Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thinking about the media and governance

This morning I was reading this amusing and disturbing column by Maureen Dowd, and I was thinking about a conversation I had a couple of days ago with my students in the class I teach about ethics.

I had given the students a reading assignment, and after I re-read the material myself, it seemed that there was not much to discuss. But - of course - this is not usually the case, and even here I was able to take what seemed to be unpromising material and turn it into a substantive discussion. The column the students & I read concerned observations of a newsman on coverage of a political campaign. He opined that journalists should just get out of the way. Enough with the puffed up opinions!

Why is it, I asked the students, that the trend is to more & more partisan coverage of the news? Consumers on one hand have an increasing number of news outlets, but the news that is presented tends to be increasingly partisan. And how does this trend intersect with the journalistic responsibility to provide information necessary for democratic governance? (I think this is the responsibility of journalists because I am a democrat and I am a journalist.)

I made reference to the work by James T. Hamilton and Markus Prior, two scholars whose work I greatly admire. The work of both concerns this very question - how the media is becoming increasingly partisan and what the impact is on the media audience. Frankly, I think that I lost my students when I began talking economic theory, upon which the work of Hamilton in particular rests.

The conversation turned out well. One student admitted that she loves watching Glenn Beck because he is "hysterical." I agreed that he is hysterical, but I didn't think this psychological condition was an asset. My point was that this increasing partisan media system is harmful, leading to increasing cynicism, voter apathy, and general disengagement from democratic governance. At the end of the class, I asked who hoped to be involved in government in any way.

No one raised a hand.