On November 13 and 14 several important political figures and media experts met at NYU Florence to have a dialogue on the current state of American politics. Being a marketing major, this hardly seemed like an event that would prove substantial for the advancement of my career path, but after attending the conference, I left with a plethora of ideas that I had never thought of before listening to the various speakers in conversation.
I have never had a profound interest in politics or the inner workings of our government over the course of my lifetime, yet after the first panel of the conference that included American media leaders and communications strategists for politicians, such as the former Managing Editor of NBC News and the former ABC News Chief Capitol Hill Correspondent, I immediately realized the impact that studying politics could have on my life as an individual focused on communications and how people convey messages in the contemporary world of “big data.”
Communications strategist Todd Harris said, “Media sets the agenda.” He went on to talk about how people watch news that reflects their views. This is particularly interesting to me as a student of communications because it presents several issues and problems that people in the political environment have to deal with.
First and foremost, how do you communicate to people who are opposed to your beliefs? Or more specifically, how do you persuade individuals to change their beliefs to match your own? A recurrent example of “setting the agenda” in the conference was the case of Fox News and its heavy conservative bias. People who watch a media outlet such as Fox News are not going to be persuaded to adopt different beliefs, but rather have their own political beliefs reinforced. Betsy Fischer Martin, former Managing Editor of NBC News, remarked on the idea that the average voter does not want to invest the time to learn both sides of a political argument. This is a huge problem with democracy in America, because the average voter is voting without having a complete view of the situation that their vote will influence. As a marketing major, studying this kind of “catered communications” and how it lacks the power to persuade and change opinions is particularly interesting as it’s a rather unique problem relative to other areas of communications. For example, is it, as Martin said, that people do not want to invest the time to understand all sides of the argument, or that people simply refuse to learn the other side of the argument? Is normal, fact-based media still effective in a contemporary sense? The argument of the effectiveness of “opinion-based media” versus “objective-based media” is one with no definitive answer. “I hope we didn’t have an impact. That’s not what we are supposed to do. We’re supposed to cover it,” remarked Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times. Yet on the other side of the coin, Todd Harris noted that media sets the environment candidates exist in. Which opinion is appropriate and how is it possible to prove its legitimacy?
This presents the second major problem of communications and media in politics: what is its role? Perhaps, in the past, fact-based news was the standard, rather than opinion-based coverage. Nowadays it’s quite the contrary. Todd Harris further explained his opinion on the media, saying, “…there is no more Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings. No arbiter of right and wrong. Far too often facts just don’t matter anymore.” I have grown up in a generation where my peers and I have believed that most sources of American news carry heavy political bias. We know that Fox News is conservative and that MSNBC is liberal. Often times I wonder if politics have become a product for communications strategists and the media rather than an event for coverage? Jonathan Martin posed two important questions, “Is manipulation healthy for democracy? Is it good that facts don’t matter?” These questions were posed during a heated debate among the panelists and were seriously posed as questions by Martin, although it was obvious he already believed the answer to be “No.” Just the fact that these questions were serious and not made in jest raises an important issue on the topic of this dialogue: some people truly believe that the bias and spin of the media and press is welcome in democracy. As I enter the field of communications and marketing, I fear the ethical implications of spinning serious issues, such as political elections, because of the profound effects and implications that it has on the lives of the American people.
Martin was often called one of the most important voices in political media by the other panelists. This raised a problem in my mind that if even this important reporter is unsure of the role that political media should play, then the media’s ethical role must be fundamentally ambiguous. If there was a single consensus among the panel, it was that media has a strong effect on political results. This begs the question that if it has such a strong influence, shouldn’t its role be more defined and shouldn’t its members be more confident in the soundness of their approach to reporting? Are the members of opinion-based media aware of the effect they are having on the general public? I doubt pushing voters to more extreme sides of the political spectrum is healthy for democracy. For example, coming from Texas, I have personally experienced people who solely depend on Fox News for their political information while rejecting any other source of news that deviates from a conservative agenda. Not only are political debates with consumers of this type ineffective, but they also often end in frustration due to a lack of information. Personally, I have been a viewer of liberal media sources for most of my life and this often leads to me not being able to understand the views of the other side of the political spectrum. When people, including myself, are watching news, are we watching to learn about current events or to strengthen our political beliefs? This raises the question of the legitimacy of news in its role as a provider of information.
Is opinion-catering news such as Fox News or MSNBC actually news or is it entertainment? People watch these media outlets because they reflect their own political views and present stories that these people want to hear. Can this truly be classified as news or coverage of an event? If people are watching these media outlets for the bias rather than the events, it calls into question the reliability of these media outlets as actual news sources for people. This is exacerbated by the presence of social media in news. Martin revealed his opinion that Twitter and Facebook are major sources of news for people, but represent a new form of “self-curated news.” Social media is a form of entertainment and socialization for millions of people, and just the fact that people are filtering news to match their bias through these platforms calls into question their legitimacy as news providers. If people are reading news they want to read, through outlets that they choose, are they actually reading it for the facts and events or for the bias and entertainment of the media outlet? It is even more problematic that social media has become the main source of news for some people.
These ideas were all discussed in the panel on the media’s role in voter decision-making and they all carry a lot of weight and raise questions from a communications standpoint. Do media and communications teams have a responsibility to cover stories objectively or do they have a responsibility to cater to the audiences that follow their coverage? This question has no definitive answer, yet the implications of this conundrum have direct effects on the state of the American government by molding the way that the American public decides to vote and express their political opinions. With new forms of media emerging, such as Facebook and political blogs, this question is becoming ever more relevant in the discussion of the media’s role in covering and spinning political events and stories. The media has an impact and the way that this impact is managed in times to come will very likely shape future political landscapes.