Gästinlägg av Florencia Enghel

From media effects to the ambiguity of mediation

To use Anne Kaun’s words, I’ve recently “bagged” my Ph.D. and I’m in the uncertain “and then what” stage that follows. In this context, the invitation to publish here is a welcome opportunity to share one aspect of my research that will hopefully interest colleagues in the FSMK community.

Based on the investigation of a high-profile post-conflict media development intervention in the Western Balkans that took place from 2000 to 2005, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I discuss the limits of mainstream conceptualizations of the role of mediated communication in processes of social change, arguing for an understanding of mediation as multivalent.

By studying how The Videoletters Project unfolded in practice, I show that discourses about the media’s power to exert a positive (and speedy) influence on troubled polities coexist with the empirical fact that mediation has ambiguous outcomes. In my study, this was the case at different levels. To give a few examples:

1) Videoletters anticipated a linear progression of its effects: the broadcast of a TV documentary series would exemplify and inspire reconciliation among distantiated citizens of the former Yugoslavia, who would in turn engage in do-it-yourself reconnection via a website, in a smooth and swift process. However, my study shows that viewers of the series sought a different type of assistance, requiring the active presence of a mediator bringing video letters back and forth, the opportunity to take time to consider one’s response before actually answering, and the possibility to correspond in private (and offline).

2) Funders insisted on Videoletters’ laudable aim to serve the citizens of the successor states by mediating the reestablishment of relationships through a variety of media uses and channels. However, my study shows that, rather than actually working as a “tool for reconciliation” in the region targeted, the project operated symbolically as a signifier of the funders’ ‘doing good’ at home: in the UK, the Netherlands, and by extension the US.

3) Videoletters claimed to have brought about the 1st joint transmission of a program by all of the successor states’ broadcasters since the Yugoslavian breakup, in what was described as a demonstration of governmental collaboration and the will to reconciliate. However, my study shows that broadcasters refused to show specific episodes of the series, and that the funders’ subsequent diplomatic push for the ‘media event’ to take place despite resistance produced a distance between both parties.

Whereas the concept of mediation has often been applied to imply that media-driven intervention can and will give rise to positive outcomes, my empirical study shows that its consequences are in fact ambivalent. The interposing of media as a means for connecting (distant) parties to a relationship may simultaneously lead to dialogue, the absence of dialogue, the pretense of dialogue, and/or conflict at a variety of scales. Attention to the specifics of contextually situated mediation processes is needed in order to understand their actual repercussions.

Florencia Enghel, Ph.D.