What In the World Does “Media at Risk” Mean?

In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon talks to five faculty members at the Annenberg School for Communication about what the term “media at risk” means to them. Prof. Zelizer gives introductory remarks about how the Center for Media at Risk came to be.


Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, the podcast from the Center of Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon visits with five members of the Annenberg faculty to discuss what “media at risk” means to each of them. We’ll hear from Barbie Zelizer, founder and director of the Center for Media at Risk, Jessa Lingel, Victor Pickard, Diana Mutz, and Monroe Price. Hope you enjoy.

Muira: What does the term “media at risk” mean? What obstacles is the global media environment facing today, and in what ways can we come together and reimagine the future of expression? To answer these questions, I decided to chat with some faculty at the Annenberg School for Communication about how they unpack and untangle some of the challenges facing media practitioners and scholars in the current moment. The beauty of Annenberg are that its scholars are looking at the future of media across different platforms in different countries and in vastly different contexts. So it’s no surprise that in talking to them, I unearthed a panoply of different interpretations of what media at risk means.

Barbie Zelizer: The Center for Media at Risk came about literally as a result, of what happened in our political climate in the US last year. At that time I was in Finland, and I was watching the results of the US election from afar. There was something quite helpful about being, so far, um, although every time I came back to the states, things looked like they were progressively getting darker and darker from month to month. But there was a kind of built in, distance that allowed me to reflect on the happenings in US politics and the U.S. political climate, and, by extension, the U.S., media climate, that I was able to see only because I was so far. And being in Finland, I was at an institute where many of the other fellows were Polish and Hungarian and, Lithuanian, and, at the time of the elections, the 2016 elections, they all turned to me and they said, “Well, what did you think? What were you expecting? Why didn’t you see this coming?”

I began to think about US politics and the connection between U.S. politics and U.S. media very much through a kind of comparative, lens that forced me to give up whatever sense of US exceptionalism still resided in my gray matter. And so I- I began to think, this is a moment, to kind of think about the global media environment and to get folks talking to people who are not like them, and this both includes scholars and practitioners, it includes people in entertainment and in documentary, it includes people in journalism and- and digital practice. And, it includes people in Venezuela at the same time as it includes people in Sweden. And the argument that I felt needed to be at the heart of this was that we’re all suffering a crisis of legitimacy, we’re all suffering a crisis of credibility.

We have done something not so great, both as media practitioners and as academics. It’s about time that we join forces and begin to think more proactively, to strategize more actively, about what media at risk looks like in different locations, in different platforms, at different points in time, and what modes of resistance, um, have been central to getting folks to more proactively offset its penetration.

Jessa Lingel: My name is Jessa Lingel, I’m an assistant professor at the Annenberg School, and I live in Philadelphia. What media at risk means to me in 2018 is a set of questions or problems around how do we know what information is believable, how can we know what information to circulate, how can we adjudicate when we think it is problematic content, when we think it is untrue or when it’s becoming viral for problematic reasons. So, really when I think about media at risk, I think of it as being at risk from media illiteracy. So, to me that question isn’t so much about identifying content that’s problematic, identifying content that, is harmful, not on individual level but a collective level, it’s more about giving people the tools to- to do something about that content.

So, I think a problem … Or, there was a lot of excitement for a while about participatory culture, about being able to generate new content on the internet, and now I think, as someone who studies digital culture, what I’m most interested is, not so much how do we produce content, but what does it mean for us to share content, how can we interpret content, and how can we find ways, where that’s just as exciting as the idea of producing it. And all of that’s being framed by questions of the internet as a democratic place and internet as a radical place, the internet is connective.

So, in a way, these questions are, are at risk and that makes it sound like, you know, we’re really in trouble or there’s a sense of peril, but I’m hoping for ways to think through this question that’s more productive, so less diagnostic, more prescriptive. Less sort of hand-wringing and more about getting back to radical content as a good thing.

Muira: So we’ll start with the first question of who are you?

Victor Pickard: I’m Victor Pickard. I’m an associate professor here at the Annenberg School, and I do work on the political economy of media, which means I look at structural characteristics that enable or constrain different kinds of media including journalism. My work has an emphasis on media policy and media history. I think I have probably a broad view on the many risks facing journalism. I think the immediate association is often involving state oppression and, clearly, journalism and journalists are under threat around the world from various oppressive governments. But I think media at risk also entails structural risks, such as what might be referred to as market failure and policy failure and, to be a little more specific, the market failure entails, lack of financial support for journalism, and there’s a kind of violence to the market that is driving journalism, into the ground in many ways, especially in the United States, but also around the world.

And then in terms of policy failure, I think that we could argue that given the stake involved, that this is such a tremendous social problem, the fact that we are not responding as a society, again, especially here in the United States, amounts to a kind of policy failure where we essentially are allowing journalism to wither because it’s not profitable, it’s not being supported by the market and yet, democracy still requires it. So that, in my view, is a kind of policy failure.

Diana Mutz: My name is Diana Mutz and I’m the Samuel Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication. When I think about media at risk, my first thought is, at risk of what? And one thing I’ve noticed, not only about myself but about the media in general at this moment in the political history, is you’re certainly not at risk of n- not having big enough audiences because I think I’m paying more attention to political news than I ever have, given the tumultuous turns of events that seem to happen on a daily basis. So, for me, when I think about the real risks the media face right now, it is, I think, centered around regulation and the kinds of string reactions that we’re seeing to fake news, misinformation, and so on and so forth. And, as someone who studied all kinds of new developments as they come along in political communication, I remember a very similar kind of outrage with televised political ads. People were certain they meant the end of democracy, that people would be endlessly manipulated by them and so forth. Now, they seem like, you know, old hat, not a big deal, we’re very accustomed to them. But I think every time a new communication technology like, social media in this case, comes out, there’s a very strong reaction that is based on fear, and a sense of threat and, often, we go too far and in terms of enacting regulations and so forth. And I think that’s probably the biggest media face right now.

Muira: I guess we need to start with the question of who are you?

Monroe Price: Who am I? I’m Monroe Price and I’m a professor in my waning years here at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Muira: And what do you do when you’re in this building?

Monroe: I sit in my office. I, help … Students come and talk to me. I think modest thought and, I go down the hall and talk to Joe Turow.

Muira: So, I guess I’m wondering what the term “media at risk” means to you.

Monroe: Well I think that, media is intermediate phenomenon. So the question is, what’s really at risk here. Is a political system at risk, is, individual’s participation in society at risk, is our ability to know, and be informed about, government at risk? And what do we mean by media as a portion of that. And here, I’ve certainly been interested in, media in various parts of the world. I was just noticing a story in The Guardian about the BBC losing out to Netflix become- because the … So, all these media around the world are in positions of risk economically.

Muira: Right.

Monroe: They’re at risk because humans are turning to other sources of information, good or bad, and the thing called media is, weakens as a consequence of that.

Muira: What is the thing called media? I’m still trying to figure that out.

Monroe: There’s another thing that I’m, was just looking at and, want to look at more closely, and that is, in 1990, when the wall came down, what did the group of people in the West who were concerned about media think media was as a way of assuring that those benighted individuals behind the Iron Curtain had media. So, you can look at the kind of arc between 1990 and now in terms of the creation and support of the thing we call the media that was supposed to play a role, and try to determine what happened to those things. So the, something that I was interested in at the time was what I call the “enabling environment for free and independent media.” And I actually wrote an essay about this for USAID. And I think that’s one of the things that’s media at risk is the weakening of the quote, enabling environment.

So what is … The enabling environment is rule of law, it’s economic security, it’s independent journalism. All these concepts which are constructed and we’ve come to- to think of them as- as given and- and- and sort of endowed, part of the endowment. And- and I think that’s at risk. So, if you think it’s media require an enabling environment, the enabling environment is at risk, and as a consequence, media research at risk.

Muira: I want to ask just one more question. You are in the special position of having been, a media practitioner, a journalist before you became an academic. And so I’m wondering what advice you would give to kind of the next generation of both media practitioners as well as scholars, like myself, who are trying to make sense of the- the world and the future of media at risk.
Barbie: Well, as a scholar yourself, who is also a journalist, I don’t think I’m far from the mark in saying, don’t forget your other half. I think that one of the most valuable, blends that we have in the academy are people who have lived as professionals, as occupational individuals, as people within an occupational community, outside, of the academy. And I think that that absolutely needs to drive what we do as scholars, and certainly in communication, that needs to be driving that particular blend that we have between theory and practice, between concept and application, needs to really, push, the why it matters behind academic scholarship. Going forward, I think we need more people, in the academy who know what things look like in the real world, and we need to be bringing that real world both into the academy, as well as bring the academy to the outside world. The moment the age of, living in pristine, towers is way over. We need to tweak and reset our relevance, and I think that it is the connection between scholarship and practice that is going to make that happen.

Muira: Whoever you are, whether you’re an academic, journalist, netizen, digital rights activist, or anything in between, we’d love to hear from you, especially if you have thoughts or feelings about ways in which media is at risk today. Feel free to record a voice memo on your smartphone and give us your name and any other information about yourself that you might want included, and email it along to mediaatrisk@asc.upenn.edu. You never know, you might just hear your voice on a future podcast coming out of the Center for Media at Risk. We’re new and we’re here in Philadelphia thinking of ways to bring together media practitioners, media scholars, and media organizations in order to define what media at risk means globally, especially in circumstances of political in intimidation. We’re open to pitches, collaborations, and are always on the prowl for new ideas. So come say hello, whether it’s via Twitter, email, or snail mail.

Aaron: Thanks for listening. We’d like to thank Waldo Aguirre, Jessa Lingel, Diana Mutz, Victor Pickard, Emily Plowman, Monroe Price, and Barbie Zelizer, Director of the Center for Media at Risk. The episode was produced my Muira McCammon and edited my me, Aaron Shapiro. More information can be found on the center’s website, wwww.ascmediarisk.org.



Son Lux: “All the Right Things” (theme)
Moondog: “Snaketime Rhythm”
Moondog: “Caribea”
Moondog: “Down is Up”
Moondog: “Marimba Mondo 1: The Rain Forest”
Moondog: “To a Sea Horse”
Moondog: “Suite Equestria”
Moondog: “Lament 1: Bird’s Lament”
Khruangbin: “Two Fish and an Elephant” (outro)


We’d love to hear from you about in what ways you think media is at risk today. Feel free to record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to media.risk@asc.upenn.edu; you can also find us on Twitter at @ASCMediaRisk. Though we’re a small operation, we’re always open to pitches and new stories.


Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication. A former journalist, Zelizer is an expert on journalism, culture, memory and images in times of crisis. Author of fourteen books and over 150 articles and essays, she is also a media critic, whose work has appeared internationally. Coeditor of Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, a Peabody Media fellow and past President of the International Communication Association, she is presently working on a project titled How the Cold War Drives the News.

Jessa Lingel is an Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, where she studies digital culture, looking for the ways that relationships to technology can show us gaps in power or possibilities for social change. Previously, she was a post doctoral research fellow at Microsoft Research New England, working with the Social Media Collective. She received her Ph.D. in Communication and Information from Rutgers University. She has an MLIS from Pratt Institute and an M.A. from New York University.

Victor Pickard is an Associate Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication. His research focuses on the history and political economy of media institutions, media activism, and the politics and normative foundations of media policy. Previously he taught at New York University and worked on media policy in Washington, D.C. as a Senior Research Fellow at the media reform organization Free Press and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. He also taught media policy at the University of Virginia and served as a Policy Fellow for Congresswoman Diane Watson.

Monroe Price is an Adjunct Full Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Joseph and Sadie Danciger Professor of Law and Director of the Howard M. Squadron Program in Law, Media and Society at the Cardozo School of Law. He directs the Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research in London, and is the Chair of the Center for Media and Communication Studies of the Central European University in Budapest.

Diana Mutz teaches and does research on public opinion, political psychology and mass political behavior, with a particular emphasis on political communication. At Penn she holds the Samuel A. Stouffer Chair in Political Science and Communication, and also serves as Director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics.

This episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by Aaron Shapiro.