06 January 2006

On the Media Effects of Immigration and Refugee Board Hearings via Videoconference

Hazzah! I just received confirmation that my paper, "On the Media Effects of Immigration and Refugee Board Hearings via Videoconference," has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Refugee Studies, published by Oxford University Press. This was based on some work I did for Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board that commissioned a study on whether the use of videoconference proceedings for refugee hearings represented an appropriate balance between the rights of refugee applicants for a fair and just hearing, and the need for expeditious hearings, given the number of refugee applicants. My submission was only one aspect of the review that ultimately concluded that more empirical study was necessary - a finding that was effectively rejected by the Board in favour of continuing with the use of videoconferencing. To be fair to the IRB, at least they asked the question, unlike the U.S. and Australia who adopted the practice without any investigation whatsoever.

Since OUP has post-publication rights to the final version, I will not post it here (as I usually do with almost all of my stuff). If you would like a copy of the full paper for your own use, please email me and I'll be happy to send you a copy. Here are the abstract and the conclusion sections of the final paper:
Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board conducts some of its refugee hearings via videoconferencing. As part of a review of the fairness of this practice, a theoretical approach, and review of the empirical literature was commissioned. Particularly under “high stakes” conditions, it was found that videoconferencing reduces mutual trust and understanding, exacerbates cultural differences in non-verbal communication, and increases the propensity to lie while decreasing the ability to detect falsehoods. Further, the inherent power imbalance between the tribunal and the claimant is widened as the tribunal members become acclimatized to the technology. In general, the difference in sensory perception of a mediating technology creates cognitive differences between mediated, and non-mediated environments. Further, sensory perception that feeds narrative construction varies by culture. The process of conveying and understanding meaning across cultures is sufficiently difficulty; adding the complexity of videoconference mediation introduces the possibility of inconsistency, inaccuracy, and altered judgement.

Conclusion: “Culture is Our Business”
Marshall McLuhan notes that “the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (McLuhan, 1964, 18). The various literature cited in this essay have spoken to a variety of aspects through which our “patterns of perception” are altered by the mediation of videoconference technology. Despite the fact that videoconferencing provides both an audio channel and a video channel, our sensory perception of it – and therefore its effect on us – is different than physical presence. Why should this be? McLuhan offers the following explanation: “What I am saying is that media an extensions of our senses institute new ratios, not only among our private senses, but among themselves, when they interact among themselves” (McLuhan, 1964, 53). Specifically, the medium of videoconferencing – which itself is a media amalgam that turns one-way, one-to-many television into two-way, one-to-one telephone – interacts with the medium of “immigration hearing.” The resulting media stew is considerably different, and therefore has different perceptual and cognitive effects, from a face-to-face hearing interview.

The differences in responses between claimant counsel and Board-affiliated personnel as reported in Ellis’s review starkly demonstrate these perceptual and cognitive differences as experienced by those on either side of the television screen, and the disconnection that occurs between each party’s respective experience. Media theory suggests that each side will be tacitly influenced by their ground, or contextual frame of reference: Board members by concerns of economy and efficiency, claimant counsel by concerns for the welfare of their clients. While I am not suggesting that there is an overt denial of potential deleterious effects on outcomes and soundness of judgement on the part of Board members when hearings are conducted by videoconference, I do maintain that their own perception of fairness and soundness cannot help but be influenced by their contextual ground. As Marshall McLuhan reminds us, “in collective matters of media and technology, the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effect upon him” (McLuhan 1964, 318).

Ron Ellis submitted his report to the Audit and Evaluation Committee of the IRB in October, 2004. Among his recommendations were a number of technical improvements to the operation of the videoconferencing equipment and proceedings themselves, and a strong recommendation for,
…a significant “testing period” during which the videoconferencing would be delivered in the most acceptable way possible and the relative fairness and effectiveness of videoconferenced hearings as compared to traditional hearings would be carefully and systematically evaluated through an independent and scholarly empirical study. The study… would involve a comparison of the experiences and perceptions of two sets of claimants – one set being those claimants whose cases are determined in videoconferenced hearings during the testing period, and the other set being those claimants with cases of comparable complexity and difficulty that are determined in traditional, in-person hearings during the same period.

The Board rejected this recommendation, stating that it does not have “cause to doubt the fundamental fairness of conducting a hearing by videoconference” (Ellis 2004, 55). In its response to the Ellis report, the Board goes on to say, “The board is strengthened in this conclusion by the fact that videoconferencing to determine claims for refugee protection is used in other jurisdictions … notably the United States and Australia” (Ellis 2004, 55).

The Immigration and Refugee Board assesses applicants for their eligibility to remain in Canada after applying for asylum. That is what it does, and thus, in media terms, is its content. As a medium, I would contend that its message is one of deciphering and creating meaning from among multiple, interacting cultural grounds – the applicant in the context of his or her homeland and its socio-political circumstances, rubbed against that of the adjudicator in the context of Canada overtop the ground conditioning of his or her own homeland. This is a supremely challenging enterprise, to say the least! Multiplying the complexity of this “business of culture” by the mediation effects created through videoconferencing introduces the significant possibility of inconsistency, inaccuracy, and altered judgement. It is left to the reader to judge whether this is the basis for a fair and just assessment that reflects Canadian policy and Canadian ideals.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | ]

No comments: