News and Democracy

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Gans, Herbert, “The News: What Might Be Done,” from “Democracy and the News,” Chap. 5.
  • Bennett, “News: the politics of illusion,” Chapter 1
  • Patterson and Seib, “Informing the public”

This week’s readings re-examine commonly held assumptions about the role of news in democracy — including the responsibilities of the press, factors that limit our efficacy, new ways it can be achieved, and how its successes (or failures) can be measured.

In Gans’s chapter “The News: What Might Be Done,” (2003) he opens with the optimistic view that today’s challenges for news media also represent opportunities to make news more relevant and accessible to the general public. His suggestions of how this might be done range from the practical to idealistic: a new agenda-setting frame of mind in editorial decision-making, experiments with audience participation, use of opinion and humor, rethinking journalism training and education, and new economic models for news production. He closes by admitting the limitations of journalism to catalyze a sea change in the public’s interest in civic life, then goes on to list several societal conditions that would likely produce such interest — factors that have, since his writing in 2003, become virtually ubiquitous, such as terrorism or economic collapse.

In Chapter 1 of his book “News: The Politics of Illusion,” (2003) Bennett traces the historical progression of news delivery systems and their role in democracy — namely the interaction of political figures, the press, and the public. He describes news as a very top-down flow of information, originating with public figures and being filtered through the press before being packaged for public consumption. Bennett links the historical progression of journalism’s institutional practices with alarming statistics that measure audience distrust in the press and catalogue media’s slide down the slope of soft news and “game” rather than policy-based news frames. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for one of the central tasks he tackles in his book: how to improve the press’s place in American democracy under changing political realities and quickly evolving technological media. His premise in answering this challenge is that we must understand where we are and how we got here in order to figure out the best way forward. One critical observation he makes is that most news currently is not ultimately written for the general public, but for policy-makers and political insiders.

In “Informing the Public,” (2005) Patterson and Seib assert that the true measure of an informed citizenry is not how much most people can spout facts and figures but how much they engage with — think critically about — public life. If it’s the responsibility of the press is to inform the citizenry, therefore, our real job is not just to convey information but to impart meaning to it for our audiences and to compel them to take advantage of it for the sake of their contribution to our democratic society. He acknowledges that a balance between hard and soft news, strategic and policy frames are necessary to maintain engagement while delivering substance. But, he points out, that balance has been steadily slipping since at least the 1980s. News is losing audiences and society is paying with a less informed, less engaged citizenry. As the Internet and technology present more ways to deliver information, the authors assert, it is incumbent upon journalists to translate that into “news” in order to keep the public not just informed, but engaged — and to keep our profession viable.

I tend to be a “radical” thinker in the mathematical sense of the word: it is the root where I believe change must take place in order to meaningfully achieve social improvements. Therefore I loved this week’s readings for their re-assessment of our very notions about what defines news, why the press is important and how we can do our jobs better. I maintain that technological innovations present a perfect opportunity for revolutionizing media business models. This week’s readings served up a feast for such thoughts.

Primarily, I am interested in exploring how “mass media,” which Bennett describes (perhaps prematurely) as being in its “late stages,” might be replaced by socially responsible media models. Socially responsible entrepreneurialism is a growing movement in small and independent business circles. Much of the focus of authors and leading thinkers in this area — such as Woody Tausch (“Slow Money”) — focus on local agriculture. I believe that a parallel grassroots movement to promote socially responsible, independent local media is also in order. Rethinking the very mission of news media as the premise for our profession is necessary to inform such radical change. It is also necessary in both the culture and business models of the successful media ventures of the future.

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