Gains and (Huge) Losses

In age of internet, I worry that it is no longer possible to have a truly national conversation.

The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for advertising and other information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true First Amendment marketplace of ideas might operate. As one scholar of the media despairingly asked, “How can you cure the effects of ‘bad’ speech with more speech when you have no means to target the same audience that received the original message?”

We are clearly in uncharted waters.

As regular readers of this blog know, I teach a course in Media and Public Affairs. It used to be titled “Mass Media and Public Affairs;”  the name change reflects a change in the reality of our methods of communication: there’s no truly “mass” media anymore.

Subject-matter covered in the course has morphed along with the media it studies. When then-Dean of Journalism Jim Brown and I began team teaching it more than a decade ago, our goal was relatively simple–introduce Journalism students to policy formation (so they would better understand how coverage of government affects policy), and help public affairs students understand the difference between what journalists consider “news” and thus worthy of coverage, and garden-variety policy argumentation.

Over the years, the media environment has fragmented and dramatically changed, and so has the course. Today, it focuses on the role of media in a democratic society, beginning with the assumption that the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. We examine the responsibility of the “fourth estate” to the public it serves, and the role of media in the American political system.

We look at the legal and ethical constraints that should apply to a free press, the business pressures that affect reporting, the impact of technology and social media, the role of political pundits, the challenges of issue framing, the impact of American diversity on the profession of journalism and–with increasing urgency– how to assess the credibility of the innumerable “news” resources available to us.

We also consider the dramatic collapse of what has come to be called “legacy journalism,”  and the consequences of the current information environment for democratic and accountable governance.

Throughout the class, I keep coming back to that one core issue: how the incommensurate realities and filter bubbles we inhabit (thanks to both confirmation bias and the wildly different sources of information that are available to us) make it increasingly impossible to have a genuinely public discussion.

I think it was media historian Paul Starr who said that a public is different from an audience. An audience is fine for entertainment; a democratic polity, however, requires a public, and I’m not sure we have one anymore.

There is so much that is wonderful about the Internet; the technology has made unlimited information immediately available to us. It has allowed in-depth explorations, introduced dramatically diverse people to each other, made the arts accessible, allowed the human imagination to soar. (It has also made shopping infinitely more convenient…)

On the other hand, it has destroyed the business model that sustained most local newspapers–a grievous loss for multiple reasons, including the way that loss has influenced trust in media generally. As Michelle Goldberg recently wrote in the New York Times,

In general, people trust local papers more than the national media; when stories are about your immediate community, you can see they’re not fake news. Without a trusted news source, people are more vulnerable to the atmosphere of disinformation, cynicism and wild conspiracy theories in which fascism — and Trumpism — flourishes. Politico found that “Voters in so-called news deserts — places with minimal newspaper subscriptions, print or online,” voted for Trump in higher-than-expected numbers, even accounting for employment and education.

We live in a world of Kardashians and clickbait, Infowars and propagandists, cute kittens and adorable babies and weird cookie recipes–a world of inadequate coverage of local governments and overwhelmingly partisan coverages of national issues. In that world we inhabit, the American public has devolved into a variety of audiences–and lost most of the common ground necessary to exist as a public.

No wonder we’re polarized.