Better information leads to better discussion.
By: Alex Freeman
Scholars and close observers of the evolution of public discourse agree that the quality of political discussion in America has seen better days. Underpinning this gradual diminution are factors far removed and inaccessible to most people, such as bimodal polarity in Congress and messaging signals sent from party elites. It can be difficult for people to process this—and understandably so. But not every culprit of bad public discourse requires explication from academia’s infamous Ivory Towers.
One simpler cause of the sad status of public discussion is something that most of us run up against regularly: hyper-partisan and inflammatory news coverage.
Tomi Lahren is the paradigm of a hyper-partisan, inflammatory conduit for the electorate to learn and access politics. But major networks also share a commensurate blame for the half-baked and charged coverage they often provide. A Pew research study found that 85% of MSNBC ‘news coverage’ is devoted to opinion—not objective reporting. Fox News has a similar proclivity, allowing anchors and panelists to deliver scathing, emotional tirades at the expense of objective factual reporting.
The result is what I argue to be a perceived electoral mandate to uphold this partisanship. The electorate on both sides of the aisle perceives and learns hyper-partisanship from skewed media, internalizes the coverage as socially normal, then regurgitates the same abhorrent, confrontational attitude in political discussions with peers and colleagues. You should take this claim as less empirical than theoretical, as I have yet to discover empirical studies that explore precisely this subject.
Yet it seems intuitive to suspect that people who only listen to partisan media are: more likely to misunderstand opposing views on issues, generally less informed, and unlikely to engage in civil, substantive discussion with others who do not see issues similarly.
If we assume these presuppositions true, at least in part, we can understand the role of good media in fostering good public discourse.
All of the sources indicted above share a theme of promulgating incomplete or inaccurate information to Americans; and with millions of people listening, internalizing, and regurgitating the political lore from these sources, we should not be surprised by the quality of public discussion.
So, what is the solution? Getting more people on board with stations like National Public Radio (NPR) and other non-partisan, objective news stations. This task will be arduous in an era of selective media consumption via Facebook and other social media platforms designed to conform and reinforce our political leanings. But we can do it—and we can do it without infringing upon civil liberties.
Below I outline two steps to initiate a grassroots shift to higher quality media and news consumption; they are only nascent proposals with the end of elevating political discourse and should be considered as such.
- Encourage the default installation of NPR One and other non-partisan news apps on cell phones before they reach the consumer
- If a consumer has never been coached on what constitutes quality vis-à-vis poor media, they consume whatever content to which they have the easiest access. Default apps with good news coverage would categorically bolster consumption of such sources.
- Subsidize consumers of non-partisan media with tax incentives or rebates
- My personal political beliefs fly in the face of this proposal, but the economics behind it are simple. People act differently when they have a pecuniary motivation to do so. In this case, financially incentivizing the consumption of quality radio inherently results in a greater number of listeners. I deliberately neglect to offer plans for a funding schema of this proposal, for I perceive it more useful as an intellectual exercise than practical policy.
- Publicly castigate friends for sharing biased, anti-intellectual stories on social media
- Social media platforms feed on natural human social tendencies—particularly affirmation from our peers and friends. We seek affirmation of our posts, photos, and statuses. Negating and castigating false, biased, or otherwise unsavory journalism is not unfair or unconstitutional. In fact, political philosophers (e.g., John Stuart Mill) have argued it is our civic responsibility to hold our peers to higher standards of expression. The public, digital domain social media provides only amplifies the effect of calling out subpar journalism.
By no means is this list exhaustive, but I do hope it serves to get you thinking about ways (some of them dramatic) we can augment the quality of information consumers elect to ingest. Because I, alongside those at NPR, remain committed to the notion that “the democracy needs more truth,” and that if more truth reaches our voters, they will be empowered to converse reasonably with each other and make rational decisions at the polls.