Three-D Issue 21: Reel News: Connecting videoactivism and academia

Reel News avatarsShaun Day
Reel News
Lee Salter
University of Sussexl

Radical media projects have been gaining the attention of critical scholars intensely over the past two decades. The rise of Indymedia, and before that Undercurrents, demonstrated how new digital media technologies could be used by activists to produce inexpensive counter-narratives as well as casting a news net that caught a far broader range of stories than those churned out by the corporate media. Of course the new media projects were grounded in traditions of alternative and radical media that go back beyond the radical radio of the 1960s and 1970s to the eighteenth and nineteenth century radical press and before. While academic attention may come and go, subordinated groups have continued their mediated struggles for centuries now.

Reel News i1Where paradigm cases of radical media projects arise – Indymedia being one of them – there are necessarily criticisms of such initiatives that attempt to sustain oppositional mediations against the odds. It is reasonably clear, for instance, that Indymedia Centres around the world have found it hard to sustain both resources required and, perhaps more importantly, sufficient and sustained participation from interested parties.

The need to engage and assist alternative media projects should be obvious to most people reading this. While they may be derided as much as celebrated, such projects may encourage us to reflect on the role of the academic in critical media studies. The critical elements direct us to reflections on and analyses of corporate media representations, practices and institutions. We’re often less attentive to good practice.

Reel News i2Indeed, among many of the newer universities the very notion of practice appears to have been colonised by a commercial-corporate mentality, promoted through the tropes of employability, skillsets and “relevance” to the “real world”. The notions of relevance and employability are of course developed though marketing departments and wily Vice Chancellors who work to tirelessly to please governments seeking to commodify education and business (or at least a version of business as refined through a curious ideological filter].

Yet there are many examples of good practice still out there. We might refer to this notion of “good” in an Aristotelian sense – a good that is something pursued to benefit the community as well as the practitioner. There are also ways of feeding considerations of good practices into research, as well as teaching from them. One such example of good radical media practice, that we might laud teleologically as well as deontologically, with the Reel News collective.

Reel News i3Reel News was set up in 2006 as an activist video collective to publicise and share information on inspiring campaigns, struggles and creative initiatives across the world.  In the past 7 years Reel News has covered workers struggles such as the 2011-2012 electricians dispute in the UK, resistance to the austerity measures here and elsewhere in Europe – particularly Spain and Greece, the 2011 summer riots in London, the struggle over Palestine, urban food growing in Detroit, the legacy of the Black Panthers, privatisation in education and health, climate change campaigns (currently fracking), street art community projects and opposition to neoliberalism in Latin America.

The films themselves serve to draw attention to the plethora of issues that go unreported in the mainstream, while empowering those active in the protests and movements. As such they provide an important example of alternative modes of news production providing subaltern forms and content. Using participatory video as a tool to empower communities, the collective works with them to produce films that articulate their voices, giving them 100% editorial control.

As a result of this, it has built a significant archive of activist media, covering struggles worldwide as well as working-class history and culture comprises over 200 films, with more being added every week – the majority of them filmed and edited by the collective. Beside the process of engagement in production, Reel News uses its web site to provide further information and outreach, but crucially utilises physical spaces to bring communities, activists and interests together to address issues raised in the film and to organise actions and campaigns on those issues.

As such one might consider Reel News as a paradigm case of “research-as-practice”. That is to say the project to give voice to the marginalised in producing impactful news packages may be considered a paradigm case of how to make critical media research utilisable in practical projects.

Noting the current academic interest in media activism, social movements and new forms of protest, Reel News is turning to working more closely with academics on collaborative projects, in a radicalised form of “knowledge exchange”, “industry links” and practical applicability.

The authors have discerned three main areas in which radical media projects like Reel News may engage the academy.

First to utilise the films as teaching aids, to draw attention both to unreported issues but also to the forms and aesthetics of radical media compared to corporate media. As such participants in Reel News can serve as “industry speakers” to challenge the hegemonic understanding of the means and ends, form and content of “media practice” in management and marketing circles.

Secondly, to respond to directives on “usable” and impactful research with alternative knowledge “partnerships”. Initial discussions between academics and Reel News have pointed to two significant possibilities in collaboration: to offer archive footage for research purposes but also to produce media content for academics seeking new ways to publish research for greater impact.

Both of these possibilities, and the notion of such collaborations more generally point to an opportunity both for reflexive practice and to provide for impactful social change. One such project, in its formative stages, stems from Reel News’s coverage of the recent school teacher strike. In covering the strike, it became apparent quite quickly that for many of those involved the struggle was in the first instance over pay and pensions but there was a keen focus on the very nature of education itself – especially the neoliberal underpinning of Michael Gove’s reforms. As part of the process of documenting the strike, there emerges an alternative understanding of education for critical thinking, community and democracy, understandings which of course academics and media practitioners are being pressed to articulate with ever greater urgency.

It is in this sense that we argue there needs to be a re-evaluation of the relations between critical media practitioners and critical educators and researchers. Both in media and in education the tide has turned against those who seek democracy and community empowerment. Yet perhaps the crisis we face in both fields presents itself as an opportunity to nurture fresh sites of resistance and new networks of collaboration.

Posted by Einar Thorsen