Like many other so-called “policy wonks,” I’ve been worrying a lot about the effects of the media’s increasing shift away from hard news to “infotainment” and political spin.
It’s one thing to disagree about something that we all can see. People can look at the same photograph, listen to the same speech, or read the same draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning or, in the case of proposed legislation, whether it’s a good idea. But in our current media environment—characterized by multiple cable channels and blogs, and featuring “commentators” with extreme philosophies and varying degrees of sanity—we are often not even looking at the same reality. We may use the same words, but those words mean different things to different people.
It reminds me of the time before cell phones when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, two downtown department stores had tearooms, and I went to one of them while she went to the other. This made conversation difficult, in much the same way that our current media environment does.
A number of journalists have written about what this morphing of the media bodes for our ability to sustain democratic discourse. Several have echoed an observation by media historian Paul Starr, who wrote that “journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it is about assembling a public to read and react to those stories.”
In other words, there is a difference between an audience and a public. Journalism is about more than dissemination of news; its about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality (or eating at the same tearoom). So today’s situation raises troubling questions.
When these current changes shake out, will we be an audience, or a public?
Are we developing a media landscape that encourages disgruntled Americans to choose the news they prefer to believe?
If traditional media outlets like newspapers continue to lose market share to blogs, talk radio and cable “news” shows, as it appears they will, what are the likely consequences for our common civic life? With a diminished role for authoritative journalism—the kind that checks facts and separates conjecture and opinion from actual news—how can Americans make wise choices between conflicting policy options?
On November 11th at 11:30, I will pose these and other questions to a stellar panel that includes James W. Brown, recently retired Dean of Journalism at IUPUI, Bruce Hetrick, CEO of Hetrick Communications in Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis Star’s political columnist, Matt Tully. The panel is being sponsored by the Indiana Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration, and it will be available to other ASPA Chapters via the Internet—I believe the term is “Webinar”—and podcast.
If you are worried too, tune in! Check with your local ASPA Chapter to find out how and when.