MIT Communications Forum – The Campaign and the Media

Last night MIT kicked off the Fall’s Communications Forum sessions. The topic was the campaign and the media. It was sponsored by the Communications Forum, the Center for Future Civic Media and the Technology and Culture Forum.

The evenings panel – moderated by Ellen Hume, included John Carroll from WGBH and Boston University, Ellen Goodman from the Boston Globe and Tom Rosenstiel from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

This post isn’t a summary – or even a recap – of the evenings event; it’s just few of the points I found interesting and some observations.

Hume started by asking: who is the media? who are journalists? and who is setting the campaign agenda?

In the past it has been print that has led the way – and in terms of actual reporting, that continues to be the case. During this election cycle though cable has upped its volume of coverage. Sixty-seven percent of coverage on cable news outlets is focused on the election – but, according to Rosenstiel – it is not reporting. It’s conversation.

If you do look at the actual reporting that takes place – again, according to Rosenstiel – the focus has remained much the same as it was 25 years ago. Platforms, policies and personality are still the same fodder today as they were then.

But that is only for real reporting. In the conversational world of cable news, something else has happened. More and more time is being given to campaign operatives and spin doctors (even if they are not actually identified as such). The result is a move away from reporting and toward ideology.

Carroll felt that the result was that the media is more of a presence and less of a factor in the campaign. Cable TV isn’t changing anyone’s mind, it’s just reinforcing existing points of view. On the right there’s FOX, on the left there’s MSNBC and CNN sits somewhere between the two – but it too is devoting more and more time to talk programming as opposed to reporting.

Goodman pointed out that there is so much raw content out there (she cited the YouTube video of Sarah Palin receiving a “blessing against witches”) that people are serving as their own editors and reporters. Making sense of the news is one of the biggest challenges all of us face in this environment.

The point was made that in this world where conversation can supplant reporting – discussion trumps facts. Campaigns repeat and repeat and repeat the same falsehoods over and over again and few people are willing to believe the media when they point out that what is being said isn’t true. This stems – in large part – from the Republican’s strategy of running against the media and the Democrat’s growing distrust of the media and being to “corporate.”

The result is that we’re in a situation where the media’s voice is often ignored or discounted – even if what they are saying is true.

There was an interesting discussion of who serves as the “assignment desk” for the media – who sets the larger agenda that the press follows. In the past it was the New York Times or the Washington Post. Today, it’s YouTube or Politico or The Daily Show. As Carroll pointed out, “the chinstrokerati all follow Politico.”

An other interesting topic was the unit of measure of news. At one point, it was the package (i.e. the New York Times) now it’s become the story. To me, it’s moved again and the real unit of measure is the conversation. If you look at a site like Politico, the story may be fairly brief – but the thread of user- contributed comments can run into the hundreds or even thousands of messages.

One issue in the conversational world of media – whether in forum threads or on cable TV – is that there are few (if any) was to separate truth from distortion. All of it simply tends to reinforce existing points of view by the selective acceptance of discussion points.

As much as I enjoy the conversational aspect of the media, this is a big problem. The media has essentially abdicated its role modern role of objectivity in favor of joining the fray.

[tags]MIT, MIT Communications Forum, SoMeElection08, Ellen Goodman, Ellen Hume, John Carroll, Tom Rosenstiel, media, politics[/tags]

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