Paul Bernstein on Media's Role in Democracy (January 2011)
For democracy to work well, the public must be able to:
- separate truth from illusion - distinguish fact from rumor - become sensitive to when claims being made by politicians are not backed up by facts - judge a politician's "insides" more by her/his DEEDS than by her/his WORDS - know HISTORY, in order to accurately perceive the present-day reality and to participate wisely in determining their country's future.
But people don't necessarily possess such abilities automatically. Instead, they must be acquired and cultivated over time. Journalism can do that, by the way it reports on the events voters are already reading about, listening or viewing.
Lately in America, however, news outlets have not been doing this enough. And some media outlets have been consistently moving in the opposite direction:
- making the public increasingly manipulable by encouraging shouting matches that stop the brain's rational processes, and hook into the "reptilian" level of our emotional circuits instead; - oversimplifying complex legislation by labeling bills with deceptive nicknames; - deliberately stimulating fear and hatred in their audiences toward individual leaders and organizations, by falsely claiming them to be holding intentions and planning actions even though the facts show otherwise; - trying to avoid taking responsibility for all the above manipulations by claiming to be only "entertainers", even though they state repeatedly that their aim is to change the political future of America.
Such harmful distortions can be neutralized, and their debilitating impact on the health of American democracy can be reversed, by a journalism that models critical thinking through its daily reporting. The reporter can do this without taking on a particular ideology. S/he needs only to add facts to her/his broadcast or article that the politician conveniently had left out. Nor is it sufficient for the reporter to "balance" one politician's claim by quoting an opposite claim from a different politician -- when both claims are contrary to the facts already known to the reporter (and if not already known, than usually discoverable by that reporter).
The public needs to know those additional facts, for as citizens in a democracy, their country depends on their knowing MORE than a partisan's speech will have admitted.