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Mass media must avoid polarising society, US forum told

The mass media tends to be better at presenting issues in an adversarial and technocratic manner, rather than aiding public debate of complex issues like politics in a way that avoids polarisation, a meeting of international journalists, editors and media experts hosted by Kettering Foundation in the US concluded.

Debate requires understanding the trade-off between different choices, though it's easier for media to sensationalise news and take an adversarial stance, the meeting found.

The meeting, which took place last week at the foundation in Dayton, Ohio, discussed problematic issues among mainstream mass media in the United States and beyond.

"Citizens need trusted institutions. We need trusted journalists," said David Holwerk, director of communications at Kettering Foundation, which promotes public deliberation.

The inherent shortcomings of the mainstream mass media - which often fails to help public deliberation on complex issues affecting society - includes the focus on novelty, short attention span, avoidance of "boring" news, increasingly limited print space and television airtime, as well as the tendency to simplify issues to good versus evil.

Also, there are fewer local media agencies that truly represent the interests of local communities, the forum heard.

While advocacy journalism can mobilise the public and information-heavy reports educate and inform, it's rare to find mainstream mass media assisting the public debate in ways that enable people to acknowledge and consider the points of view of those they disagree with.

Understanding the complexity of many issues confronting society while avoiding taking a "zero-sum" view on issues are vital for the public to work together, compromise as well as avoid polarisation such as the one Thailand is facing at present, the meeting was told.

While advocacy journalism is reliant on the participation of political movements, and "technocratic" media relies on expert know-how, deliberative media should give space and importance to ordinary citizens to weigh the pros and cons of various options available to society. However, participants acknowledged that this was easier said than done.

"You cannot sell an improved democratic life," Paula Ellis, a veteran American media professional, said.

Rod Amer, a lecturer at Rhodes University's School of Journalism and Media Studies in South Africa, also pointed out that there was no real space for citizens in mainstream mass media.

Besides, the media tends to predetermine the issue by framing the issue in advance, like crime, for instance, which can be framed by media as a security issue, Holwerk pointed out.

As for social media, he said, many people were still confused and wrongly believed that new media is inherently democratic.

"Social media is not inherently democratic, but inherently egalitarian," Holwerk said.


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