Program To Help Community Groups Get The
Message Out

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Boston College will inaugurate a training institute next month to help community action groups utilize the media more effectively and communicate their messages better.

Prof. William Gamson (Sociology) is supervising the project, known as the Media Fellows Program and sponsored by the Media Research Action Project at Boston College and the Empowerment and Change Project at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Two representatives each from four Boston area organizations will participate in the 10-month program this year.

"The program's goal is not to do an organization's media work for them, nor is the emphasis on skill-training," Gamson said. "We want participants to learn how to integrate a media strategy into their general organizational plan and, in so doing, increase their sophistication, their ability to speak for themselves."

Fellows will attend in-class workshops once a month, dedicate two days a month to work on a media project with their organization and share their skills with fellow members. Among other activities, Gamson said, fellows will monitor Boston area media, including neighborhood newspapers and alternative press, to gain a better understanding of journalism.

"A group concerned with low-income housing, for example, might look at which reporters cover issues related to their area of interest," Gamson said. "They can see how a story is handled by different news organizations and whose perspectives are reflected most often."

Activists working for social and economic justice constantly face challenges in presenting their views to the media, Gamson said.

"These groups often tend to have negative experiences with the media," he explained, "and develop a 'They're out to get us' attitude which can impair their rapport even with reporters who are sympathetic to them. But you can't write off the mass media, because that cuts you off from a critical resource."

At the same time, Gamson said, the media "has a tendency to marginalize these groups. When journalists talk about 'citizen participation,' they see it in individual terms; so if citizens band together and form a group to focus on an issue, for example, they're now a 'special interest.'"

The program also will bolster services MRAP has provided on a more informal basis since 1986, noted project co-director Charlotte Ryan, an assistant researcher in the Sociology Department. Local groups have already benefited through their association with MRAP, she notes.

One sought to learn effective interview techniques for a cable television show it was producing that shed light on the experiences of Irish immigrants. Another organization attracted extensive coverage for its study indicating that more restrictive welfare laws had left some women potentially vulnerable to domestic violence or abuse, Ryan said.

"There is certainly a lot of use, and demand for the help MRAP can offer," Ryan said. "One of the program's strengths is that the participants do not leave their organization in order to pursue the fellowship; on the contrary, they remain an integral part of it."

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