March 11, 2021
For the latest Dean’s Discussion, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy’s Nancy Gibbs, Matt Baum, Thomas Patterson, and Joan Donovan joined moderator Sarah Wald to explore a range of ideas on how the America media—which has been widely criticized for undermining democracy—can help strengthen it instead.
Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, said that political reporting has evolved over the years to favor a “he said, she said” model that emphasizes bipartisan balance over the pursuit of objective truth. “That only works until lying and disinformation become an everyday part of our politics,” he said. “It breaks down when one side is lying and the other is not.” The problem, he said, came to a head in the 2020 presidential race, which featured dueling narratives of a free and fair election versus a stolen one. “This to me is really dangerous territory for journalists and I don't see a way for them to navigate successfully if they rely on he-said, she-said reporting—they just become a metaphor for misinformation.”
Shorenstein Center Lombard Director Nancy Gibbs said that while media (including entertainment) is now a $2.1 billion industry, it was given a special status by the founding fathers as more than a mere exercise in capitalism. “Unfortunately some of that success comes directly and indirectly at democracy’s expense,” she said. “Unlike General Motors or my corner deli, media is the only industry that’s explicitly protected in the Constitution, which suggests it is meant to have some public purpose.” Baum, the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications, said the media business has evolved to increasingly give consumers the information they want, rather than the information they need to make informed civic decisions. “It’s important to think of the demand side, what do citizens want and why do they want it?” he asked. “We really do know from decades of research that, given the opportunity, people prefer news and information that is pleasant to consume and there are some pretty clear consequences of that.”
Shorenstein Center Research Director Joan Donovan said that, like other media, social media has a public purpose, even as it has been blamed for undercutting democracy by facilitating the spread of disinformation and exacerbating partisanship. Understanding that public purpose, she said, will be the key to ongoing reform and regulatory efforts. “I think that’s the only way we save democracy,” she said. “It’s going to be the only way we save journalism, and it’s going to be the only way to really defend society.”