Civics of Modern Media

As the means of communication have changed over the course of American history, so has the way public discourse has been carried out. National radio was a revolution that could put the voice of the president in every living room across the nation for fireside chats. With the rise of television, the firm jaw of Walter Cronkite could relay the facts as millions of viewers tuned in every night.

Digital technology has brought many more changes to the media landscape. Each broadcasting corporation has its own ideological spin, making it easy to find programing that represents your own viewpoint. Americans' massive consumption of six plus hours of television a night, and the acceptance of the 24 hour news cycle as normal, shows that we are a nation that wants to be tuned in. Often on the internet one can even further tailor their media consumption to match their own ideological spectrum.

Perhaps this confirmation bias is a factor in the polarization we see in what passes as public discourse in America today. The middle ground which is the foundation for any consensus has been hollowed out by the extreme views on the left and the right. With no one willing to waiver from their chosen viewpoint, and too isolated to hear what others might have to bring to the debate, discourse might not even be an appropriate word to describe the game of swaying public opinion.

The work of James Fishkins, of Stanford University, on deliberative polling shows significant evidence that when people come together to discuss an issue, opinions change. When ordinary citizens are face to face with one another, working through complex and challenging issues, by hearing the hopes and concerns of others they are able to better define and understand their own perspective. This documented phenomenon illuminates how far the modern news media has gone away from supporting public discourse. By isolating individuals into marketable opinions, the whole purpose of media has changed from informing the public to creating consumers.

In a world where communication technology brings us closer to each other than we have ever been before, there has to be a way past this gridlock of hyper individualism. The one thing that is clearly represented across ideological bubbles is that the world is faced with many problems. Poor health, crime, and financial strain, touch the lives of most people. Only the solutions to these troubles are the points of division.

Often our attention is pointed towards problems wholly outside our own sphere of influence. National news of disaster and tragedy make much more exciting stories than local issues. The scope of information at our disposal is so vast, it is no wonder that many find it difficult to concern themselves where they could make a difference.

America is filled with cities and towns with local organizations making a difference in their local communities. Despite the political schism of right vs. left on display every night, millions of people are able to work with people sharing different views than their own to feed the hungry, support the youth, and strengthen the communities they live in. But, from the three minute segment tacked on to the very end of the news broadcast, it might seem like this behavior is abnormal.

Luckily communication continues to evolve and change. While there maybe no hope of shifting the focus of the television industry, there are a myriad of ways developing from digital technology that could allow us to be more tuned into the ways we can work together. One of these is social networking. There is an empire of acquaintances reading about each others lives. While much of the focus of the current platforms for social networking have been focused on entertainment and generating add revenue, there is great potential to build strong networks that spread the ideas of civic responsibility and action.

Why should local civics be important to people? The impetus is the ability to enact change. People are more likely to engage meaningfully when they feel their attention and time will make a difference. Spreading the effect of personal effort and the difference it can make through strong social networks is an important part of refocusing the public on its ability to engage meaningfully with one another.

This refocusing the public is a key issue as communication and public discourse in America moves from a broadcast/print centered platform to a digitally focused medium. With the very corporations that have played such a large role in fracturing public discourse as major players in the digital environment, it is important for proponents of widespread democratic engagement to have a clear focus. With technology making it so easy for the everyone for themselves mentality to thrive, there is no clear path to a more united effort. But, hope lies in the increasing connections to one another developing out of the technology. All that remains is to reach out and move forward together.

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Image Credit: 
Tor Even Mathisen - CC: A, NC, SA