Shorenstein: Media and democracy

I’m watching a panel about media and democracy at Shorenstein that’s calmer and more thoughtful than those yesterday. The moderator, the Kennedy School’s Thomas Patterson, starts with something we’ve heard a lot: “fragmentation.” I’ve long argued that that is a word big-media people use to lament their loss of audience and power; we, the audience, call it choice. Bill Kovach of the Committee for Concerned Journalists says that this is a fundamental change in media but it is also an opportunity to bring together sources and information and discussion for people. Hendrik Hertzberg — who frets, as many in these gatherings do, about where reporting comes from, says nonetheless that fragmention is another word for democracy. Amen.

Nik Gowing, anchor of BBC World, says that timing is the issue today as news becomes live and constant. In that environment, when stories and the facts that feed them change, he asks, “when do you put the guilloutine down for deciding whether facts are accurate or not? . . . What is accurate and what is truth? Truth evolves.” Amen, again. Gowing talks about 7/7 news and says that in the hours right after the event, the BBC got 30,000 email contributions, 3,000 SMS messages, 1,000 photos, and 20 videos. He also talks about how the public now knows more than governments, or a least knows it more quickly. He now asks what is media when every one of hundreds of millions of Chinese who now have cell phones that enable them to share what they witness is now “a member of the media.” Gowing also says — in context of a discussion about British General Dannatt’s “outburst” against the war — that British soldiers are now videoing their own battles in Iraq to make sure that their real situation is known back home; “they have taken it upon themselves to be members of the media.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson of Penn’s Annenberg reports on a survey they conducted that illuminates the fragmention argument of the echo chamber: They found that people who watch Fox News are more likely to watch presidential debates; they believe that means that exposure to one side in politics still drives interest in the debate.

Kovach tells a tale of one election — he does not say where — that has descended into rabid mudslinging. But the local paper looked into and profiled both candidates and found them both to be qualified, caring, decent. Political consultants told the paper that the real goal of the mudslinging was to depress voter turnout. I’m not sure I understand the logic. In any case, Kovach said the paper saw it as its goal to reveal that to the public and to ask whether that is their reaction to the mud. Jamieson adds that news concentrates on attacks not advocacy in their coverage and give the perception that Congress is at war. Hertzberg says that in the vast majority of elections, voting is pointless because most seats are safe. Thus, he says, “grassroots politics really doesn’t pay” – that is, getting more votes for the losing side really gets you nowhere. He says that the real goal of attacks ads is not to depress turnout “but to depress the other guy’s turnout more than your own; it’s a zero-sum game.”

Mark McKinnon, chief media advisor to Bush and a lecturer here, says politics is no coarser than it was 100 years ago. Jamieson says that conflict helps differentiate the candidates; conflict is not bad but illegitmate conflict is bad. MacKinnon says that truth tests on political ads has been ” healthy development.” (MacKinnon, by the way, also says that he anticipates an explosion of campaign video — by anyone — on YouTube. He also knows that more and more people will use video to cover campaigns.)

Jamieson says that the media story on politics is not all bad. Newspaper readership correlates very positively to good political knowledge. That’s because papers have more space. The internet has that space, too, she says, and she sees that as a very hopeful sign.

Jamieson says that she likes the term “citizen journalist” because it stars with the assumption that you are a citizen at a time when we are concerned with making more people act as citizens. (I still recanted its use.) Gowing says the BBC does not use “citizen journalist” but instead talks about “user generated” because they believe their must be a line between gathering and editing.