Robert Suro: Defining the qualities of information our democracy needs

Robert Suro is a professor of journalism at USC and spoke today at Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum. His talk concerns journalism’s role in democratic processes and he draws two distinctions in how we think about journalism that often get conflated: journalism is a business but also a social actor. he points out that when main stream media’s profitability decline we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming its impact of in the democratic arena declines as well.

He also has trouble with the term “participatory media” and draws a distinction between the study of who is participating and what means they use (his definition of participatory media) and “journalism of participation” which evaluates the media in terms of a social actor – the object is effective democratic governance. He is worried these two concepts get confused and people can mistakenly equate the act of participating in the media, for example adding comments to a web site, with effective participation in the democratic process.

The result of this distinctions is that if you want to assess participatory media in terms of social impact you have to study more than who they are and what they produce but also whether this activity is engendering civic engagement that makes democracy more representative and government more effective.

Suro notes that this isn’t new: he hypothesizes that journalism doesn’t change often but when it does it is a big change, and we’re in the middle of just such a change right now. As an example of a previous change he gives the debate between two editors who were interested in the creation of civil society. One was supported by Jefferson and Madison and the other by Hamilton and Adams. Both were partisan in what they said and who funded them and both were committed to democracy but understood the role of the state differently, resulting in the creation of the democratic and republican parties. Although both would be fired as editors today there is a long history of social democratic results in journalism and the fundamental role of journalism in a democratic society is subject to change. We should study the ongoing redefinition and try and understand causality and impact.

Suro also thinks the Lippmann/Dewey argument about whether the goal of journalism should be to produce highly informed elites or mobilize the masses and create informed debate is alive and well. He suggests we have always produces a mix of these outcomes and will inevitably continue to do so, but now we have the address the mix of journalistic processes. He thinks the right way to look at this is to asses what outcome to they produce in terms of quality of leadership. Suro also touches on Cass Sunstein’s polarization concern in that is will produce less effective governance: we need to understand how a mix of new and old media can create a megaphone that artificially amplifies a voice that might not be the most effective.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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