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Center for Media and Citizenship

At a time when major news institutions are disappearing, and news analysis is shallower and often deliberately biased, WUVA Media seeks to engage the formidable institutional and academic resources of the University of Virginia and, more broadly, academic resources within all Virginia, to address new information needs of our democracy, establishing the Virginia Center for New Media Citizenship.

How do Americans find unbiased, or less biased, information necessary for a sufficiently deep understanding of public issues? How do citizens judge the usefulness of information in making decisions about our politics and society? How do journalists and leaders communicate with America? If current trends are enabling a return to pure democracy in the Public Square, we must improve the marketplace of ideas so that it, and we, can function with enhanced efficiency in the digital age.

Meanwhile, digital technology is obliterating political borders’ historic function as obstacles to the spread of ideas. Governments are responding with experiments aimed at regulating, channeling, or stifling digital expression and its political and social consequences. As new media become instruments of revolution, how does the United States advocate effectively for free expression worldwide without making itself vulnerable to charges of cultural insensitivity and cultural imperialism?

The University of Virginia, through its broad curriculum and its student-run news organizations, has a long tradition of producing some of the nation’s finest journalists and media executives. However, the news environment now calls for student media groups to be galvanized into a new, multi-platform, collaborative journalistic endeavor. Part of this effort will combine reporting using short- and long-form analyses designed specifically for distribution over new media channels. Part involves developing criteria and methodologies for criticizing media sources and their methods to index bias and attention to, or disregard of, facts, and make those indices and critical evaluation frameworks available to the public and leaders in the public sphere.

The aim is to help citizens navigate the new information landscape more effectively, and so to improve their ability to participate in our democratic processes. This is a vital public service, a response to unprecedented technological and social changes in the marketplace of ideas.

The objectives of the Virginia Center for New Media Citizenship are…

  1. To build a significant, systematic capacity for student investigative reporting on a statewide basis, coordinating with journalistic organizations at the University of Virginia and other Virginia colleges and universities, using new media for reporting, analysis, editorial oversight, and distribution. The effort will be guided by a small staff of full- time, resident professional advisors, supplemented by university faculty. Student participation in all events will supply vital learning on subjects of core importance to our democracy. The small professional staff will also help guide the work in the three areas that follow.
  2. To frame a principled approach for advocating free expression using digital media across borders around the world. This effort in political philosophy and political economy is premised on the Jeffersonian precept that protecting, and indeed facilitating, unlimited freedom of thought and expression are essential to human happiness and effective government. We aim to develop targeted digital-age rationales for adopting free expression – as a fundamental right and as a requirement for legitimate government – for use by individuals, private entities, non-governmental organizations, governments and international organizations.
  3. To develop improvements in new media’s news gathering and reporting practices. We aim to devise and test new private-sector means of informing the public about the value of editorial standards in the new media’s aggregation and dissemination of facts and opinion. We intend constant iterative development cycles of means to this end, using practical experimentation in news production and delivery, scholarly examination, and public feedback.
  4. To develop tools, such as accuracy and bias indices (for example, The Virginia Index of Press Accuracy) and more complicated media evaluation frameworks to allow the public, the press, and leaders in the public sphere (whether in politics, industry, or other areas) to evaluate new media information sources and the editorial integrity of new media reporting and editorial processes. The aim is to make the dissemination of these evaluations, and use of the tools, an integral aid to public navigation through the digital age marketplace of ideas. These tools and indices will also assist leaders in the public sphere to communicate more effectively with the public and the press. Now more than ever, leaders facing the new media environment need value-based references to communicate with the public about the accuracy, fairness, integrity, and usefulness of new media reporting. The means in part identifying and indexing press practices worthy of criticism. Inevitably, efforts to develop these new rating systems will be value-laden and therefore controversial. The difficulties ahead do not diminish the need for exploring the strengths, weaknesses, and biases of the new media to infuse new utility into the digital age information marketplace.

WUVA’s board of directors and supporting alumni believe that the role of the press in our democracy must now essentially be re-established. We will contribute by identifying, developing, and advocating uncommon techniques to help guide the public’s use of new media, interpretation of new media products, and insistence on rigor and fairness in new media processes. Democratization of the news feedback loop requires new techniques for public criticism of media products, and new ways to inform the public so that it participates more effectively in our politics. This can only succeed if carried out by non-governmental actors, and with practical and scholarly attention to updating the marketplace of ideas of Jefferson and Holmes.

Integration of the Virginia Center for New Media Citizenship at the University of Virginia

WUVA Media will work closely with schools and departments of the University of Virginia to support the ambitious aims of this project. The Politics, History, Economics, and Media Studies departments, among others, will offer resources for evaluating new media press functions as they relate to current issues around the world. WUVA will also collaborate with UVa’s schools of law, leadership and public policy (the Batten School), undergraduate and graduate business (McIntire and Darden), engineering, medicine, and education (the Curry School). WUVA will also seek close working relationships with other student media at UVa and at other institutions throughout Virginia, with UVa’s Center for Politics (with its emphasis on educating high school students about the political process), Sorensen Institute (focused on training for leaders in public service), and Miller Center for Public Affairs.

That the University of Virginia should host or support this initiative is entirely appropriate, a reflection of Thomas Jefferson’s focus on the illimitable freedom of the human mind and on the pursuit of truth wherever it may lead.

View the April, 2012 forum, “Preserving Student Journalism at UVa,”
sponsored in part by WUVA Media and funded by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust: