Stealth journalism: What does it mean if people don’t want to – and won’t – engage in government?

Although most Americans like having the option to participate in government when they mood strikes them, they usually have no interest in becoming more involved. Most people aren’t interested in debate or policy.

Increasing the ability for people to meet with others to discuss issues does not result in better decisions, citizens who are more considerate of others, or increased citizen satisfaction in how decisions are made.

People would be OK with a government run by unaccountable elites so long as those elites were empathetic towards citizens and did not act for personal gain.

I just finished reading about these and other conclusions in Stealth Democracy, by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse.

To the extent the above are true — and the authors are quick to point out that their work is quite far from definitive — what, if any, are the implications for journalism?

I think there are probably many. But this book is becoming one where I think about it so much after reading it, everything becomes mentally cloudy. I’m sure in the future the book will come up, probably multiple times (I’m already formulating another post on it). Possibly in a late-night what-does-it-all-mean offering. For now, here’s something simpler, albeit still slightly incoherent.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse offer the following reasoning for why Americans are continually dissatisfied with government:

• Most people will avoid confronting disagreement when possible
• Most people think everybody agrees on the answers to problems confronting their communities and country
• When people see politicians disagree, therefore, they feel it must be because there is some other interest (a corrupting “special interest”) affecting their judgment. Otherwise, because the agreement among citizens is so obvious, politicians would have taken action on those problems already

This is a rough sketch of their argument. There is much more nuance and empirical data to it.

Even within these outlines, though, is one way journalists can help address the situation as the authors describe it.* Simply put: Journalists can work to broaden perspectives.

One way journalists could help is by increasing the diversity of sources — of race, class, background, and viewpoint — in their work. But this sounds familiar. Journalists have been trying to improve on this for years (though they certainly have improvements they could make). Plus, just tossing more information into the fray runs straight into Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s argument that more information rarely helps the situation, no matter how well-constructed it is. Increasing the variety of reasons or sources for people to consider (or, in this case, getting people to realize those viewpoints exist in the first place) often degrades, instead of nourishes, a deliberation, they argue. I can imagine many people, such as, based on the interview in this book, Amy Goodman, would seriously take issue with this claim.

Yet one of the authors’ prescriptions for addressing Americans’ attitudes is increasing their awareness of the diversity of attitudes in their midst — thus attacking the second bullet point listed above, and undermining the assumption that it should be easy for politicians to formulate a plan of action.

So what can a journalist can do? Dedicate entire weeks of newspapers, or Web content, to introducing people to different theories? Move the editorial pages to the 1A? Create a new section of the Web site explicitly to promote diverse viewpoints (certainly you can find infinite numbers of them on the Web. Respectable ones, too).

But then don’t you run into another of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s arguments: People don’t like debate conflict, and they usually become even more dissatisfied participating in contentious decision-making than they did before? Putting debate and disagreement into peoples’ lives has precisely the opposite effect from what we’d hope. They do not engage. They hit the TV listings.

It may be that journalists are simply out of luck. It may be the time to introduce people to diversity is only when they’re young. Possibly in college, when they’re removed from the atmosphere of their youth. At neither of those times, I am assuming here, do journalists bestow much effort on the young (and they’re not often paying customers, so why would they?).

But having missed the opportunity, perhaps they should not expect their well-written profiles and feature stories, or even inclusion of more voices on the Web, to do much for appreciating diversity.

* If, in fact, it needs to be addressed at all — an argument they would question, and one I’m thinking about a lot more now as well. Never mind the entirely separate argument one would need to say this is a journalist’s responsibility to worry about in the first place.

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