CCTP-805-01 Media and Political Engagement
Fall for 2016-2017
The media are a dominant presence in the political sphere. Yet, there is tremendous disagreement among scholars and practitioners about the nature and effects of media on political engagement. This course will examine the wide range of perspectives on media and political engagement focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on the United States.

Communication is essential for developing norms of cooperation in society. A vital public sphere consisting of places where citizens come together to discuss core values, issues, and events is an essential component of civil society. Public debate allows citizens to communicate with government officials and institutions, and to engage in problem solving. The media help citizens establish community networks by generating awareness of issues and promoting voluntary activities. By providing information in a timely and accessible form, the media enable people to make well-informed choices, thus building support for democratic governance.

Not everyone agrees that the mass media promote civic engagement. Some scholars, notably Robert Putnam, argue that civil society in the United States has been eroding since the 1960s when television became a fixture in American homes. As people spend more of their time watching television alone, they become less committed to community-based or group activities, such as attending town meetings and working for political parties. As a result, public support for the political system has eroded, voter participation has declined, and political apathy has become widespread. Other scholars take issue with the perspective that mass media are detrimental for civil society. They point to evidence that community activism is thriving in media-saturated environments. Studies indicate that societies that have widespread access to mass media also have well-developed social and volunteer networks, and are high in social capital and political trust. As a result, people are likely to become involved with particular causes that interest them. For example, almost 70 percent of high school students and young adults claim they have been involved in voluntary community service activities.

The significance of the media’s content in promoting or inhibiting the development of a strong culture of political engagement is another subject of debate. On the one hand, the mass media offer ample news and public affairs content which promotes political knowledge and can empower citizens to take action. On the other hand, news coverage often focuses on the negative aspects of politics, such as scandal and corruption, which can alienate citizens and keep them from becoming involved. In addition, many people primarily attend to entertainment programming which emphasizes values that are antithetical to ideals that support community involvement. Situation comedies, dramas, and reality programs, the most popular shows on television, concentrate on characters and stories that emphasize individualism. Story lines often show people acting alone to solve problems and overcome adversity and rarely depict associations or groups working to better society.

The emergence of the Internet as a formidable technology of mass communication provides an opportunity to contemplate the future of civil society and political engagement. Proponents argue that the Internet improves democratic representation by enhancing people’s ability to engage in civic life. Online discussion boards, chat rooms, and web logs or blogs allow ordinary people unprecedented access to the public sphere. Political leaders and the mainstream media have become attentive to the writings of “citizen journalists,” who can provide insights into public opinion on issues and act as watchdogs monitoring government actions. Online media also can strengthen associations by allowing people with similar concerns to come together in virtual communities even if they live far apart. Relationships that form online can translate into participation offline, as virtual community members arrange to meet face-to-face. Online communication helps simplify the organizational aspects of community groups, as members can readily share logistical information, such as how to carry out particular tasks. Skeptics admit that the interactive communication facilitated by the Internet may be better than sitting passively in front of the television, but the connections between citizens and associations fostered online only go so far. The online environment does not automatically create generous citizens who give of their time to help others. Virtual communities cannot do the hands-on volunteer work that is needed to care for the poor and elderly, raise children, and staff community programs. Further, the digital divide which separates those who have access to the technology and the skills t use it from those who do not threatens to exclude much of society from engaging online. Thus, community activism will be limited to those who already have the greatest resources in a society.

Credits: 3
Prerequisites: None

Course syllabi
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Spring '17: Owen, D (description, file download)
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