Five panelists from Europe and the US discussed the increased polarization of political conversation, populism in the media, and journalists’ challenges in the current political and social climate during a virtual event, “Civility and Politics,” on October 16. The global conference was cohosted by St. John’s University’s Institute for International Communication and the University of Vienna.
The speakers included Kara S. Alaimo, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations, Hofstra University; Elisabeth Fondren, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Division of Mass Communication, The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies (CCPS), St. John’s University; John M. Phelan, Ph.D., Professor, Fordham University; Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Institute, Vienna, Austria; and Nana Walzer, Center for Applied Communication, Vienna, Austria.
"This topic could not be timelier,” said Glenn Gerstner, Ed.D. ’81SVC, Interim Dean of CCPS and Associate Professor of Sport Management, in his opening remarks, referencing partisan print and broadcast campaigns and the pervasiveness of negative advertising across many media outlets.
“We live in an increasingly polarized world and political communication has become painfully coarse. With such a divided and polarized public, let’s try to unpack these issues,” said Basilio G. Monteiro, Ph.D., Chair, Division of Mass Communication, and Director of the Institute for International Communication. The two-hour discussion was led by Minna Aslama Horowitz, D.Soc.Sci., Fellow at the Institute for International Communication, and Thomas Bauer, University of Vienna.
In their talks, panelists emphasized that social media and online filter bubbles have further polarized political opinions; that freedom of the press is under attack across the world, including in democracies; that communicators, media educators, and individuals have an ethical and social responsibility to promote civility; and that propaganda continues to pose a threat to the truth content of information.
“Authenticity is key when it comes to credibility. It is the presentation of a message that convinces people,” Dr. Walzer explained in her typology of uncivilized behavior and dark or bright leadership styles. “People expect politicians to lie and at the same time they rely on their gut feeling as a source of trust.”
Panelists also suggested that the polarization of both content and form of political messages has created both national and international challenges for journalists.
“What we have seen through the COVID-19 crisis is a great weakening of press freedom around the world, from Europe to North America, Asia, and parts of Africa as well,” said Dr. Trionfi. “At the same time, we have seen a weakening of trust in the news media.” The ongoing global health pandemic, she stressed, has raised the stakes for journalists and the importance of accurate media coverage, since people’s lives depend on reliable and uncensored access to news.
Other speakers discussed the broader themes of civility and deception in public affairs, and the growing skepticism of official information, leaders, or institutions on digital platforms. “Expectation of behavior is what makes us behave and be civil,” said Dr. Phelan. He also cautioned that hate speech on social media should not go unchallenged by individual citizens, echoing Dr. Trionfi’s point about journalists exposing and fighting back against uncivil or undemocratic attacks against the press.
Media literacy and political education may be part of the solution, panelists agreed. “I think we have a responsibility to share knowledge about how citizens and the public can find a middle ground. This is why looking at different opinions, looking at international media, but keeping a clear focus on factual truths and facts is crucial,” Dr. Fondren said.
Dr. Alaimo, a scholar and journalist, spoke about political rhetoric, dog-whistling tactics, and coded language that politicians use to discredit each other. In addition, she discussed that women—and in particular, women of color—tend to be targeted by hate mail and online harassment on social media.
“I am really worried that we can no longer have civil conversations,” she said.
More than 80 audience members from all over the world, including Vietnam, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Dubai, Jordan, the United States, United Kingdom, and several other European countries participated in the event. Audience questions prompted a discussion about the opportunities and consequences of a global public sphere in light of increasing political polarization.
In his closing remarks, Dr. Bauer proposed a “reason of responsibility” that embraces humanist and social interpretations of communication rather than technological, economic, or profit-driven uses. “We have to widen the concept of political communication,” he said. “It is a widespread sphere of everyday discourse related to topics, themes, or events of public or political interests.”
Political communication, Dr. Bauer said, “is a source of sense and making sense.”