Review of Chapter 11, "New Voices on the Net? The Digital Journalism Divide and the Costs of Network Exclusion" by Ernest J. Wilson and Sasha Costanza-chock
The rise of political debates surrounding the digital divide in the mid-90s is an extension of previous unequal access to information technology based on income, race, ethnicity, age, and geography (Van Dijk, 2005). Wilson and Chock note that during the Bush administration, policy makers and scholars began to frame the digital divide in terms of network “inclusion” due to the rapid “diffusion of networked communication technologies” around the globe. This focus on inclusion rendered the digital divide irrelevant since based on the diffusion, everyone would eventually be able to gain access to the Internet (p. 253). In “New Voices on the Net,” Wilson and Chock claim that media ownership is the linked to structural racism and network exclusion. They argue that since broadband access has become an essential service for basic citizenship and democratic ideals, it is important that people of all races and backgrounds have the ability to contribute professionally to the media industry. In order for this to happen, however, people of color need to “own” more of the media industries. If people of color own fewer networks than whites, then they are at a disadvantaged position in society. Rather than focusing on the benefits of digital inclusion, Wilson and Chock show how the historical institutionalization of racism within media industries continues to exacerbate network exclusion to this day. They set forth the following questions: What does network exclusion say about the future of US democracy? What are the social consequences of the media ownership divide?
Using media ownership statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau (2006) and the U.S. Economic Census (2002) Wilson and Chock examine how four dominant media industries:, (i) print, (ii) commercial broadcast, (iii) public broadcast, (iv) online media, continue to exclude people of color and perpetuate "race-based” inequality in ownership (p.250). The stats reveal that print and broadcasts media continue to be less diversely owned than online media. However, the stats also show how that despite the accessibility and diffusion of online media, 77% of online content is still own by whites (p. 252). Based on this ownership data, they posit that the digital divide is not over, but continues to exclude people of color at an exponential rate. In order to demonstrate the way media ownership produces racial inequalities, they reverse Metcalfe’s law, a mathematical model of network inclusion which states that as “more people join a network, the value they add to the network increases exponentially,” to produce a new model of network exclusion, the Wilson-Tongia Formulation (p. 257). In contrast to Metcalfe’s law, the Wilson-Tongia formulation proves that as more people join a network the “more quickly the costs of exclusion grow for those excluded from that network" (p. 258). Thus, the Wilson-Tongia model is a formula that encourages scholars, policymakers, and activists to look at how the dominant ownership of media by whites has social and economic costs for both the excluded and those inside the network, underscoring the idea that there are growing inequalities both “within and between countries” (p. 255).
It is also important to note that throughout their analysis Wilson and Chock do not show how these newspapers or commercial media represent race or discuss content, but focus purely on media ownership. Defining network access in terms of media ownership, however, is slightly problematic because it assumes that “ownership” includes participation and effective penetration. By just examining the implications of ownership, one misses the context, the social and cultural environments, in which the media is in use. Whether or not someone has access to the physical object, i.e. computer, is not the problem, as having access does not fully determine whether or not the user will have the skill set or electronic literacy to use the technology to its full potential (Warschauer, 2004). Moreover, it could have been useful to do some research on which online media is most powerful and what non-professional blogs or websites, owned by people of color, attract the most traffic. The ownership of a blog or media outlet does not determine how influential that particular media is on a population. The article calls for an intervention to help online journalism reach full racial parity, but a model for this intervention was not proposed. Instead, they offered a Wilson-Tongian formulation, which does not offer any solutions to the problem, but quantifies a complex issue and reduces racial inequality to the problem of ownsership and access.
While policy makers look at the digital divide based on physical access, social scientists (Katz & Rice, 2002; Mossberger, Tolbert, & Stansbury 2003; Warschauer 2004; Van Dijk 2005) have argued that a multivariate analysis approach to the divide reveals a spectrum of digital divides among a given population based on factors such as socioeconomic status, age, gender and ethnicity (Mossberger, Tolbert & Standbury, 2003). Additional digital divides, such as skill and motivational divides, further complicate and deepen the physical divide (Van Dijk, 2005). Thus, the digital divide should not be defined by who has access to technology and by those who do not, but by how and why people access information from various types of media industries (Katz & Rice, 2002). The Wilson-Tongia formulation was useful to understanding how ownership contributes to racial inequalities and the digital divide, however, by focusing merely on ownership, Wilson and Chock return to the idea that the digital divide is purely based on access., ignoring the scholarship over the past ten years which claim that one must consider economic, social, political, and cognitive influences on access when assessing issues of the digital divide. It is invaluable to consider how both the content and context of network contribute to exclusion. In the future, it may be useful to do a study on whether or not a network’s content reflects those that own it.
Mossberger, K., Tolbert, C. J., & Stansbury, M. (2003). Virtual ineqaulity: Beyond the digital divide. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Rice, R. E., McCreadie, M., & Chang, S.-J. (2001). Accessing and browsing information nad communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Van Dijk, J. A. G. M. (2005). The deepening divide: Inequality in the information society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.