The 69th Annual International Communication Association (ICA) conference, held at the Washington Hilton from 25-29 May, had the theme of Communication Beyond Boundaries, and aimed to advance understanding of the role of communication and media in the crossing of social, political and cultural boundaries that characterize contemporary society. Hosted on the traditional lands of the Piscataway people, a core objective of the conference was to encourage work that crossed the boundaries of research domains, particular fields of research interest, ICA Divisions and Internet Groups and of academia and the wider community.
Working with Conference Theme Chair Hilde van den Bulck (Drexel U), the intention was to hold a conference that had a global dimension, and which recognized the role played by communication in the crossing of boundaries that characterizes societal structures, institutions and cultures. Today’s global digital technologies and networks have been central to the expansion in movements of people, capital, commodities, images, and ideologies across national boundaries. At the same time, at a time of rising global geopolitical tensions, and the rise of populist nationalism, there are new walls and barriers being constructed, and a challenge is how to build scholarly and professional bridges across boundaries in a world that may be increasingly post-global, and centred around inward-looking notions of culture and identity.
The Opening Plenary sought to address these questions, drawing upon the centrality of the city of Washington, DC to global geopolitics – the city is host to 177 embassies and diplomatic missions – and to both international governmental organizations and international non-government organizations. It also aimed to foreground the important insights that communication scholars are making in areas as diverse as bioethics, AI, robotics, and cryptocurrencies, while posing questions of how to develop more just and equal societies, and the role that academics can play in crossing boundaries as advisers and activists, reaching out to regulators, industries, civil society organisations and activist groups.
The speakers presented us with a diverse range of perspectives. Steven Livingston (George Washington U) returned to debates about media framing, to propose that more attention needed to be given to both the transnational dimensions of framing and the role played by both non-traditional technologies (e.g. sensors) and knowledge practices (e.g. crowdsourced investigations) in communication scholarship. Yu Hong (Zhejiang U) emphasized the continuing role played by nation-states in global internet governance, and the emergent cyber-sovereignty debates surrounding the uses of data beyond the internet, in fields such as artificial intelligence. Rania Elessawi discussed the relationship between UNICEF and academics in advancing the Communication for Development (C4D) agenda for benchmarking and evaluating UNICEF’s work worldwide. She also noted that she was the first person from a United Nations agency to be invited to be a keynote speaker at an ICA conference. Gina Neff (Oxford Internet Institute) posed the challenges arising from algorithmic decision-making and artificial intelligence increasingly framing how we communicate, and the dangers of structural biases of gender, race, class and nationality being embedded in these technologies in the absence of contributions and interventions by communication scholars.
The 2019 ICA Conference was the largest in the Association’s 69-year history. There were 3,898 registered participants, and 3,043 in-session presentations and 284 poster presentations, across 621 sessions over four days. In addition, there were 38 pre-conferences and 11 post-conferences, of which 20 were held at university campuses and other non-hotel locations around Washington, DC. We thank American U, Georgetown U, George Washington U, George Mason U, Marymount U, the Goethe Institute, Washington Quaker Church, National Press Club, Unitarian Universalist Church, and the Newseum for being such generous hosts for these events. Pre-conferences that generated a particularly strong buzz included Digital Journalism in Latin America, North Korea and Communication, and #Communicationsowhite: Discipline, Scholarship and the Media, and post-conferences including The Rise of Platforms, Creator Governance, and Badass Ladies of Communication. Some events have generated further calls for action on the part of the ICA, most notably the #Communicationsowhite event, and the demand for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the election of ICA Fellows. A number of actions around diversity were taken at the conference and subsequently, which can be found in the IDEA statement on ICA’s website that also serves as the first article in this newsletter.
Other events were very notable at the conference. It featured the first ICA Jam Session, held at the Bossa bar in the Adams Morgan District. Big thanks to Nikki Usher and Aram Sinnreich for their role in bringing together such a great event and for serving as Local Host for the conference. We had the pleasure of a plenary presentation by Naomi Klein, the Inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers U. Undertaken in conversation with ICA Past-President Amy Jordan (Rutgers U), the session critically explored many aspects of what Klein termed the “corporate self” in an age of data colonialism and surveillance capitalism.
The Closing Plenary explored the future of news and journalism. Held in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton, the home of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an expert panel consisting of Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, PBS Newshour host Judy Woodruff, and Claire Wardle, the founder of First Draft News, debated a range of issues including the rise of ‘news deserts’, structural bias in media, and who pays for journalism, with ICA scholars Hilde van den Bulck, Claes de Vreese (U of Amsterdam), and Barbie Zelizer (U of Pennsylvania).
In the period since the Washington, DC ICA conference, there has been much discussion about the state of the communication discipline in terms of its responsiveness to questions of diversity, inclusion, and equity. While much of this discussion has arisen around specific debates in other communication associations, concerns have been expressed about the inclusiveness of the ICA, particularly with regards to race and ethnicity. As an international association, with members in 87 countries, we see questions of diversity as bound up with the mission to internationalize the ICA, while recognizing structural barriers and inequalities that both create barriers to participation for some members, and constrain the scope and focus of communications research more generally. In this light, I commend the Statement on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA), prepared by the ICA Executive Committee. We recognize that this is part of what will be an ongoing conversation about shaping an ICA that is global in its reach, diverse in its membership, and committed to social inclusion and the public good in its scholarship.