Philip Bennett – News and Democracy: The Missing Pieces

Philip Bennett – News and Democracy: The Missing Pieces


Tuesday, March 8, 2016, 12:00-1:00pm
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March 8, 2016 — Philip Bennett, former managing editor for The Washington Post and PBS’s FRONTLINE, explored how the promise of the digital revolution has fallen short for some aspects of media and civic engagement, and why news outlets should have an interest in improving the situation.

Bennett, who is currently the Patterson Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University, identified three “missing pieces that weaken the news media’s ability to contribute to democracy.”

First, “despite the World Wide Web, censorship in many countries is flourishing,” said Bennett. Although the Internet has shifted balances of power from governments to citizens, censorship has far from disappeared, and is even present in countries with high Internet adoption rates, he said. Bennett and his colleagues analyzed censorship in numerous countries, such as China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Ecuador, Hungary, Kenya, and Venezuela. “What we found in many cases was that governments were routing around the liberating effects of the Internet,” he said.

While some countries blocked sites or harassed journalists, others were more “stealthy,” using the disruption of the media business by the Internet as an opportunity to buy opposition media and set up shell companies to spread propaganda. “The promise of open access to independent and diverse sources of information is a reality mostly for the minority of humanity living in mature democracies,” said Bennett. “Propaganda, censorship, and the control of information networks by governments erode and degrade the overall environment for news and information.”

A second problem is that “despite broad engagement with information networks in the United States, political polarization and fact-free campaigning are thriving,” said Bennett. Although record numbers of Americans are engaging with political media, “it’s coinciding with the success of a candidate who requires a suspension of disbelief,” he said. Additionally, polls show that “the country is deeply divided,” and “more information up to this point, has not been the antidote.”

The news media not only reflects polarization – they’ve had a role in deepening it.

“The news media not only reflects polarization – they’ve had a role in deepening it,” said Bennett. Cable television, which is the top source of election information, “is making a business out of stressing divisions in partisanship.” Yet despite its role in encouraging divisiveness, the news media has been slow to turn a critical eye on itself, said Bennett. This short-sightedness can also be seen in the press getting the story wrong on Donald Trump. “While there’s been a high volume of reporting on the candidates, there’s really been very little reporting on the voters,” said Bennett, which could have provided insight into the rise of Trump.

Finally, “despite unprecedented documentation of humanitarian crises, the empathetic or constructive responses that we would hope to see are in many cases scarce or missing,” said Bennett. Although Syria has been extensively documented, its coverage “has not provoked an effective policy response or really a sustained popular outcry of any kind,” he said. “You can’t find protests on college campuses, there aren’t sanctuary cities popping up around the United States to welcome refugees.”

Also worrisome is that attitudes toward Syrian refugees mirror political polarization on other issues, with a majority of Democrats supporting the resettlement of refugees in the United States, and a majority of Republicans opposing it, said Bennett. “One of journalism’s jobs is to cross that divide in some way and bring it together.”

Bennett concluded that “access to images and information and opinion is simply not enough.” Journalists must rethink the way that stories are told. “We all know that journalism needs perspective and distance…but it’s also true that the closer that journalism gets to the lives of people, the better it becomes.” Getting closer to subjects in the story includes reviving the art of the in-person interview, which has sometimes been replaced by email and social media exchanges. The interview has also declined as a tool for holding power accountable, said Bennett, with the balance of power shifting from the interviewer to the interviewee, who can now dictate the terms of engagement.

The closer that journalism gets to the lives of people, the better it becomes.

“I see an inherent good in reclaiming the human interaction that is at the core of news gathering and storytelling, and one of the elements of journalism that’s been disrupted,” said Bennett. “I believe that we can apply what we learn from that toward filling the gaps I’ve described.”

During the question and answer session, Bennett also discussed fact checking, campaign coverage, overcoming “compassion fatigue” and audience indifference toward humanitarian crisis stories, and media coverage leading up to the start of the Iraq War. Listen to the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.