Knight Foundation “Civic Hall” Explores Public Disenchantment with Media

Knight Foundation "Civic Hall" Explores Public Disenchantment with Media

A Knight Foundation event on Wednesday looked at the public's disenchantment with the news media and how people may be engaged to participate in politics.

Posted by Shannon Finley, 1/19/17

Panelists at a Knight Foundation “Knight-Civic Hall” on Wednesday shared important insights into how civic engagement – and the lack of it — shaped the recent election and discussed strategies for increasing public awareness and participation in politics.

Widespread disenchantment with and distrust of news sources was a major theme of the day. Panelists explored why so many Americans seem to have concluded that reliable sources of news have ceased to exist. “Fake news is only twenty percent of the problem,” said CNN  correspondent Brian Stelter. “The other 80 is that truthful news isn’t connecting with people.”

Stelter argued  that the public trust in the news doesn’t require that the media be completely accurate all of the time; instead, it is based on a belief that the media have the audience’s best interest at heart. He said news outlets should seek to utilize human psychology in order to engage society so that the news is truly connecting with people and urging them towards civic involvement.

Not only must people be made aware of issues facing our democracy; they must be convinced that the public interest overlaps with their personal interests.  Independent researcher Kate Krontiris described the paradox of the “interested bystander” who pays attention to politics but does not get involved. Interviews with   bystanders convinced Krontiris that they are afraid to voice their opinions in today’s toxic political environment. To outweigh the perceived negatives of civic involvement, they must feel they can gain a sense of emotional fulfillment from political participation, she said.

Eric Liu of Citizen University, a Seattle-based organization working to promote civic involvement, said that this sense of fulfillment was once the norm for Americans participating in politics. Elections were once exciting for communities and Liu is experimenting with various projects to inject excitement back into civic engagement. Through election festivals, urban art shows, and concerts, Citizen University promotes mutuality, reciprocity, and sharing of responsibility within communities. “Joy is the “indicator of collective purpose and imagination,” Liu said; and that the surest way to instill joy in the public is the sharing of a sense of purpose greater than oneself.

Perhaps the perfect example of how the idea of a “greater purpose” can be used to mobilize the public is the technique of “Big Organizing” utilized by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Becky Bond of the Sanders digital team described how they tapped into tapped the grassroots to strategically plug people “ready to work for change” into the campaign. The team invited supporters to a meeting place via email, and then asked them in person to host and sign up for campaign events. The mix of digital and in-person contact let the Sanders camp reach out to a large amount of supporters; in the face-to-face meetings, supporters experienced a sense of community that committed them not only to the campaign, but also to each other. This strategy allowed a candidate who began as a virtual unknown to win 43 percent of the popular vote in the Democratic primaries.

The Knight panelists discussed a wide array of ideas regarding the sources of and solutions to America’s apparent civic disengagement. However, the common thread that seemed to bind them was the necessity of forging connections to and among members of the voting public. There is a large untapped potential for change that may be realized once people are made aware of the power they possess to shape civic life and are given the motivation to do so. As we buckle down for the next four years, these goals must remain at the forefront of our efforts to defend and create a stronger democracy.