Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

The Media

The Media: The press has played a role in partisan debates — often an unsavory role — since the founding of the republic. On this page you'll find an analysis of how changes in the nature of political media — from newspapers to television to the internet — has influenced the civility of political dialog. [might cover: rise of cable news, especially Fox; televised presidential debates; social networking sites; rise of misinformation campaigns; political economy of media industry…]


As Jon notes, the tragedy in Arizona has sparked a flurry of debate over the role of violent political discourse in individual decision-making.  While much of this conversation has focused on the role of politicians—analyzing the importance of cross-hairs on Sarah Palin’s website or the ways similar messages have been used [by liberals]—it has also led to a discussion of the role of the media in supporting violent behavior and uncivil rhetoric. 

Some of this conversation does not focus on civility specifically, but draws connections about the use of media today that have implications for our march towards a more civil political system.  The Atlantic investigates the role that social media—networking sites like Facebook and user-driven content like YouTube—plays in the process, commenting that Loughner’s crime was both pre-meditated and pre-mediated.  By fostering an environment in which “hatred can fester in ‘anonymized cocoons,’” they argue, the Internet makes it possible for individuals to pre-package their crime to augment the drama and spectacle surrounding it.  Blogs and traditional media then flock to the spectacle, encouraging debate and conflict because these traits sell (see this piece by Diana Mutz and Brian Reeves for connections between civility, political trust, and entertainment). 

Certainly this should not be a call to limit the creative content that appears on the internet, but rather we should use this tragedy—and the lessons of those before it—to spark a discussion of how our media might encourage civil discourse instead of perpetuating dissonance and the entertainment of conflict.   Social media, user-driven content, and interactive news sites should not only be used to get one's own opinions out there, but also to create a dialogue across differences, emphasizing the importance of talking with others over talking to them. 


Demonization sells, unfortunately. On the Left, Keith Olbermann has long had a section on his show 'Countdown" called "the worst person in the world." Of course it it the media's job to find cases of incompetence, corruption, and abuse of power. It is entirely appropriate to criticize public figures. But when the selection of such figures is made by Olbermann's personal sense of outrage, and when these public figures are lambasted as the "worst person in the world," then Olbermann becomes a major contributor to political incivility. Here is one example segment. Note the dripping contempt and mocking accents that go along with the demonization:

On the right, there are many popular demonizers. Glenn Beck is among the most popular and influential currently.

[Glenn Beck video to come]

Jon Stewart, in contrast, has emerged as a vocal critic of exactly this sort of demonization. Here is his famous appearance on Crossfire, when he said "you're hurting America."

————THE INTERNET—————————

Has the internet made us more polarized? Lindsay Meisel believes we shouldn't blame the internet–it has merely enabled processes that were already solidly in place. See our blog post here. 


Daniel F. Stone has a paper "Media and Gridlock" in which he proposes that when voters are not well-informed by media, obstruction by a partisan minority party becomes more likely. They can be more confident in blocking legislation because they can count on cover in the media. This is distinct from positing that media increase polarization. And in the age of media as echo-chamber his study would seem to support the notion that we're in for media enhanced gridlock for the foreseeable future.

This page is edited by Emily Sydnor. (Some content was added by Jonathan Haidt)

  News and Links

"A Special Report on the Media and the Tuscon Shooting" The Project for Excellence in Journalism, Jan 2011

First Comes Fear, New York Times by Robert Wright, Jan 2011

What Difference Does (In)Civility Make? (Part I), The Monkey Cage by John Sides, Jan 2011


Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.