Media, Migration and the Civic Imagination

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Jul 25, 2016
by Paul Mihailidis
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Media, Migration and the Civic Imagination

The 10th Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change focuses on modern migration as digital and social technologies radically alter how people connect The 2015 Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change pose for a group photo

Paul Mihailidis, is the Program Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change and an associate professor of media studies at the School of Communication of Emerson College. This year's academy is titled, Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change: Migration, Media & Global Uncertainty; Mihailidis shares the academy's focus, approach and curriculum.


“We cannot change the world unless we imagine what a better world might look like.”

— Henry Jenkins (2016)

This summer’s 10th Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change focuses on the topic of migration — an issue that affects communities around the world. We are exploring how global narratives about migration are constructed and how personal stories can drive intercultural dialogue.

For millennia, the journey of human migration across and inside borders has radically altered how humans connect. But what is unique about global migration flow in the present are the digital and social technologies and tools that are changing how humans can connect. Cross-media platforms, social networks and digital technologies are altering how information is consumed, produced, expressed and shared — and in ever more open, diverse, and collaborative ways. This shift has led to new opportunities and challenges for how the stories of migration can be told, shared, retold — as well as suppressed.

Despite today’s advances in multi-platform storytelling tools, media and news organizations are struggling to tell deep stories of migration that meaningfully elaborate on how both home and away communities are impacted. Not all the news stories of migration are narratives that address key concerns of inclusion and diversity — or that call readers, listeners and viewers to critical reflection. Too often coverage trafficks in generalizations and faceless data, emphasizes stereotypes, and perpetuates the notion of migrants and refugees as being “different” from — and threatening to — those in the media’s audience.

To explore these narratives, we have gathered 74 students from over 25 nationalities, and 19 faculty and 16 guest scholars from over 15 nationalities, to explore the relationship between media and narratives of migration in digital culture, and to build collaborative multimedia essays that will present diverse and dynamic ways to connect humans in the hopes of overcoming intolerance, stereotyping and reductionist narratives associated with global migration.

To help frame our inquiry, Seminal media scholar Henry Jenkins and his team from USC has joined us to provide a series of seminars and workshops on the concept of civic imagination.

The Civic Imagination

Civic imagination is the capacity to imagine alternatives to current social, political, or economic conditions; one cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like.

Too often, our focus on contemporary problems makes it impossible to see beyond immediate constraints. This tunnel vision perpetuates the status quo, and innovative voices and action from the margin — especially youth — are ignored or deemed inconsequential. As writers like Shakuntala Banaji and David Buckingham (2013) have suggested, young people are often excluded from playing an “actual” or “meaningful” role in the processes associated with institutionalized politics, their agendas are marginalized, and they are disenfranchised.

Through our own research on young activists, we’ve found that young people are learning to identify and frame political issues in language that speaks to them and their peers. Many of the youth we interview tell us that they felt discomfort embracing contemporary political rhetoric that speaks neither to or about their concerns. While young adults arguably have more opportunities for political engagement than ever, the mechanisms for this engagement are often outdated and rely on antiquated power structures that confuse “voice” for “action.” Seeking to move the needle on their own terms, youth are looking beyond traditional political constructions and embracing imagery and stories framed through media.

In turning toward icons and narratives borrowed from popular media to express their civic identities and political concerns, youth are seeking a way to bridge divisions and differences that make it hard for traditional political institutions to move forward to solve persistent problems. This tactic is not new: groups seeking change have long referenced the cultural image bank to shift civic imagination. Consider the following examples:

  • The American civil rights movement in the 1950s used the rhetoric of the black church and spoke of the need to “cross the River Jordan” and enter the “promised land.”
  • The Indian independence movement in the early twentieth century drew on ancient Hindu myths to build a case for ending colonial rule.
  • Pro-democracy protesters in Czechoslovakia appropriated Czech fairy tales as they literally jiggled their keys to “ring in” the end of the Communist era in 1989.

Today’s generation of young activists maintains a strong relationship to popular culture, and that cultural vocabulary can help broker relations across different political groups. Youths across the globe are remixing popular culture for political ends. The creative energies of citizens are being joined with the political commitments of activists. This movement from the private/elite towards the public/democratized imagination often draws on images already familiar to participants from other contexts — images drawn not from political rhetoric but popular fantasy. Consider these two cases:

  • The immigration reform movement in the United States has taken up Superman, a superhero whose legal status of citizenship remains unclear (he IS from the planet Krypton), as a central symbol.
  • Rang De Basanti, a Bollywood film whose plot centrally involves young people’s struggle for social justice, inspired a real world protest that emulated the film in both method (sit-ins at the India Gate in Delhi) and cause (both protested high-level government corruption) in ways that actually helped produce tangible results.

Process and Approach

The Academy uses this frame to first explore how personal and communities narratives impact our worldviews, and the commonalities and differences that exist among our group in Salzburg. We’ll then see how our narratives connect — and disconnect — to large media coverage of migration. Finally, we’ll produce multimedia essays that discuss how we can leverage the power of human narratives, our civic imagination and digital media to reimagine narratives of migration. The scope of exploration at the Academy looks as follows: 

  • Exploring the Personal and Community
  • Exploring How Media Portrays Migration
  • Connecting Narratives
  • Building a Multimedia Story
  • Human Connections & Human Reflections

To guide our participants in this exploration, our curriculum is anchored by seminars, workshops, reading groups, screenings, and beyond, that provide diverse and rigorous content and context for explore media and migration. Topics will include: Data Visualization, Game Design, Mobile Storytelling, Civic Media Activism, and more.

Lastly, a public workshop on Civic Media & Migration has been jointly convened with the Institute for Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA). Participants include policy experts, media capacity organizations, community stakeholders, faculty working in media and communication fields, and young media makers engaging in media work across cultures. Participants share in the findings of the research and brainstorm ways to employ media literacy as a constructive tool for civic dialog, policy making and media messaging today.


For more information regarding the 2016 Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change visit the session page, Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change: Migration, Media & Global Uncertainty, for a session overview, key questions and a full list of participating faculty, guest scholars and participants.