Michelle Ferrier’s ‘media deserts’ research kicks off

If you’re a teen dealing with hunger, little things like getting jailed for shoplifting don’t get in the way of your next meal.

Participants in the Journalism That Matters Nourishing Networks meeting discuss strategies for engaging media attention on the issue of hunger.

That was just one story shared at the kickoff of the Journalism That Matters “Media Deserts/News Oasis” research project initiated by Associate Professor Michelle Ferrier of the School of Communications. The Jan. 7 meeting in Seattle brought together the Nourishing Network of Seattle and other stakeholders, including local media, to end hunger in Puget Sound.

According to Ferrier, media deserts are geographic or topical hotspots that lack consistent news and information sources. Ferrier, who is a local food advocate, saw the value of the USDA’s food map for mobilizing community action and uses the news as food metaphor for her research. Ferrier is working with Assistant Professor Ryan Kirk in the Department of Environmental Studies to visualize the impact of the changing media landscape using GIS mapping technologies.

This spring, students in Kirk’s applied GIS class will be tackling the North Carolina media landscape to create a prototype for a national map.

Notes from the Journalism That Matters Nourishing Networks research/action meeting.

The Seattle gathering took place in one such media desert, with the 2009 shutdown of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. While a rich media ecosystem has since taken hold in the blogosphere of Seattle, the Seattle research intervention tackles a topical desert – access to food – as the Puget Sound region deals with stretched resources for a growing number of hungry.

Ferrier says that the people hear of layoffs and closings in the newspaper industry, but have difficulty imagining the scope of the crisis.

“We have communities that have never had access to good, local information because of a lack of an advertising base for those areas,” Ferrier said. “But now we’re seeing encroachment of these media deserts into regions that have traditionally been media-rich. Our research hopes to help people visualize those changes and to understand where to put community resources for the most impact.”

Ferrier hopes the research will help higher education institutions, community foundations, libraries and municipalities understand the communications ecosystem in their region and collaborate to ensure an educated citizenry.

In Seattle, a core group will continue to use strategic communications and partnerships with local legacy and online media outlets to raise awareness and action around hunger. They’ll start by putting a face to the issue of hunger and telling the personal stories of action that are creating a safety net for a growing need.

Journalism That Matters hosts national and regional gatherings to tackle questions about the new media ecology. Ferrier is vice president of Journalism That Matters and the chief investigator for the research.