Civility in political debates and within online communities can often be lost in the anonymity of a forum with little accountability. From destructive rants on blogs to endless banter on talk radio to controversial comments from talking heads on cable television, every opinion is amplified by the declining transaction cost of media. The Bipartisan Policy Center and The Aspen Institute completed their series on civility in politics today with a discussion on the role of the news media in an era of polarization.
Charles Firestone, Executive Director of The Aspen Institute’s Communications and Societies Program, served as moderator alongside panelists Andrew Kohut, President of Pew Research Center; Ruth Marcus, columnist and editorial writer for The Washington Post; Frank Sesno, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and former CNN White House correspondent; and Cynthia Tucker, former editorial page editor of The Atlantic Journal-Constitution.
Panelists discussed incivility in online communities and the media while raising the following questions:
Why has incivility in public life risen in recent years?
Ruth Marcus spoke of the language of younger generations as sometimes being “uncivil.” She explained this could potentially be a result of the decline in the transaction cost of engaging in public dialogue—everyone has a microphone. People can post anonymously online, without repercussions, and gain attention doing so.
Is the media for the polarization and proliferation of opinions?
Controversy and extreme debate often drives traffic and attention to a story. Online publications like to measure their performance by page views or “hits.” Does tabloid-style journalism promote incivility?
Andrew Kohut said that the public is now free to choose their news source. Niche outlets play to the extremes, making it difficult to establish fact from fiction.
Sesno commented that media professionals need to “market to smart.” Instead of producing content that aims to shock, the media should market content to an audience who demand facts instead of hype. He also noted that smart technology such as tablet computers can present quality content to an educated audience.
What is civil engagement in new media?
Cynthia Tucker suggested that younger generations do not have physical cues to gauge reactions when presenting a comment or response online; thus, they may not learn how to moderate their tone or recognize something others would perceive as offensive.
How do younger generations learn to properly and civilly express their opinions online? Growing up, we learn to socialize and interact with others in the physical world, but how do we learn the etiquettes of socializing in a digital world? Sesno suggested this could be accomplished through education and within the home.
Members of the audience engaged with panelists and noted that those of a younger generation easily receive information from websites like Facebook and Twitter, and might not know where to access quality information. Sesno responded by suggesting that we need to teach media literacy—just as much as journalism or traditional media studies—in our schools.