While we recognize the limitations of any singular blog post’s ability to answer big questions like the ones we’re asking, our intention is to not to tell you everything there is to know about this issue, but rather to open up a space for conversation, reflection, curiosity, and a consideration of all the other questions this one question sets in motion.
How is ‘the media’ shaping our democracy in the United States?
by: Katherine Baxter
Upon hearing this question I imagine that most people would have an opinion, or at least a reaction. ‘The media’ is seemingly omnipresent, and perhaps best symbolized by the constant temptation of an entire world of information accessible to us at any moment, being carried around in our pockets. And ‘democracy’ is a word that evokes both a way of life, and an expectation of rights, processes, and forms of expression that can be easy to take for granted. These two concepts – democracy and media – exist both in tandem and in conflict with one another, and we invite you to join us in reflecting on the important relationship between the two.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s define ‘the media’ – the plural of ‘medium’ – as a means of mass communication, encompassing broadcasting, the Internet, and publishing. And let’s define ‘democracy’ as a system of government in which citizens vote directly, or elect representatives to form a governing body, to create what is sometimes called ‘rule of the majority.’ What might be the relationship between mechanisms of mass communication and a system of governance that functions based on the rules of the majority?
There are some straightforward answers to this question. Given that democracy relies upon an informed citizenry, the media, as the nexus of mediums by which said citizens receive information about the world around them, might play a significant role in shaping the views and positions of those citizens. This then leads to more questions: Where does this ‘media’ come from? Who produces it? Who owns it? Who vets it? And the bigger, overarching question: who gets to determine what is ‘true’? Especially within a capitalist framework, in which all media outlets – whether news, social media, publishing, research institutions, or otherwise – must turn a significant profit to stay afloat, it is easy to see how the relationship between media and democracy might be corroded by financial interests. As a consequence, the motives governing those individuals and institutions we task with producing and disseminating information about the world around us requires constant scrutiny, examination, and oversight to ensure their integrity.
However, most people don’t have the time, nor the inclination, to ask these questions every time they engage with media. Most people, across the political spectrum, take a lot for granted when it comes to trusting and believing information that’s presented to them, or that they actively seek out and curate for themselves. And then there is the additional issue of information silos, in which we cherry-pick news sources, research, and media that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and notions about the world, with algorithms designed to reinforce the walls of these silos. When you google “information silo” it is defined as “an insular system in which one information system or subsystem is incapable of reciprocal operation with others that are, or should be, related.” That seems to sum it up fairly well. The current media landscape can make contrasting worldviews seem incapable of reciprocal operation with others that are or should be, related.
It is telling that in the United States, it’s fair to say that knowing someone’s position on any one issue can often predict their position on other, seemingly unrelated issues. Why is it that believing in gun regulation should automatically correlate with believing in climate change? Or that being anti-choice should automatically correlate with being anti-big government? Issues have become dogmatic. People are no longer doing their own reasoning; fiercely oppositional and siloing media outlets are doing it for them.
So does all of this point to a society in which the concept of truth and the durability of facts are as fickle as the whims governing what people click on? The risk of having such a convoluted and confusing media landscape across the political spectrum is that it makes the concept of truth and the reliability of facts – essential underpinnings of any functioning society – easy to manipulate or to disregard altogether. Everyone thinks their set of facts and truths are correct, and they can each point to their own media sources to prove it. This makes arriving at any common ground extremely difficult. It leads to a mutual framing of oppositional worldviews as not based in facts, thereby doing serious damage to any collective pursuit of solutions, as this requires agreed-upon problems based in an agreed-upon reality. But perhaps even more harmful is the effect this can have of encouraging the dismissal and dehumanization of people who hold oppositional worldviews, especially if we consider John Dewey’s timely advice on democracy: “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”
If we instead see each other’s differing worldviews as the product of distinct information silos – the sum total of family, educational, media, and other informational exposures – this might open up a willingness to reflect on how we are all at the mercy of these incidental exposures, and therefore open up a space to talk about what is shared, what is common. A kid from Iowa who was raised going to church every Sunday morning, working on a farm everyday, and watching FOX news will likely have a very different view of the world than a kid growing up in NYC, with parents who both work for Amnesty International and read the New Yorker. These seeming cliché experiences are real, and determinative.
In sum, our experiences of the world combined with our curated media landscapes become woven into the fabric of who we are, how we see ourselves as individuals, and ultimately how we relate to each other as citizens of the same country, trying to have our voices heard as participants of the same democracy. We all need to reflect on how we can build bridges for each other, across seemingly insurmountable ideological divides, with compassion, understanding, and respect for how we have come to be so different.
Our democracy depends on it.
questions to consider
What does your media landscape look like? Is it siloed?
How often do you challenge the information put before you? Why?
How quick are you to share information?
What information do you share and why?
actions to take
When consuming media, even from sources you trust, view them through a critical lense and challenge yourself to build a diverse media representation for yourself.
When perpetuating information online, be mindful of your emotive instincts to quickly pass along the information you “like” and reflect upon why it is important for you to share that information. What value does it add to your life or others? Does it reflect your voice accurately? Did you fact check?
How media reflects polarized politics in this page by Pew Research dedicated to articles analyzing political polarization in the US
America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared article from The Atlantic
Social Media and Politics is a popular science podcast bringing you first-hand insights into how social media is changing the political game.