Media and the Public

In this class, we will learn about what it means to be a mediated public by becoming one and reflecting on our practice. As we discuss critical and primary readings on media, democracy, and the public sphere, the class will undergo a process together. We will cultivate our own public sphere, setting rules and adjusting them as we go. The midterm and final projects are short exercises in established genres of media intervention.


  • Practice participating a lively community of discussion and debate, and making significant media interventions within it
  • Familiarize ourselves with past and present debates about media and democracy
  • Develop habits of critical engagement with mainstream and alternative news sources
  • Articulate a vision for a democratic public sphere


Each student is expected to:

  • contribute every week to our public sphere, before noon on Thursday, with at least 2 posts and/or comments (at most one post per week) in the D2L discussion (including text, video, or other media) in some way that connects the readings; engagement with the current news cycle and popular culture is strongly encouraged.
  • be an active participant, through listening and speaking, in oral discussions during class time.
  • adhere to the agreements that we set out jointly in class.

Midterm project

For this assignment, draft, revise, and publish an 800-to-900-word op-ed (authored by yourself) or press release (promoting an invented initiative or product from a real organization or company) that makes an intervention in a matter of current public concern, framed in terms of democratic ideals. Through it, make clear the importance and relevance of one or more such ideal.

  • For op-eds, see the notes on op-ed structure and tips from the Op-Ed Project, and browse the op-ed pages of papers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post
  • For press releases, simple templates for the expected format can be found here and here. For more inspiration, try to find press releases published by the organization you choose or others like it

This project should meet the following expectations:

  • Format:
    • Adherence to AP Style
    • Adherence to standard op-ed or press release format
    • Correct length, spelling, and grammar
    • Sophisticated engagement with at least one of the readings in the course so far
  • Responsible advocacy:
    • Clarity of argument
    • Support of argument through evidence, documented in the text and through hyperlinks
    • Framing of the argument in comparison to contrasting positions, demonstrating a sophisticated grasp of the discourse on the topic
    • Transparency about the interests and position of the author
    • Articulation of democratic ideal(s)

Final project

For this assignment, draft, revise, and publish an analysis of a media campaign of your choosing, individually or as part of a group. Your analysis should be written so as to have an effect for its intended audience. Written projects should be between 1,400-1,600 words, and videos between 4-6 minutes. Standards for other media should be agreed on with the instructor.

Campaigns might include, for instance: an Internet meme, a politician's slogan, an iconic advertisement, a university marketing drive, a blacklisting effort, a struggle for political rights.

The medium should be a recognizable genre of some sort that attempts to make an intervention in a particular audience. You might create, for instance: a news report, an instructional video, a fictional internal corporate memo, a business case study, a presentation, a formal letter, a rant of tweets.

The expectations are as follows:

  • A carefully documented and persuasive argument about the campaign, grounded in an analysis of its planning, execution, effectiveness, use of media, and relevant publics
  • Engagement with key themes, readings, and discussions in the course, such as democracy, economic models, ethics, and perspective, including reference to at least two texts on the syllabus
  • Adherence to the topic, medium, and scope agreed on with the instructor; the medium, intended audience, and objective of the piece should be clear
  • Excellence in execution, including grammar, spelling, AP Style (if written), visual clarity, and other standards relevant to the medium; improvement from the first draft should be evident in the final


Grades will be determined as follows:

  • 25 points - quality and persistence of in-class participation
  • 25 points - quality and persistence of participation in online discussions
  • 20 points - midterm project:
    • 7 points - first draft and
      • 3 points - participation in peer review
      • 10 points - final draft with
      • 30 points - final project:
      • 2 points - approved proposal
      • 5 points - first draft
      • 3 points - participation in peer review
      • 20 points - final draft

      Each student is allotted 3 unexcused absences. After that, absences without a documented excuse will result in 2 points detracted from the class participation grade.

Badges, worth 1 extra point, will be awarded at the conclusion of each module:

  • The Virality Badge goes to the thread with the largest number of views
  • The Provocation Badge goes to the thread with the largest number of comments
  • The Insight Badge goes to the post that, in the view of the instructor, makes an especially strong contribution to the quality of the discussion and reflects the insights of the readings
  • The Reflexivity Badge goes to the post that best contributes to the self-reflection our our class public, in the form of either commentary or a concrete proposal for change

There is a limit of one badge per person per week.

Final grades

Based on the stated point structure, grades will be awarded as follows: A (94-100), A- (90-93), B+ (87-89), B (83-86), B- (80-82), C+ (77-79), C (73-76), C- (70-72), D+ (67-69), D (63-66), D- (60-62), F (0-59).



Consider and compare the approaches to democracy in the following two essays:

The difference between James and Whitman can be compared to a debate that one often finds in the syllabi of courses like this, between John Dewey and Walter Lippman (summarized here).

Neither of the above visions much reflects what we tend to think of as structured, democratic governance today. Coming from a radical 1960s activist and feminist, here's a famous manifesto about why structure matters:

For a more recent, theoretical expression of what democracy entails, finally, we should read this helpful series of excerpts (thanks to a pretty strange website) from:

  • Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy (Yale University Press, 1998)

Private and publics

On the latter, watch at least the first two episodes, and after that only as far as you like. It's over-long and repetitive, but well-calculated to blow your mind.

Objectivity and perspective

Media ethics

On public relations and advocacy:

Need a strong reading on journalistic ethics. Perhaps from The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.

  • danah boyd and Kelly McBride, “The Destabilizing Force of Fear,” in Kelly McBride and Tom Rosentiel (eds.), The New Ethics of Journalism (CQ Press, 2013)

Business models

Spend a reasonable amount of time exploring the data here:

How does the current data affect how we read this debate at the start of the millennium?

Here are some recent reports on the influx of Silicon Valley-style venture capital in new media platforms:

Do media makers need to organize?

The commons

Are you a commoner? Here are some general readings on what the commons is all about:

Media commons:

Finally, silence:

Filters and bubbles

Explore some of the debates about “filter bubbles” online.

And that was before (at least so far as we know) Facebook got into experimenting on us with our news feeds…

Maybe we should be more careful with which search engines we use:

Making movements

A classic critique:

  • Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change,” The New Yorker (October 4, 2010)

The Arab Spring:

#BlackLivesMatter and its discontents:

What would a movement-made platform look like?

Leaks, repression, censorship

What makes speech dangerous?

Public intellectualism

Harassment, abuse, accountability

The ongoing P.C. and trigger warning debates:

Online, harassment is real:

Not just for journalists, or women:

Tactical media

Two approaches to “propaganda”: first, the form of perceived imposition…

…and then resistance to it:

This syllabus is a living document. Any part of it may be brought up for discussion and modified by agreement of those present during any official class period.

[ Notes ]