Communication Institute for Online Scholarship
Communication Institute for Online
Scholarship Continous online service and innovation
since 1986
Site index
ComAbstracts Visual Communication Concept Explorer Tables of Contents Electronic Journal of Communication ComVista

Article from ejc/rec Electronic Journal of Communication
EJC logo
The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 9 Numbers 2, 3, 4 1999

Community Television


John W. Higgins
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California USA


Abstract.  This article investigates the role of Sense-Making Methodology in a study of community volunteer producers at a public access cable television facility in the U.S. Midwest. The Sense-Making approach is viewed as a system that allows for pragmatic implementation of liberatory goals and facilitates personal emancipation through self-reflection. Utilizing deductive and inductive approaches, the public access study explored institutional claims of empowerment by the access movement and compared these with the experiences of community participants. The results particularly showed that the realization of the empowerment vision, which is the characteristic claim made for media education and involvement, is less direct and more subtle than the literatures investigated suggest. The findings confirm some of the Sense-Making theoretical premises related to the nature of the individual and the collective, the role of information in people's lives, and communicative practice as process.

Discourse within media and critical pedagogy from the 1960s through the mid-1990s addressed the desirability of having students achieve "empowerment." The discussion in these areas was limited primarily to the boundaries of institutional education. Beyond these walls, grassroots, "alternative," community-based media also made claims to empowerment for non-professional volunteers participating in the creation of media product. Aside from sharing the basic goals of a learning process that was liberatory in nature, media education, critical pedagogy, and community media had another commonality: few defined empowerment or provided empirical evidence that something resembling empowerment had occurred as a result of the practices in the area.

This article details the processes and results of a study that addressed this dearth of empirical data by comparing community media claims of empowerment with the experience of volunteer producers at a "public access" cable television facility in the United States. The study findings shed light on claims to "media literacy," "participation," and "empowerment" within a democratic society and suggested ways of implementing these ideals within a traditional educational or lifelong learning context. 1

In the study, Sense-Making provided a methodological framework, as well as a method of data collection that was philosophically harmonious with the goals of liberation advocated by discourse within the areas of community media, media education, and critical pedagogy. Sense-Making Methodology was used in both individual and focus group interviews.

Sense-Making in this article is explored as a system that allows for pragmatic implementation of liberatory goals within a critical framework, particularly those espoused by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1989).

Context of Topic Selection and Methodological Framework

Critical approaches to mass communication research embrace a self-reflexive examination of the assumptions underlying the selection of the topic, theoretical framework, and methodologies for a given inquiry (Lunt & Livingstone, 1996). Accordingly, this section will examine the context surrounding the selection of the topic and the adoption of the methodological framework of a study of community volunteer video producers and empowerment.

My connection to Sense-Making Methodology began from an intuitive frame and later moved to the intellectual; I view the connection as part of a process that began when I was a high school student studying Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for the summer. Years later, I realized that the school was founded by educational reformer Ivan Illich and based on Freirean principles of life-long education for personal awareness for the purpose of social change. Language lessons were mixed with discussions of individual and group responsibilities for social change; these discussions and the resultant social consciousness followed me over the years into my practitioner work in commercial and noncommercial broadcast radio and television, and public access cable television.

Later I recognized the implications of Freire's work on research paradigms. Rogers (1982) presents Freire and other Latin American scholars as representing a "middle road" between "critical" and "empirical" models, and I felt an affinity with the ideals these scholars espoused: life-long learning, research rooted in practice, and self-reflection with a goal of individual and societal change, blending both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The problem, as I saw it, was that there was no discernible manner of implementing these values into a workable practice.

At this same time I was introduced to Sense-Making and recognized in it a methodology that focused on the perspective of the respondent rather than the researcher, encouraged participant self-reflexivity, and provided self-analytical tools for respondents in exchange for their investment in a research project. As I moved from an intuitive to an intellectual exploration, Sense-Making's ontological and epistemological orientations fit my notions of a "middle road" of communication scholarship.

Through Sense-Making, Freire's theories of a life-long liberatory pedagogy seemed to me to have found a method of practical implementation. Indeed, Freire informs the basis of Sense-Making (Dervin 1983, 1989, 1992).

The purpose of addressing in detail the personal history above is to recognize the complex interplay among experiences, intuition, and logic that characterizes the adoption of research topics, theoretical frameworks and research methodologies, a methodological self-reflexivity recommended by Dervin (1998). My background as a media practitioner helped establish an interest in community participatory media. Interests, both personal and academic, in structures and methods that seek to uplift the human condition made Sense-Making Methodology a logical and intuitive choice for an investigation into the claims of emancipation set forth by discourse in media education, critical pedagogy, and community media.

A Study of Empowerment and Public Access TV Producers

In the United States, access by the general public to video production equipment and channels of distribution has been institutionalized on local cable television systems since the early 1970s. Known as "public access" channels, these community video facilities were established ostensibly to address societal ills in the U.S., allowing citizen participation in an otherwise closed media system. Through training in media production, volunteers were to become "literate" in media structures, forms, and goals; they were to become able to "demystify" the media for themselves; gain a "voice" in the society; and move on to an expanded participation in the workings of a democratic society. Personal and social empowerment was to result from this experience, to the benefit of the individual and the collective (Engelman, 1990; Fuller, 1994; Gillespie, 1975).

At the same time public access channels were being established in the public sector, educators were recognizing the necessity of including school-based explorations in the media to encourage a more critical reading of the media -- a media literacy (Buckingham, 1991; Halloran & Jones, 1984; and Masterman, 1980). Critical pedagogists such as Freire (1989), Giroux (1981), and McLaren (1986) were re-thinking the very nature of educational systems and practices. >From the late 1960s and early 1970s through the mid-1990s, public access, media education, and critical pedagogy had articulated goals of empowerment and democratic participation, concerns that continued to dominate discourse in these areas.

However, the discussion had not fully defined these terms or articulated procedures by which the goals might be achieved. Further, the public access canon rested on problematic philosophical assumptions within pluralist ideology, particularly regarding the nature of power and the relationship of the individual to the collective. Critics of the public access vision argued against the possibility of empowerment through participation in video production without accompanying structural changes to correct societal inequities. 2

With a goal of exploring the viability of the claims of empowerment made by proponents of public access, in 1993 and 1994 I conducted a study of the implementation of the public access vision. Volunteer community producers at a public access facility in the U.S. Midwest were interviewed in depth to see how their experiences compared to the empowerment "vision." Specifically, the study intended to discern: (1) if producers of public access programs had an awareness of the media's structure and operation, including a sense of the codes of television; (2) if this awareness of media's structure, operation, and codes assisted producers in defining a sense of self, others, and society; (3) if producers took action to implement these awarenesses; and (4) if producers identified and changed relationships, particularly within the societal realm.

The first item constituted the elements of media literacy and media demystification; items 2, 3, and 4 addressed increasing levels of empowerment. For the purposes of this study, empowerment was defined as an awareness of one's self, others, and society, with action taken to implement these awarenesses in each of the areas. Actions taken to address power relationships in the areas of self, others, and society were considered to be of a higher order than mere implementation of awareness; actions taken to address power relationships in the societal realm were judged to be the highest level of empowerment. The definition of empowerment drew primarily from Freire (1989) and contemporary critical pedagogists such as Giroux (1981) and McLaren (1986).

Within a context of video production, the constituent elements of empowerment as "media literacy" and "media demystification" were defined. These included an awareness of (and, at higher levels, reflection on and implementation of) the traditional canon of media production (technical, symbolic, and cultural/ideological), media organization, and non-media institutional relationships. The definition of empowerment also suggested that, in addition to these cognitive elements, a producer would be able to recognize that all of these elements are human constructions and can be changed. The ingredients of empowerment within the realm of video production drew primarily from media education scholars such as Buckingham (1991), Halloran and Jones (1984), Masterman (1980), and Sholle and Denski (1994).

A grid was created to organize the intersection of the literatures of public access, critical pedagogy, and media education for this study. Figure 1 describes and defines video empowerment, organizing three areas in which empowerment might occur, and five arenas of focus. The cells formed by the intersections of each of these allow for a distinction between cognition and/or reflection, and action. The chart provided direction for lines of inquiry and data collection; and a deductive method of organizing the study data, discussed later in this article.


Figure 1. The video empowerment chart, with definitions.


Theoretic Framework and Methodological Considerations

The assumptions of the public access, media education, and critical pedagogy discourses as they related to this investigation suggested a line of inquiry that focused on awareness of self, others, media operations, and societal conditions on the part of the community producer. Such a focus was in keeping with the interpretive paradigm of social science research, as well as Sense-Making Methodology. In particular, Sense-Making offered a theoretical and methodological approach consistent with the liberatory goals espoused by the discourse of public access, media education, and critical pedagogy.

As demanded by these areas, Sense-Making provided an actor-oriented framework; an approach that viewed information seeking and use by humans as a means, not an end in itself, and methods of data collection that attended to elements of evaluation and emancipation through self-reflection on the part of the informant.

As it applied to this study, the Sense-Making theoretic assumed that a person approaching the public access facility had encountered one or more discontinuities in his or her life that he or she was seeking to bridge. For this person, video production and training seemed part of the bridge.

As suggested by the literatures utilized in this study, empowerment might arise from either purposive or non-purposive actions. Sense-Making allowed for consideration of both on the part of the producers. At the same time, Sense-Making expanded the context of the producer beyond the training experience by enabling the producer to articulate visions of empowerment outside those defined by the discourse in public access, media education, or critical pedagogy. It was this institutional perspective that was expressed deductively in the grid organizing these literatures, represented by Figure 1.

Methodological Considerations: Data Collection

The study primarily utilized the individual Sense-Making Time-Line interview as a method of data collection; however, focused, group interviews were also used. While the individual interview is the principal method of data collection within Sense-Making, focus groups have also been utilized that follow the Sense-Making theoretic (Dervin, 1991; Dervin & Clark, 1987a, 1987b). In their review of focus group research methods, Lunt and Livingstone (1996) note that group interviews are particularly suited to critical research and help reveal the manner in which persons make sense of the discussion topic and their negotiation of these meanings. Krueger (1988) describes questioning within traditional focus groups that is congruent with Sense-Making Methodology, where participants are encouraged to establish a context for their answers by "thinking back" and anchoring themselves in a particular time/space situation while considering their responses. The theoretic foundation of group interviews holds that attitudes are shaped in part by interaction, not solely in isolation (Krueger, 1988; Lunt & Livingstone, 1996; Morgan, 1992, 1997), providing similarities between the group interview process and Freire's "conscientizing groups."

Given that the video creation process most often is conducted within a group context, group interviews were particularly appropriate. The focus groups allowed for data collection in a setting that was social in nature, permitting yet another circling of the responses provided by the informants in the group and individual interviews. 3

The questions used in the group interviews in this investigation arose deductively from the discourse within public access, media education, and critical pedagogy, as well as those dictated by Sense-Making meta-theory. Responses by community producers provided an overview of the variety of perceptions toward empowerment and public access. These responses were used to refine the in-depth protocol and to select informants for individual interviews.

Site and Informant Selection

The site selected for this study of empowerment was the experiential setting of the public access arena. Specifically, Access Columbus TV (ACTV) in Columbus, Ohio, a prototypical access facility, served as the test site. 4 Respondents were selected who had completed some technical training workshops offered by ACTV and who submitted at least one program during the year prior to this study. These producers were considered "active" and most closely associated with the Freirean notion of "giving voice" through their video programs. Producers were also included who had submitted programs in the past, but not during the year prior to the study; these respondents were considered "dropouts" from the program producing process and were able to provide a wider variation of producer responses.

Further, after consulting the public files at ACTV, producers who were considered active were categorized according to the type of program they produced, as well as the length of time elapsed since the submission of their first program. The use of time, program categories, and active or dropout status as factors in respondent selection were intended to expedite a maximum variation in sampling, considered the "sampling mode of choice" for naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 201). Both "purposive" sampling (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and "theoretical" sampling (Glaser & Strauss, 1970; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) refer to the desire to collect data with an eye to the emergence of theory grounded in the data. Dissimilar sources are sought out until the data compiled begin to repeat themselves, achieving redundancy. In this study, the goal was to increase the possibility of divergent experiences among producers with differing program interests and amount of experience.

The inclusion of both those who were currently active in public access program production and those who had dropped out of program production was crucial to this study. Over time, public access facilities experience a high dropout rate among community producers and volunteers. For the purposes of this study, those currently involved in program production were considered to be closest to the public access vision of empowerment that is said to result from working with video equipment -- previously seen to be "mystifying" in nature -- and using this equipment in the Freirean sense of "speaking with one's own voice." Technical training was where this public access vision of empowerment was implemented; those assuming responsibility for programs had acted most concretely within the area of production.

Those who had dropped out of the process provided an interesting and important point of comparison with those who were actively participating in the creation of public access programs and shed significant insights on the viability of the public access vision of empowerment. I judged that the dropouts were more likely to provide exceptions to the defined themes and categories of the study that had been defined by discourse in public access, media education, and critical pedagogy. Their responses would later allow an analysis of the data to "circle the gap" described by the participants, described by Lincoln and Guba (1985) as "negative case analysis."

A total of 28 community producers were interviewed for this study in both focus group and in-depth individual interviews. Producers were selected for individual interviews after group interviews were completed. A total of 4 group and 9 personal interviews were conducted. For the individual interviews, 5 informants were selected from among the group interview participants and 4 informants from those who did not participate in the focus groups. Selection was conducted in this manner to provide the widest possible variation in the sample. Respondents included persons with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences: respondents spanned ages 20 through 63, ranged from high school dropouts to university graduate degree holders. Respondents were without jobs, held positions in the mainstream media, worked as bus drivers, high school teachers, legislative assistants, data entry operators, computer specialists, ministers, engineers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and letter carriers. The focus groups consisted of 6 females and 18 males; 9 participants were primarily of African descent and 15 were primarily of European descent. Individual interviewees consisted of 5 females and 4 males; 5 were primarily of African descent and 4 were primarily of European descent. In short, the participants were a fairly "typical" group of access producers, according to anecdotal evidence within the practitioner discourse of public access.

Group Protocol

The protocol for the group interviews followed the Sense-Making theoretic by circling the situations, gaps, bridges, and outcomes sensed by the producer throughout the production experience. In addition, the interactive process provided a structure that allowed people to interpret and question their own experiences as well as those of others

Within the group interview process, four major rounds of the group were made, each addressing one of four questions presented in the group protocol. In the rounds, each informant talked in turn, giving both dominant and less assertive participants a more equitable opportunity to speak, and providing a structure for good listening (Dervin, 1991).

The group protocol first explored the situation that brought the participant to public access, then moved to the most memorable experience with public access, most memorable training experience, and thoughts on the vision of public access. 5

The individual protocol evolved through eight revisions and two pilot tests prior to the group interviews. Based on the completed group interviews, revisions were made in the individual protocol; this was then pilot tested three times. Two of these tests were with focus group members; the final pilot test involved a group participant and was included in the study.

Individual Protocol

The protocol for the individual interviews observed the Sense-Making theoretic by providing for a triangulation of interviewee responses with a modicum of content-specific direction. As such, questions allowed for open-ended responses, with follow-up questions aimed at completing the Sense-Making triangle of situation-gap-bridge-outcomes.

Although some interpretive researchers argue against the use of structured instruments within qualitative research, McCracken notes that a structured instrument is indispensable for a lengthy, in-depth qualitative interview and "does not preempt the `open-ended' nature of the qualitative interview" (1988, pp. 24-25). He argues that structured instruments free the researcher to focus on the informant and allow for the orderly collection of data. In fact, the Sense-Making Methodology explicitly mandates that interviews must implement a mode of questioning that focuses on time, space, and movement, what Sense-Making calls "verbing" (Dervin, 1993), rather than on more static "nouns." A major difficulty with structured interviews is the imposition on research participants of nouns drawn from the alien worlds of researchers.

The protocol for the individual interviews asked respondents to focus on different particular moments when working on a program that fit certain criteria, including: best experience; most difficult experience; when looked at the world "differently"; when thought efforts made an impact; when thought efforts were wasted energy; a personal vision of public access; when the "vision" of public access worked well; when the "vision" did not work well; impacts on life, community, and society. Probes then triangulated the responses. At the conclusion of the interview, respondents were asked to provide demographic information about their education, age, race, sex, work status, and parents' work, and were then given an opportunity to provide any additional comments or information or to ask questions.

As with the group protocol, the individual protocol probed the question of empowerment deductively and inductively. It allowed a means of examining the notions of empowerment as established from the discourse of public access, media education, and critical pedagogy, and also used the Sense-Making analytic as a means of addressing the world as seen by the actor.

Data Analysis

Individual and group interviews were transcribed, coded, and analyzed. Data analysis included both deductive and inductive approaches within an interpretive framework, as advocated by Strauss and Corbin (1990) and Patton (1990). The study also utilized modest quantitative methods of reporting results. The combination of these approaches was in keeping with the "middle road" advocated by Rogers (1982) and Beltran (1976).

Deductive Analysis. The study operated deductively by setting the a priori categories of the video empowerment chart, derived from the literatures of public access, critical pedagogy, and media education rather than the actual experience of the study participants. A deductive analysis was conducted that judged for each respondent how much of their talk fell into each of the cells of the video empowerment chart (Figure 1). The author-coder applied an ordinal level judgmental scale in which each informant's talk was coded for each cell of the video empowerment chart as follows: no talk here (0), to numerous responses here (4). Amount of talk was defined by the coder as the number of different references the respondent made during the interview process that were judged as falling within a particular sub-cell of the chart. The author was the sole coder in keeping with the researcher-as-instrument perspective of qualitative research. Coding and judging of responses were continuously adjusted until intracoder agreement was reached on every judgment, as discussed by Miles and Huberman (1984, p. 63). Figure 2 provides the results of coding within the column of the domain of production.


Figure 2. Coding results of informant "talk" scores in the production domain.


The use of numeric indicators in Figure 2 provided a method of noting patterns within the data and adding to a discussion of themes. Figure 3 shows sample responses of the data quantified in Figure 2, within the column of the production domain. The interaction between the quantitative and qualitative data used in the analysis is discussed below.


Figure 3. Exemplars of informant responses within cells in the production domain.


Inductive analysis. Inductive analysis included an exploration of themes I judged to be emerging from the data related to the "sensitizing concepts" of media literacy, media demystification, and empowerment. Sensitizing concepts -- concepts that have their origins in the research literature -- allow for inductive application by examining the manner in which the concepts are exhibited in a particular context (Patton, 1990, p. 391), defining the themes more from the perspective of the data than the research literature.

The use of categories and themes to analyze qualitative data is also discussed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Strauss and Corbin (1990). Their techniques of "negative case analysis" (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and "constant questioning" (Strauss & Corbin 1990) parallel Sense-Making's focus on "circling the gaps" or struggles of the informants (Dervin, 1998, 1999); all were utilized in the inductive data analysis.

Themes often, but not always, related to data described by Figure 1 and the "talk" scores exemplified in Figure 2. The inductive analysis also focused on the interplay within the cells and sub-cells and their relationships with other cells and sub-cells.

For example, in Figure 2, the cell at the intersection of the row of the canon of production and the column of the production domain indicates a good deal of activity as respondents described cognitions, reflections, and actions related to production. This cell is considered an element within a discussion of media literacy -- the "reading" and "writing" of television programs. Figure 3 provides examples of the producer responses within the production domain that are quantified in Figure 2.

Tom, a long-time producer, provided a typical response that exemplified activity within the sub-cell of cognition/reflection and the sub-cell of action:

... Some things just scare people, and television is a scary thing if you don't look at it with an objective, you know, point to it. That objective point is getting to your viewing audience to give them something you think that they desire to see or hear. Because if you don't have that objective point they can cut you off. I've had people tell me that -- see my objective is not ACTV helping this church. That's not my objective. My objective on ACTV is just allowing people to see who Jesus Christ is and let them make their own choice, okay. Because I know that the Lord is the One that deals with this church, you know ... (Tom)
Here Tom not only was referring to the necessity of setting a goal for a video program, he also established that he sets such a goal for his own production: letting his audience come to know Jesus Christ. In so doing, Tom exhibited the cognitive, reflective, and action dimensions of the cell: he was aware of the necessity of establishing a program goal (cognitive), he connected this with his own situation (reflective), and he implemented these awarenesses in his program (action)

In meeting the cognitive, reflective, and action dimensions of the cell, Tom fit the qualifications of a moderate-level test for empowerment within a production context. Since he did not clearly state a relationship between his program and societal change, his response did not fit the more stringent test for empowerment outlined in the study.

In addition to the relationships within the cell described above, Tom's response above also connected to other cells of the chart. In this case, Tom's objective of reaching an audience was related to the cell at the intersection of the row of "others" and the column of the production domain.

This example indicates the benefit of exploring themes within the data as part of the inductive analysis, rather than proceeding cell by cell across the rows of the areas of focus or the column of the empowerment domains. Tom's response fit neatly within the imposed institutional framework provided by the video empowerment chart; however, his comments took on additional relevance when they were placed within the context of recurring themes shared by other producers in this study. In Tom's case, evidence of themes related to media literacy and an awareness of a viewing audience were present; these themes and others were then described and explored in greater detail.

Study Findings

The public access vision of empowerment under investigation stated that video training led to media literacy and media demystification, which led to a new awareness of self, others, and society, and to action to integrate this new awareness on any of these levels. An attempt to change power relationships on the societal level was considered the highest level of empowerment.

Within the study, I concluded that media literacy was an outcome of the community television experience for the producers taking part in the investigation. All the producers interviewed for the study were able to recognize and evaluate program content, intent, and the technical elements found within television programs -- elements of media literacy, as outlined earlier. In the illustration below, Noreen demonstrates the realization that television programs are approached with set schedules and goals and that she has integrated this realization in the construction of her own programs:

... To do a show you have to look at things in different terms. ... [Y]ou have to look at setting times. You have to look at both being clear in your goal, on stating what your TV show wants to accomplish, and I look at it like being you're good speakers that you say at the beginning what you're gonna say, then you say it and then you wrap up by telling people what they just heard. And that when you do my kind of shows you really reinforce it. You give a phone number, you give an address, you give reference material. But if you're gonna educate someone on a topic then you have to do it a whole different way or a whole bunch of different ways. (Noreen)
In her description of "looking at things in different terms," Noreen was deconstructing the seemingly "natural" aspects of a video program by identifying some of the separate tasks and goals involved in program construction.

My reading of the data indicated that many producers became aware of previously unknown personal qualities, or became more accepting of themselves, as a result of their access participation. Charlie's response was typical of the types of responses producers gave, particularly when learning and working with technical equipment. In Charlie's case, she realized she could accomplish things she hadn't tried before.

.. it [the experience] made me open up to realizing that I could do more, that maybe I was selling myself a little short for what I could do and that I did have the capabilities to do more even though I hadn't even tried it before. It just kind of happened and, yes, I did have those abilities too. (Charlie)
Most participants also experienced a new awareness of persons different than themselves within the society. Alfred's awareness of "others" was related to his self-esteem in the form of prestige. His comment was directed at an awareness of how others perceived him:
It's [producing a program] made a difference for me in the sense that people are looking at me differently. They are looking at me as a production person as opposed to a street person, as opposed to a basic layman. They're seeing me on-screen. They're seeing my name on-screen. They're seeing my work on screen. And it's given me a bit of prestige. That is pretty good for me.... (Alfred)
The study concluded that an understanding of one's self was enhanced by a heightened awareness of others and of a broader society.

Although some producers were involved in creating programs specifically to effect social change, for the most part producers were not seen to be changing society through direct, Freirean-defined action and reflection. Rather, societal change within the context of the community television facility involved a more subtle interrelationship between the individual and the collective, where a transformation on the personal level affects society. The connection between the personal and the societal was indicated by Daniel, who described the impacts of his access participation on society in personal terms:

... I guess I'd have to have difficulties saying that I've seen impacts on society in general. Unless I consider the impact that it's had on me, my feelings of society. See, it has opened a lot of doors. It got me in a lot of places I normally would not have gone, and done a lot of things I normally wouldn't do. It opened a few eyes of mine. I don't know how society is affected by what I do other than I make up society eventually or enough of us do. (Daniel).
Community television participation was seen to encourage a process by which producers moved outward from the self to others, and to society -- including government and other institutions and organizations. I concluded that community television was best conceptualized within this context of process, in agreement with Devine (1992) and Johnson (1994) and in contest with Garnham (1987).


The findings of this study confirm some of the Sense-Making theoretical premises: that individuals operate from a personal framework that includes a dialectic relationship with the collective; that individuals seek help to bridge what they see as gaps in their lives, and construe the information as helpful in this context; and that information is used as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Sense-Making's perspective of communication practice as a process is also strongly reinforced by findings throughout this study that addressed the process nature of the respondents' public access experience and the nature of empowerment.

The study also indicates that Sense-Making Methodology is appropriate and adaptable to both inductive and deductive approaches.

While the study utilized Sense-Making theory and data collection methods, it did not employ Sense-Making as a method of data analysis. Such an analysis is based on the idea of the "gap" and focuses on respondent behavior. The method circles a particular moment as defined by the participant and how he or she attempted to bridge the discontinuities of the moment (Dervin, 1992, 1998). The data are explored with an eye toward these "step-takings" -- the "hows" of communication practice (Dervin & Clark, 1993).

Thus, the study might have benefited by employing such Sense-Making techniques to provide insights into the process by which the concepts of tolerance are engaged processually and the situations best suited to encourage empowering moments of learning. For example, in such an analysis the data might be analyzed more with an eye to what procedures respondents enact to deal with individual and cultural differences rather than what they have to say about tolerance.

As it was, in this study the Sense-Making approach allowed me to unfold the complex ways in which the empowerment vision of public access was enacted to an extent not previously seen in the literatures of media education, critical pedagogy, and community media. The process of empowerment appeared more elusive and less direct than the literatures suggest. This finding was significant in that it provided further perspective on discourse in the related areas and offered empirical data allowing access facilities to obtain continued support from local agencies and consider the effectiveness of existing practices and policies.

The finding of the process nature of empowerment directs attention away from the goal of empowerment -- a noun -- and focuses instead on the steps through which empowerment is attained -- a process, a verb. Had this study employed a less suitable methodology, such distinctions might have been lost. Instead, Sense-Making Methodology helped identify these steps toward empowerment -- steps that constitute the space within which people live their daily lives, a tangible place where lives (including one's own) might more easily be touched and changed.


1.  This article is based, in part, on a dissertation study (Higgins, 1994). The author appreciates the many contributions provided by Brenda Dervin of the Department of Communication at Ohio State University and the assistance of professors Steve Acker and Thom McCain.

2.  Discussion of power and pluralist ideology is drawn from Good (1989), Lukes (1974), and Streeter (1990). Arguments related to aspects of the public access vision are drawn from Devine (1990), Garnham (1990), and Mattelart & Piemme (1980).

3.  In this study the group interviews were considered secondary to the individual interviews. Krueger (1988) notes that drawbacks to the group process include an inability to follow through on individual responses and check individual levels of awareness. Such weaknesses would have missed the questions of individual empowerment that were vital to this study

4.  In addition to national awards for its access operation, my selection of ACTV was also related to previous contact with the facility as a board member of the state chapter of the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers (NFLCP, since renamed the Alliance for Community Media, ACM).

5.  Copies of the group and individual protocols used in this study are available from the author.


Beltran, L. R. (1976). Alien premises, objects, and methods in Latin American communication research. Communication Research, 3, 107-134.

Buckingham, D. (1991, April). Media education: The limits of a discourse. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Education Research Association, Chicago, IL.

Dervin, B. (1983, May). An overview of sense-making research: Concepts, methods, and results to date. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Communication Association, Dallas, TX.

Dervin, B. (1989). Audience as listener and learner, teacher and confidante: The sense-making approach. In R. Rice & C. Atkin (Eds.), Public communication campaigns (pp. 67-86). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Dervin, B. (1991). Focus group facilitation guide. Unpublished Manuscript.

Dervin, B. (1992). >From the mind's eye of the user: The sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In J. D. Glazier & R. R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative research in information management, (pp. 61-84). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Dervin, B. (1993). Verbing communication: Mandate for disciplinary invention. Journal of Communication, 43(3), 45-54. (Reprinted in M. R. Levy, & M. Gurevitch (Eds.). (1994). Defining media studies (pp. 53-62). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press).

Dervin, B. (1998). Sense-Making theory and practice: An overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use. Journal of Knowledge Management 2 (2), 36-46.

Dervin, B. (1999). Chaos, order, and Sense-Making: A proposed theory for information design. In R. Jacobson (Ed.) Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dervin, B., & Clark. K. (1987a, July). ASQ: Alternative tools for information need and accountability assessments by libraries. Report to the California State Library.

Dervin, B., & Clark, K. (1987b, July). ASQ: Asking significant questions: Accountability and needs assessment tools by libraries. Report to the California State Library.

Dervin, B. & Clark, K. D. (1993). Communication and democracy: A mandate for procedural invention. In S. Splichal & J. Wasko (Eds.), Communication and democracy (pp. 103-140). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Devine, R. H. (1990, July). Marginal notes: Consumer video, the first amendment and the future of access. Paper presented at the annual conference of the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, Washington, D.C.

Devine, R. H. (1992). The future of a public. Community television review, 15 (6), 8-9.

Engelman, R. (1990). The origins of public access cable television: 1966-1972. Journalism Monographs 123, 1-47.

Freire, P. (1989). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1970).

Fuller, L. K. (1994). Community television in the united states: A sourcebook on public, educational, and governmental access. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Garnham, N. (1990). The myth of video: A disciplinary reminder. In F. Inglis (Ed.), Capitalism and communication: Global culture and the economics of information (pp. 64-69). London: Sage.

Gillespie, G. (1975). Public access cable television in the United States and Canada. New York: Praeger.

Giroux, H. A. (1981). Ideology, culture, and the process of schooling. Philadelphia: Temple UP.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1970). Theoretical sampling. In N. K. Denzin (Ed.), Sociological methods: A sourcebook (pp. 105-114). Chicago: Aldine.

Good, L. (1989). Power, hegemony, and communication theory. In I. Angus & S. Jhally (Eds.), Cultural politics in contemporary America (pp. 51-64). New York: Routledge.

Halloran, J. D., & Jones, M. (1984). Learning about the media: Media education and communication research. Paris: UNESCO.

Higgins, J. W. (1994). Tracing the vision: A study of community volunteer producers, public access cable television, and empowerment. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, 1994. (University Microfilms No. 9517017).

Johnson, Fred. 1994. The real work is media education. Community Television Review, 13 (1), 4+.

Krueger, R. A. (1988). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A radical view. New York: MacMillan.

Lunt, P. & Livingstone, S. (1996). Rethinking the focus group in media and communications research. Journal of Communication, 46 (2), 79-98.

Masterman, L. (1980). Teaching about television. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Mattelart, A., & J. M. Piemme. (1980). New means of communication: New questions for the left. Media, Culture, and Society, 2, 321-338.

McCracken, G. (1988). The long interview. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

McLaren, P. (1986). Schooling as a ritual performance: Towards a political economy of educational symbols and gestures. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Miles, M. B., & A. M. Huberman. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A sourcebook of new methods. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Morgan, D. L. (1997). Focus groups as qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Morgan, D. L. (1992). Doctor-Caregiver relationships: An exploration using focus groups. In B. F. Crabtree & W. L. Miller (Eds.), Doing qualitative research (pp. 205-227). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Rogers, E. M. (1982). The empirical and the critical schools of communication research. In Communication Yearbook 5 (pp. 125-144). Beverly Hills: Sage.

Sholle, D., & Denski, S. (1994). Media education: The (re)production of culture. Westport, CT: Bergin.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Streeter, T. (1990). Beyond freedom of speech and the public interest: The relevance of critical legal studies to communications policy. Journal of Communication, 40 (2), 43-63.

Copyright 1999 Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

This file may not be publicly distributed or reproduced without written permission of the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, P.O. Box 57, Rotterdam Jct., NY 12150 USA (phone: 518-887-2443).