third-year Bachelor students in Media and Documentation Studies enrolled at the University of Tromsø, Norway (age range approx. 22-32) over a period of three days in the autumn of 2019.
Media Future Lab Tromsø
The Media Future Lab Tromsø was organized by associate professor Holger Pötzsch and carried out over a series of three two-hour time slots distributed across three days (October 28, 29 and 31, 2019). Each lab phase was conducted on one day. Due to a high level of activity among participants, a 30-minutes slot for debriefing was moved to a fourth day (November 4).
Day 1: Critique (October 28, 2019; 2 hours)
The first day started with an introduction to the method of Zukunftswerkstatt. I explained the process and provided information about how data will be collected and used during and after the workshop. To make students express themselves as freely as possible, I refrained from recording the sessions and opted for taking notes and pictures during all phases as predominant means of documentation.
After the introduction we entered the critique phase with a free collection of all thinkable forms of criticism of the current media system. I distributed pens and paper in different colors and asked students to write down whatever comes to mind and attach it to the blackboard using tape (I retained all the notes for the sake of documentation). After some initial hesitation, students quickly warmed up to the project and we gathered a wide array of ideas (image 1). Subsequently, we collectively ordered the ideas into clusters, before deepening a selection of topics in a group phase. Each group was asked to condense their criticism on a piece of paper that I collected at the end of the session.
During the clustering of ideas it quickly emerged that students perceived of ‘the media system’ as composed of three main components: 1) news media, 2) entertainment media, 3) social media. Interestingly, critique of each of these three components followed similar trajectories. Main criticisms in all three areas were articulated along the following lines: commercialization, filtering, homogenization, lack of diversity, formation of echo chambers, click-bait logics, algorithmic feedback loops, profit-orientation, tabloid attention-seeking, poor working conditions for media workers, superficiality, sensationalism, low quality, more-of-the-same, fake news, lack of verification. The list could be continued.
I then randomly divided participants into three focus groups to develop and deepen certain aspects of the collected criticism. Each group dealt with all three components (news, entertainment, and social media) but diverged on the main focus area assigned to them: 1) commercialization, 2) filtering, and 3) fake content.
As main results of the critique phase emerged the following issues:
- growing discontent with media content across news, social, and entertainment media
- Main criticism is a perceived homogenization of the facts, narratives, and actors present in the media that are characterized as being in disjoint with own experiences or as limiting own experiences in correspondence with preconceived yet largely invisible frames.
- Alternative sources online are often met with suspicion regarding the quality and reliability of the presented content.
- Fan-fiction emerged as a viable alternative to mainstream entertainment that is perceived as too predictable and too little diverse.
- The impression that a few actors have far more access to a public sphere than others was widespread. This critique was directed both a ‘trolls’ on social media (where comparably few people can gain major attention and dissemination of their content), fake news distributors (both state and non-state actors), and news media that were perceived as by-and-large platforms for elite discourse/exchange among those in power both internationally, nationally, and locally (silent and silenced majorities). Also entertainment media, it was claimed, only cater the taste of some that are implicitly perceived as important financially or discursively.
- The impression of only being exposed to well-known content and positions (all three areas). Echo chambers, filter bubbles, algorithmic recommendation spirals, profiling, …
- The media system marginalizes outliers and minorities in terms of news coverage and entertainment. Social media predispose encounters with people ‘like oneself’.
- lack of in-depth reporting and well-devised narratives
- too much focus on US issues and US media
The problems were predominantly connected to the following factors:
- growing commercialization and profit-orientation of news, entertainment, and social networking
- technologies of surveillance, profiling, and filtering
- low wages and difficult working condition for media workers reduce quality
- Technologies that privilege click-bait and affective reactions
- lower attention spans among media workers and audiences
- anonymity online
- inequalities in access to media production
- too difficult to assess quality and truth-value of alternative sources on the Internet
- too much power of US interests
The move to a deepening of critique appeared difficult. Mostly, ideas previously put on the blackboard were reiterated without attempting to address new aspects or look deeper into the issues at hand. Towards the end of the session, I asked each group to write down their main points on a separate sheet and collected these. I kept them with an eye on documentation but also to be able to go through the findings and re-direct efforts towards the utopia phase in case I should note misunderstandings or other problems.
Day 2: Utopia (October 29, 2019; 2 hours)
In the beginning of the utopia phase I divided participants again into the same groups that had worked together at the end of the critique phase. I handed out their summaries and asked them to briefly reflect upon them (and on one occasion on my comments) and then to present a brief summary to the other groups. By these means, participants could re-engage with the material and share in on each other’s ideas. After this introduction of roughly 20 minutes, I allowed students to change groups or form new groups if they wanted to. All students chose to continue working in the same groups. Then, the utopia phase started and each group began to develop aspects of a new media system based on the critiques collected during day 1.
Here it proved difficult to convince participants that they are allowed to dream. In all three groups discussions quickly converged on issues such as ‘How can this be realized?’, ‘How can we finance this?’, ‘No one will watch/read this!’, and so on. Interestingly, all three groups now predominantly directed attention to the system of news media. Social media was occasionally covered while entertainment media received almost no further attention. I contemplated possible reasons for this but could not come up with any convincing ideas.
In terms of results of the utopia phase, participants voiced isolated measures more than thinking through a comprehensive media system. Still, their work highlighted certain interesting aspects:
- All information should be correct, freely available to all (completely open access), and balanced in its account of all issues.
- sufficient public funding for news and entertainment media to enable the emergence of non-mainstream perspectives ‘without fear that it won’t sell’
- no commercials and no data gathering. If gathered, all data should be freely available to all (open data access)
- do away with commercial social media altogether (two participants only)
- Control how journalists are educated: main focus on individual motivation, ethics, and political role (respectful and rational media).
- sufficient funding for investigative journalism; secure work conditions to enable critique of power structures
- opt-in filter bubbles (instead of opt-out)
- sufficient public funding of media production without state or private control
- more knowledge on how to use media responsibly among the public (education)
Day 3: Practice (October 31, 2019; 2 hours)
At the end of day 2 I again collected summaries from each group to use these for documentation and to identify possible problems. At the beginning of the practice phase on day 3, I distributed the summaries back to the three groups and allowed participants to use a few minutes to get back into their ideas before presenting short summaries to the others. After this, I explained the logic of the practice phase and allowed students to change focus group. Only one student did.
The three groups converged on each their focused theme: 1) improve the situation of minorities in the media system, 2) open access to media products and transparency of media production, and 3) more varied coverage of international affairs. Key solutions that emerged were:
- local, national, or international funds to finance measures that can help to improve key objectives such as a disentanglement of news production and commercial interests
- crowd-funded investigative journalism
- human and automated fact-checking mechanisms
- global and national oversight bodies with clear rules and randomly drawn temporary membership
- increased taxes to finance better education of journalists and citizens
- create an openly accessible global repository for all gathered digital data. Put digital capitalism’s data bases under the control of a global body and ensure full transparency and free access for everyone
- remove ‘like-dislike system’
- increase public funding to reduce dependence of media on private capital.
Group 1 developed ideas such as hire more journalists with minority background or intimate knowledge of minority communities, improve education of journalists to sensitize them for minority issues, increase funding for translations from and to minority languages, increase funding for local and minority newspapers. The measures should be financed by higher taxes and increased cooperation between national and local newspapers as well as between digital platforms and paper-based news production. Group 2 proposed to create a global fund that can support journalists and news agencies in poorer countries to enable complete global open access journalism. Oversight by global body with clear rules based on democratic principles and with members randomly drawn for a period of time from a global pool of interested volunteers. Open access to include data repositories of major players within digital capitalism (Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft, …). Group 3 proposed that funds could offer stipends to send journalists abroad for a longer period of time (not to the US but to areas not sufficiently covered), to hire more translators for news items emanating from non-English sources, and to remove profiling and like/dislike systems to enable more equal access to global news.
The results of each group were summarized in plenary. Interestingly, discussions erupted between the groups on a variety of issues. For instance, the proposal to crowd-fund investigative journalism to make the scrutinized issues reflect a democratic wish for inquiry was countered with warnings against opportunities for astroturfing and other possibilities for the wealthy to rig reporting in their favor. On a different occasion, the idea of automated fact-checking was countered with reference to earlier-voiced skepticism against automated feedback loops and profiling. Again, potentials for abuse by those holding the necessary means were highlighted as a dangerous prospect. Similar warnings were issued in relation to global oversight bodies, funds, and rule systems. These discussions lead to the widely accepted final conclusion that the current media system cannot really be improved until global inequalities in terms of access to financial and other resources enabling a few ‘to rig the system’ are sufficiently addressed.
Due to the liveliness of the debate, I postponed the debriefing session to the next lecture on November 4.
Debriefing (November 4, 2019; 30 minutes)
During the debriefing, a series of unexpected additional benefits of the Media Future Lab method became apparent.
- A raising of general awareness for problematic aspects of media production and consumption were mentioned very positively.
- Students became aware of Zukunftswerkstatt as a method and the possibility of replicating similar session in connection to later BA or MA theses.
- Students highly commended a relaxed atmosphere in class. Prior to the lab experience the students of this particular year had been very silent during lectures almost never engaging in discussion or asking questions. After the lab, social interaction became far more relaxed with students more readily engaging in discussion both with me and with each other.
- Finally, students voiced the opinion that they previously felt powerless against what they perceived as an almost seamless system of management and control. The lab however showed them that there are alternatives and that it makes sense to think through other ways of organizing things and attempt to implement change both individually and together with others.
In connection to the Media Future Lab subproject, I intend to conduct at least two more Media Future Labs with different groups in Tromsø in 2020. In addition to this, I plan to conduct a series of four to five interviews with Norwegian media experts from local news media, the national broadcasting organization, alternative national newspapers, as well as outliers on online alternative news channels. The interviews will be semi-structured and follow the same logic as the lab moving from critique, via utopia to practical implementation. As a point of departure, the interviews are not anonymized. However, each informant will be given the opportunity to add anonymized responses at the end of each session to enable more critical statements in line with individual convictions even though these should be in opposition to the role the individuals in question have in their respective news organization. The anonymized material will be handled in correspondence with established ethical requirements.
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Pictures: Holger Pötzsch
Recommended citation format
Holger Pötzsch: Media Future Lab Goes to Norway. In: Michael Meyen (ed.): Media Future Lab 2019. https://medialabs.hypotheses.org/1567 (Date of access)