The Agenda-Setting Function of Media

Saturday, May 9, 1998

1:30-3:15 pm

Speakers: Christopher Harper and Benjamin Barber
Moderator: Charles Nesson

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Charles Nesson: I see the following questions implied in the title of this session:

  • Does the media have an agenda-setting function?
  • Why does the media have an agenda-setting function, if it does?
  • Is that consistent with democracy?
  • Is there something in the technology that changes the traditional structure of the media's sense of entitlement to set agendas?
  • If the media is not to be the prime agenda-setter in the society, where is the leadership to set our agendas towards the public interest going to come from?

I think we should be skeptical of the agenda-setting ability of a media that is dominated by the values of commercialism and entertainment.

[The complete text of Benjamin Barber's paper is also available.]

Benjamin Barber: Are there attributes and characteristics of the technology that are useful to democracy? I'm going to take a stab at that question, but here are some caveats that I want to present before I do it:

  • New technologies may well have features that can be exploited for of democratic purposes, but history shows that technology generally ends up mirroring the culture in which it is developed.
  • We are working on a frontier. Despite the apostles of convergence, 98% of the population still gets its news and entertainment from traditional media.
  • The multiplication of conduits and outlets is not the same thing as multiplicity and pluralism of content. If programming and ownership patterns are constricting, then the multiplication of outlets and conduits is relatively meaningless.
  • Those who create new technologies take for granted the values and frameworks of previous technologies. But new generations introduced to the world via the new technologies will not have the older values and frameworks. That will make changes. The 'Net today is primarily text-based, but it will become video- and picture-based. People brought up in a world of pictures and video may lose touch with the significance of words for maintaining and defending democracy.

So, with those caveats, let me address the attributes and entailments of new technologies for democracy. We must first ask, which technology and which democracy? Both terms are plural.

For the purposes of this discussion, I want to suggest three exemplars of democracy which the new digital media may serve.

  • In "thin" or "representative" democracy, passive citizens choose representatives to do most of the governing. Experts and elites to do the actual work of government; and citizens remain monitors to whom those who actually govern are accountable.
  • In "plebiscitory" or "mass choice" democracy, issues are thrown at the public without very much debate and discussion. The public can be manipulated to get mass approval for elite policies.
  • In "strong" or "deliberative" democracy, citizens participate at the local and national levels in political activities, discourse, debate and deliberation to reach common ground. Obviously, this is the model that I favor.

So, we've got three sorts of democracy, and it is a complicated exercise to answer the question about whether the digital media serve them. But it's an important one which we ought to spend more time on.

For example, the new media are used by solitary individuals, so it favors a sense of solitude, apartness, and isolation. The solitude of going on-line is a primary characteristic and the capacity to forge new forms of community in cyberspace is secondary. In "strong" democracy that's a defect rather than a strength. On the other hand, the sociologists of totalitarianism will tell you that separating individuals from one another and their mediating associations is the first step toward totalitarian control of individuals in a plebiscitory democracy. So the digital media seem to favor "plebiscitory" democracy.

[The complete text of Christopher Harper's paper is also available.]

Christopher Harper: In the traditional media, journalists set agendas by serving as gate-keepers who mediate between the politicians, the audience, and the media. If agendas can even be set by media representatives in a digital world, online journalism promises to alter the traditional role of the reporter and editor in the following ways:

  • Online journalism places far more power in the hands of the user, allowing the reader to challenge the gatekeepers of news and information. The user can depend on the gatekeeper to select and filter the news in the tradition manner, or the user can drill down to the basic documents of a story.
  • Online journalism opens up new ways of storytelling, primarily through the technical components of the new medium. Online journalists can deploy a variety of media--text, audio, video, and photographs. Data searching permits access to information unavailable in other media.
  • Online journalism can enable many unauthorized outlets for news and information. The Internet permits everyone who owns a computer to have his or her own printing press.

    For years, " gatekeepers" have been some of the most powerful people in the media. They highlight particular stories, promote trends, sort the journalistic wheat from the chaff, and some would argue restrict the flow of information. Will that role change in the digital age?

    For the past twenty years, Tom Cekay has been a "gatekeeper" for newspapers in Oregon, Ohio, and Illinois. He believes that in many respects, the role of the editor is very much the same as in the medium of print. Cekay finds some--but not all--of the gatekeeper's role applicable to digital journalism.

    There are some elements that Cekay believes do not apply to online publications: For example, events that coincide within the time frame of publication are more likely to pass through traditional media gates. Digital journalism allows constant updates, so timing plays a limited role in his decisions.

    One significant advantage of this new medium is the ability to let the reader into the process. "We can come up with conclusions on what we see and intelligently report that to you," Cekay says. "What's even better is we can say we're so sure that we are interpreting the news in a fair, unbiased way that we will give you all the documentation and you can check us. You can see for yourself."


Discussion Highlights

Charles Nesson: Benjamin Barber makes a strong case for fighting for a public interest space using government. If the commercial world isn't going to do it, and if PBS failed to be a viable public-interest environment in television because it was government-backed, why wouldn't you look to the non-profit, private sector to generate a serious commons in cyberspace? Why are we here in a major non-profit institution, which has been into technology right from the beginning, asking everybody else to do it for us?


Benjamin Barber: I agree that the polarization and dichotomization of government versus commerce is a misrepresentation. That happened because Ira Magaziner was talking about yielding the government's role, and I was suggesting that yielding the government's role to the private sector was not a good idea.

There is a third, independent sector which is neither governmental and bureaucratic nor private and commercial. You called it the non-profit, private sector. I call it the non-profit, non-governmental, public sector because civil society is public and not private. I think that you're quite right to say that is the space that lends itself most to the cultivation of educational and cultural activities.

At this point, we do need a common powerful institution that can bring some coercion to bear, and that is government. You and I do share the belief that part of the reason we need public and civic space on the Internet is to continue the struggle for democracy and social justice in the wider society.

David Thorburn: I have reservations about the hint of elitism I keep hearing in discussions about the way traditional cultural values and journalistic integrity may be compromised or undermined by the Internet.

One of the wonderful possibilities of the 'Net is that it undermines conventional notions of expertise. I think it's healthy for the society to have non-credentialed journalists who are spreading both gossip and truth. I trust my fellow citizens to make distinctions. I don't fear that they're going to be brainwashed and misinformed. If they have survived the official lies and manipulations of government and the press for the past thirty years and more, they certainly can survive Matt Drudge.



Phillip Hallam-Baker: As a non-U.S. citizen, I get nervous about the use of the definite article in front of the word "government." It's like saying it is the U.S.'s burden to bear taking us into the Internet Age. Yet it wouldn't be too unkind to say that PBS is the distribution channel for the British Broadcasting Corporation. The point I'm making is that we really have to say "governments." So look at a wider set of values. This new technology is a global resource. Let's look beyond just a U.S. -centric debate.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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