BY TIFFANY YOON The phrase ‘Deliberative Democracy’ implies that a democracy cannot function without its citizens having the information necessary to make daily life-changing decisions. These opportunities for the general public are found in electing representatives on every level of government and keeping those officials accountable. On Thursday, March 25th, Temple University Verizon Chair in Telecommunications, Dr. Jarice Hanson, along with doctoral student in Mass Media and Communications, Alina Hogea, held an idea-sharing session entitled Deliberative Democracy: The Internet and Civic Engagement, to open the discussion on how to keep democracy alive and well and how technology is changing the playing field for everyone.
Gitlin was joined by panelists Michael X Delli Carpini, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Sina Odugbemi, program head of the Communication for Governance & Accountability Program at the World Bank and James MacMillan, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and former senior photographer and first video journalist at the Philadelphia Daily News. As the Internet has evolved into the primary news and information source for the general public, concerns over how public and national opinion will and can be formed have grown, because while more sources of information are available, the once unifying glue of mass media is being lost. Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia University, the event’s keynote speaker, took the audience through a history of information-sharing beginning in the 19th century to illustrate how old media had helped formulate national public opinion. Citizens learned a great deal about their world and the world around them through what Gitlin states as, “the practice of incidental learning.” When reading newspapers, people would read the information they were seeking, but there was also content available that they were not already looking for and there was a kind of “rubbing off of information.”
People were receiving information in a variety of different ways, but it was more manageable and therefore more unifying, because citizens were generally being exposed to both sides of the argument and were then free to formulate their own opinions. In the age of the internet and thousands of cable television channels to choose from, people are picking and choosing what they want to hear and what they’d rather ignore and deem as “other.” As Gitlin puts it, “If more information equals more democracy, then we should be far along by now.” Take the recent healthcare bill for example. With all media outlets — the web, television, print or on the airwaves — competing for what Gitlin calls “a clamor for attention,” it is hard for media consumers not to feel overwhelmed with information. If a citizen feels one way about healthcare, they’re going to choose the news source that agrees with them, whether it is for or against it, conservative or liberal. However, in order for a working democracy to continue to function, people must be aware of what they may not agree with. Gitlin said it would be like being ushered into a room where democracy is taking place, whether you like it or not and coming face to face with exactly what you disagree with. There must be a mixed pot of ideas available for everyone, otherwise the niches of media will become the isolated pockets of society.
New Media is not the enemy, however, because as James MacMillan stated, this is actually “the beginning of journalism” not the end.Technology is a double-edged sword in media, because it is giving more opportunities for outlets of information, but it is also isolating individuals within American society. This same technology could be used to unify citizens as well, as the Internet has increased globalization and accessibility. It is simply more about managing the Internet to its consumers and how producers of media must come up with new models to keep the conversation and “way of life” of democracy alive.