Aditi Mehta, Ph.D. is a scholar and educator of urban studies and planning.

The Politics of Community Media in the Post-Disaster City

I spent 2016 living in between New York City and New Orleans to conduct dissertation research about community media that emerges in the post-disaster context. Through this process, I was able to learn about amazing low and high tech activism, resistance, and storytelling projects including 2-Cent Media, Bridge the Gulf, Land of Opportunity, and Sandy Storyline among others. I found that oftentimes, cultural workers were taking on the role of first responders. The research focuses on a crucial aspect of the architecture of inequality that characterizes U.S. cities, unequal access to the production of knowledge through media, and identifies promising new social and technological infrastructure that can help address these significant disparities. This research won the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning Outstanding Ph.D. dissertation award in June 2018.

Disasters are times of information deficits and mass media misrepresentations. While mainstream media reports an array of narratives about crisis situations, it often ignores a variety of perspectives and the lived experiences of minority populations. This creates a biased knowledge base for city planners and the general public about the events before, during, immediately following, and long after the disaster. Accordingly, such events can trigger new forms of community media to amplify marginalized voices in the city. As information communication technologies (ICTs) become more accessible, it is easier for people to produce and disseminate community media, which manifests in varied forms with diverse purposes. This dissertation seeks to understand how and why people use ICTs to create community media in the aftermath of a disaster during recovery and rebuilding, as well as identify the multi-scalar gains of these activities.

Using extensive qualitative interview data and thick description, this dissertation creates a framework and comprehensively analyzes the evolution of over forty initiatives such as low-powered FM radio, neighborhood Wifi mesh networks, the innovative use of social networking sites, blogs, and participatory documentaries, among others, that emerged in post-Katrina New Orleans (2005) and in post-Sandy New York City (2012).

Applying grounded theory and emergent coding from these examples, it presents a timeless Post-Disaster Community Media Typology that outlines the primary action(s) and progression of these digital activities including: to inform (resource-sharing), to investigate (bottom-up journalism), to incite (organize for place), to include (crowd-sourced deliberation), to interact (therapeutic networking), to interpret (memorialize), and to income-generate (economic self-determination). Two in-depth ethnographic case studies with youth of color in both cities further verify the typology and illustrate how the community media production process can be an emancipatory form of rebuilding.

By investigating the media ecology of grassroots communication, news generation, and storytelling in the post-disaster context, this research challenges the ongoing debate about how ICTs change the concept of community since few researchers have explored this question when physical space is destroyed due to disaster. Media production and communication using various digital tools allows dispersed racial/ethnic communities to maintain bonds, facilitates the creation of new values-based or goal-oriented communities, and provides a way for members of a neighborhood to rebuild their physical communities from afar. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that the there are three types of gains at the individual, community, and city level from post-disaster community media: recognition, instrumental capacity, and asset creation, which are essential for a healthy democracy and equitable resilience to shock.

The findings also have implications for a broader understanding of public participation in the digital age. The typology offers a framework to conceptualize how community development efforts make use of a variety of new media technologies and how to best characterize the impacts of such engagement. The outcomes of planning are evaluated through the ideals of procedural or distributive justice, but neither of these perspectives critically examine how individuals form and obtain knowledge to make sense of their environments in the first place. City planning practitioners and scholars must include access to communication and media production as an issue area in the field to effectively address inequality.

This research was funded by the Harold Horowitz Student Research Fund, the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Fellowship, the New York Public Library Research Fellowship, and the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South Research Fellowship.