Collaboration in Civic Spheres

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Can Media Build Social Capital?

by Carrie Shaw July 7th, 2010

According to Hanson Hosein, Director of Digital Media at the University of Washington, media academics are now discussing the potential of new media as a platform for the development of social capital — the bridging and bonding that occurs between individuals in online communities who share common values and opinions, or who “bridge” differences by seeking to understand different perspectives. In a media marketplace that’s increasingly niche-oriented and capable of widening rather than narrowing existing ideological divides, development of that potential is important for the greater good.

Hanson Hosein

This theme arose recently when I attended a fascinating discussion hosted by Hosein with local media leaders for the City Club of Seattle’s Rapid Response Series. The event was titled: “Revenue models in the changing media landscape.” Key themes emerged on how the news ecosystem has forever changed and how new revenue sources are still working themselves out. The discussion and audience comments brought out a common refrain — “we’ll find out five years down the road if this or that revenue model becomes viable.”

Everyone agreed that there is a desire within the general public for objective news sources. A free and independent press is vital to the health of any democracy. Trusted and objective news sources are necessary to foster an informed citizenry, just as social “bridging” opportunities between individuals are necessary to foster empathy, understanding, and tolerance. It is that place of trust, where traditional and new media fill the role as social capital arbiter.

Panelists did address the baseline issue of staying independent from the overt influences of funding sources.

They stressed that that they as individuals and organizations maintain a firewall between revenue sources and journalism. Yet there was little direct discussion on the current lack of public trust that media provide fair and accurate news and information. Another perspective is helpful. The Pew Research Center for People & The Press has been following public attitudes toward the media in the key areas of accuracy, fairness, and independence since 1985.

When it comes to accuracy, the press has hit a two-decade low since Pew began evaluating the topic.

Only 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63 percent say that news stories are often inaccurate. And while Internet news sources are getting all the attention, 71 percent of Americans still get their news and information from television. However last December, for the first time, Pew reported that more people said they got more of their national and international news from the Internet than from newspapers. The Pew survey also noted that little has changed since 1985 when it came to whether the press overall was viewed as liberal or conservative, with about twice as many people viewing the press as liberal vs. conservative.

The most disturbing finding to me was on whether the media is viewed as independent from “powerful people and organizations.” According to Pew, “nearly three-quarters (75%) say news organizations are influenced by powerful people and organizations compared with 20 percent who say they are independent.” In 1985 that difference was much less, (53% to 37%). As trust declines and media continues to fragment, many Americans prioritize sources which validate their existing opinions or bias. Perhaps we’ve largely written off creation of social capital and informational bridges through media channels, though that would be a worrisome concession.

Delivering on the issues of accuracy, fairness, and independence would go a long way in restoring public trust. Exposure to “both or all sides” of an issue and accurate reporting of news events should build common ground and greater understanding among citizens. And while that’s what we’re taught in journalism school in the pursuit of objective and thorough reporting, it is easier said than done.

As trust declines and media continues to fragment, many Americans prioritize sources which validate their existing opinions or bias. Perhaps we’ve largely written off creation of social capital and informational bridges through media channels, though that would be a worrisome concession.

If the issue is greater transparency, then there need to be industry standards set that can apply to the many emerging revenue models supporting journalism. If the issue is more about professional ethics, then journalism as a profession needs to have that discussion and make some changes or these negative trends will only continue.