Archive for January, 2016

This week my head is swirling with questions: Did the founding followers think that the future of our republic depends on voters who are educated about the issues? Does the news media have a responsibility to help deliver that education? If not, who does?

In a 24/7 cable news world does endless sound bites of  Trump, Trump, Trump, create a sense of inevitability about the outcome? Is it OK to allow one candidate to dominate news coverage thereby requiring the other candidates to compete for coverage by creating their own outrageous moments?

Some communication academics argue that news organizations determine the social issues agenda by what they chooses to cover. Then individual peer groups determine what people think. Are today’s news media outlets setting an agenda that would please the founding fathers?

Wolf Blitzer on CNN this week said that this week’s debate is now about who will not appear. But is there any news media responsibility here to respond by focusing on an agenda of issues that need to be addressed substantively?

So the issue really is: What is the definition of “news” in a commercially competitive, fast-paced, 24/7 news media world?  Is it mostly the excitement of the race itself, i.e. the drama of intense conflict, name-calling and polarization?

In the final analysis, I can only conclude that in today’s new media world citizens are on their own to educate themselves about the substance of candidates… and understanding the dynamics of this digital-driven information implosion environment is critically important to their ability to do so.

So where in society should this public policy knowledge be strengthened, and media literacy education take place? The public schools? Universities? Community groups? How do we make it happen? And should news media organizations at least do a better job of educating their audiences about themselves?

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On his weekly CNN program, Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria described a vicious social media assault that aimed to destroy his reputation and harm his family. He labeled these assaults “trolling,” and they can have devastating consequences.

In past posts I have discussed how half-truths and even outright lies can seem true in this fast-paced digital media world… especially when they are repeated over and over.

It is important to note that in day-to-day communication it is natural for most people to simply hear what they want to hear. And when they repeat what they heard they innocently embed it with more of their own views. These “rumors” usually are just a natural part of the communication process. While they can cause problems, they generally are not intended to do harm.

But in a highly charged communication environment of nonstop polarization and extreme opinions this otherwise natural process can turn quite vicious just by adding the conscious intent to discredit and bring harm to a cause, individual, or even an institution.

And in this 24/7 news world, the news media can unwittingly make matters worse by reporting such assaults each time they are made. In this way the information environment becomes cluttered and confusing, leaving everyone completely on their own to sort it all out.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to pay attention to the consequences of social media “trolling” during this extremely polarized political season. Every citizen simply must approach each and every campaign or PAC statement with a huge degree of skepticism. Defensive listening must become the order of the day.

We are in an age of ongoing media revolutions. And there is no end in sight. Therefore, teaching and learning about media literacy in schools, churches, community organizations, and even on street corners, might be our only long-term salvation.

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In the past I have found state of the union addresses to be too cluttered with wish lists and endless recommendations, and therefore pretty much useless as calls to action. In short, from a communication point of view most of them were fairly weak speeches.

I must say I think Obama chose a better framework this time… a format with four basic ideas embedded in four questions: (1) How can we give every American a chance at some measure of success? (2) How can we use new technology to ensure U.S. leadership in the world? (3) How can we make the U.S. safe from terrorism? (4) How can we make our politics reflect what’s best about America, not what’s worse?

The cleverly embedded ideas were obvious: We need to focus more on closing the income gap. We need to lead the world in climate and new energy innovation. We need to invest more in homeland security. And we need to end mean-spirited  polarization.

This framework allowed Obama to point out a few of his successes. But more importantly it enabled him to lay out a challenging (but doable) agenda for future leaders, no matter their political ideology. This made for a much better speech.

However, good speeches usually have a natural concluding moment, and I think Obama missed his. That moment occurred about 15 minutes before he sat down! His audience was in the palm of his hands when he explained what it means to be a free American. But then he went on with too many little examples allowing partisans to return to their polarized thinking.

That said, his idea number 4 is very much worth noting. Communication analysis suggests that polarization can win a debate, but not the day. Extreme solutions almost always are temporary. Real problem-solving actually takes place in the grey areas of most issues.

Communication dynamics therefore provides a strong argument for bipartisan compromise. Effective leaders must be allowed to establish an environment of authentic listening.  And once heard, constituents must follow with good-spirited, bipartisan and collaborative problem-solving.

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Why and to whom does Donald Trump appeal? Here is one communicator’s analysis:

Trump begins with a message that targets unconventional and deep emotional thoughts that are held by some people but heretofore have not been widely articulated. He then expresses those thoughts with simple messages presented as dramatically as he can, insuring widespread attention and thereby giving them a measure of “endorsed legitimacy.” These people now feel they are not alone with their feelings, and so they can now “suspend” any fleeting thought they may have about the impracticability of their opinions.

The fact is they are actually having a virtual experience that is much the same as attending a play. A theater audience “suspends its disbelief” in order to believe the dramatic experience they are having is real and possible, and they share that experience as a group until after the play is over!

In today’s digital world the situation is further complicated by the fact that “people always tend to hear what they want to hear,” and by the more recent realization that partial truths (and even lies) begin to take on a ring of credibility when repeated over and over… especially when they are inadequately challenged.

But challenging outrageous claims, partial truths, and lies is complicated in this digital media world. Challenging requires finding a way to target a different and genuine set of emotional concerns that are shared by a good number of important audiences, and then repeating  carefully crafted simple messages over and over again until reality wins the day.

I must add that the more people we have in the world with a fundamental understanding of the psychic and social consequences of 24/7 media revolutions, the more intelligent challenges of outrageous  claims we will also have in the world. And when all is said and done, a media savvy global education will be the best way to broaden that universe of understanding.

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