Senian Approaches to Media Policy

Senian philosophy has also not been utilized extensively with regard to the analysis of, and its applicability to, media policy, or as Hesmondhalgh (2016) notes, “media and culture have only very rarely figured in the capabilities approach to ethics, markets and economic life” (p. 11). However, as Rao (2013) states, “Amartya Sen has much to say to media studies” (p. 218). Sen describes India’s media as “relatively free” (Sen and Dreze, 1989, p. 212) and adversarial, and as critical in the battle against hunger, yet he criticizes two elements in its functioning: lack of accuracy and inattentiveness to the needs of lower classes (Sen, 2012). As with Rawlsian analyses, a few applications of Sen’s theory have been made both in the traditional media field and in relation to the growing information society. Garnham (1997) cites Sen’s examples of the effect of a free press and education on fighting hunger and raising life expectancy in India as indications of his sensitivity to the role of the media in helping people have real capabilities to choose among their desired functionings. Indeed, Garnham identified virtue regarding the study of the media and their role in society in Senian philosophy as early as 1997, stating that “in the field of communications it leads to the conclusion that it is not access in a crude sense that is crucial but the distribution of the social resources that make access usable” (Garnham, 1997, p. 115) and it is “the real availability of opportunities and the real achievement of functionings that matters” (p. 121).

Garnham provides examples such as access for people with disabilities; additionally, giving consideration to differences in levels of education, in particular levels of literacy, as instances in which an analysis based on functionings and capabilities rather than on what people buy or merely enjoy is, according to Garnham, the better alternative for evaluating whether the media serve their social role. “In looking at communication policy from this perspective,” he summarizes, “we need to think of newspapers and broadcasting as enablers of a range of functionings rather than as providers of a stream of content to be consumed” (p. 121) and of access to telephony as an enabler “of the maintenance of familial and wider social networks and thus of full participation in the social life of the community” (p. 123). Mansell (2002), while calling for a reframing of the conversation regarding the “digital divide,” and Couldry (2010) when making the connection between capabilities and “voice,” each draw on Sen in order to call for a different communication policy debate; either focused on citizens’ abilities to “make choices about alternative ways of living their lives” (Mansell, 2002, p. 408), or on “voice” as one of the central capabilities citizens should have a right to (Couldry, 2010, p. 105).

Britz, Hoffmann, Ponelis, Zimmer, and Lor (2012) believe that what advocates of information-based rights in the new media environment such as free software, access to knowledge, and open access movements lack is the understanding that “providing access is not sufficient” (p. 112). The capabilities they believe need to be provided to better facilitate functioning in the information society are influenced by three key factors: personal, social, and environmental characteristics.

Very similarly, Toboso (2011) utilizes Sen’s capability approach in analyzing access to Web sites for people with disabilities. Acknowledging that a disability is no longer considered a mere medical condition but in addition a social construction, Toboso advocates the introduction of a new model of disability in society—functional diversity—that is based on notions of diversity rather than on the dichotomous differentiation between able and disabled, invoking yet again the maxim that connectivity to ICTs is more than mere access.

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