If all news is BREAKING NEWS and demands our immediate attention, then how can citizens possibly stay adequately informed when so-called “breaking news” comes out 24/7/365?
If anyone can start a website, rhetorically frame their opinions as “facts,” and call themselves a “journalist,” then what does journalism mean anymore?
And if any critical report published by a reputable news organization can be dismissed as “fake news,” then have we lost our ability to speak truth to power and hold public figures accountable?
These questions highlight some of the biggest challenges facing journalists, media organizations and freedom of the press in our current socio-political climate, all while trying to adapt business models to changing technology and economics.
Regarding the problem of never-ending streams of “breaking news,” neuroscience and media researcher Lu Hanessian wrote in a May 2020 article on Medium: “the News is flooded and hyper-channeled. Divided into Us and Them. Facts and Conspiracies. Reporting and distorting news. Truth-telling and Bot sharing. Breaking News has become a catch-all phrase. A massive net to capture as many eyes and ears as possible. Attention is revenue.”
The industry’s fervent obsession with being the first source to break a major news story – and thus, get the most recognition from audiences – poses some troubling long-term implications for public trust in the media.
As an August 2020 Pew Research report showed, 55% of Americans say careless reporting leads journalists to make mistakes, while 44% of Americans believe journalists intentionally mislead the public through erroneous reporting. 53% agreed that the “rapid pace of breaking news” is a common cause of mistakes in the media.
Furthermore, the hyperdrive pace of today’s overwhelming, 24/7 news cycle sometimes leads to psychological consequences for audiences and journalists alike.
An April 2020 Psychology Today article explained how today’s dramatic, hyped-up media climate leads some people to compulsively obsess over the news as a form of reassurance-seeking:
24/7 digital access to a bottomless well of information and misinformation comes with psychological dangers. Have you ever gotten stuck for hours trying to self-diagnose a health problem on the internet? Or hitting ctrl-R over and over, waiting for exit polling numbers on the night of an election? Suddenly, that well of information feels more like quicksand.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar before? While we can’t fully detach from current events and media – especially while many of us are reliant on the Internet to work from home – there are ways to moderate your exposure to news and kick the “infinite scroll” habit for good.
First Amendment Voice’s upcoming white paper on polarization, social media, and civil discourse in the U.S. will offer a treasure trove of communication and “digital detox” strategies for successfully engaging with those who disagree with you, mitigating the effects of news cycle fatigue, and so much more.
To get the latest news on the white paper’s release, please subscribe to our newsletter in the meantime.
Have you ever paused to consider the ways in which you may be arguing from a biased perspective when engaging in a political debate? Even if you remained completely calm, cited evidence from credible sources, and logically articulated each of your points, could it be possible that you are still letting personal biases get in the way of genuinely objective reasoning?
Chances are, you’ve probably engaged in what is called “motivated reasoning” before, even if you didn’t consciously realize it at the time. As Nicholas Epley and Thomas Gilovich explained in their 2016 article published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives: “people generally reason their way to conclusions they favor, with their preferences influencing the way evidence is gathered, arguments are processed, and memories of past experience are recalled.”
Just as we’re prone to self-serving biases to explain events that happen to/around us, we’re similarly vulnerable to motivated reasoning (also referred to as confirmation bias). In an article published in the Journal of Communication in 2011, political science researchers James Druckman and Toby Bolsen described motivated reasoning as “the tendency to seek out and/or view new evidence as consistent with one’s prior views, even if this is not objectively accurate.”
In simplest terms: humans generally prefer to consume and interact with information that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs, but we’re not so inviting of information that contradicts our beliefs (even if the information is reliable and accurate). Some of this is associated with our emotional responses to information, but that doesn’t explain the whole story.
Let’s dive in further to assess how motivated reasoning is interfering with Americans’ ability to constructively engage in political dialogues with those whom they disagree.
As University of California, Santa Cruz professor of philosophy Jonathan Ellis said in a 2017 interview with NPR News:
Human beings have been doing this forever. So Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, wrote that it’s a habit of human beings to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy. And what he was describing, and in fact what countless playwrights, philosophers and novelists have described ever since, are these human tendencies towards confirmation bias, rationalizations, self-deception. And I think this is the same problem that we’re observing in our political culture today.
So all humans are prone to motivated reasoning, right? What about those of us who are well-read and stay up-to-date with the news? Are well-educated, scientifically literate, and self-aware individuals free from the confines of motivated reasoning?
Unfortunately, as professor of communication, public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University Matthew Nisbet wrote in a 2016 article for Skeptical Inquirer Magazine:
It is the best educated and most scientifically literate who are the most prone to motivated reasoning…studies suggest that strong partisans with higher science literacy and education levels tend to be more adept at recognizing and seeking out congenial arguments, are more attuned to what others like them think about the matter, are more likely to react to these cues in ideologically consistent ways, and tend to be more personally skilled at offering arguments to support and reinforce their preexisting positions.
On the flip side, however, research has shown that people who are scientifically curious (as opposed to merely scientifically literate, which involves comprehension) are less prone to resorting to partisan biases, whether they’re conservative or liberal. Further studies are likely necessary for understanding this phenomenon, but the scientific curiosity – engaging with information for personal pleasure – may indeed be one solution for resolving issues associated with motivated reasoning.
For more information on the ways in which our minds influence our ability to constructively engage in socio-political discourse, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to receive our soon-to-be-released white paper covering motivated reasoning and so much more!
Social psychologist and Stanford University Professor of Sociology Robb Willer is an expert in political polarization. His 2017 TEDx Talk on “How to Have Better Political Conversations” offers an in-depth glimpse into growing divisions among Americans across the political spectrum, comparing it to a disaster or zombie apocalypse movie:
There’s people wandering around in packs, not thinking for themselves, seized by this mob mentality, trying to spread their disease and destroy society.
So, how can we escape this trap of division, disinformation and disrespect in order to heal as a nation? Let’s dive deeper into Robb Willer’s TEDx topic to understand why divisions exist and what we can start doing about them.
Liberal vs. Conservative Values
In a sociological study conducted by Willer and his colleagues at the Polarization and Social Change Lab at Stanford, they found liberals and conservatives often adhere to different values. Whereas liberals typically prioritize equality, fairness and caring for others, conservatives reportedly prioritize loyalty, patriotism, moral purity and respect for authority.
The study’s design was fascinating in that it asked liberal-identifying participants to write a persuasive essay in favor of gay marriage and conservative-identifying participants to write a persuasive essay in favor of making English the official language in the U.S. Although the essays were intended to persuade the “other side,” both groups relied on their own values to convey their messages. As Robb Willer explained in his TEDx presentation:
When we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position.
There’s nothing wrong with having your own values and beliefs, of course. But if you’re trying to persuade someone who believes in a very different ideology than yours, then it’s important to adapt your message to be more palatable for those on the “other side” or they likely won’t be as willing to listen to your viewpoints.
Leverage the Power of Moral Reframing
Robb Willer and his co-researcher Matthew Feinberg published their study’s results in the peer-reviewed journal, Social and Personality Psychology Compass in December 2019. In the paper, they laid out a highly effective persuasion concept called “moral reframing,” which they defined as a technique “whereby a position an individual would not normally support is framed in a way that is consistent with that individual’s moral values.”
This technique involves learning more about other people’s political beliefs and utilizing their language and values to reshape the way you communicate with someone who disagrees with your viewpoints. For instance, President Trump referring to the act of wearing a face mask as “patriotic” is arguably an example of moral reframing.
Similar to sales and marketing, persuasion isn’t about getting what you want. It’s about conveying your message in a way that makes the audience not only want to listen to you but also embrace what you have to say. If you’re not speaking the language of the “other side,” then compromise will be challenging to establish (if not impossible).
Change won’t happen overnight. America is deeply divided right now, but it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. As Robb Willer said at the end of his TEDx Talk:
We owe it to one another and our country to reach out and try to connect. We can’t afford to hate them any longer, and we can’t afford to let them hate us either. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect. If you think about it, it’s the very least that we owe our fellow citizens.
According to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, just nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of U.S. government or civics education for high schoolers, while 31 states require at least half a year and 10 states have no government or civics requirements at all. In an era where political polarization in the U.S. is at all-time highs, it’s concerning to think of the implications these arguably-outdated educational policies might have on future elections at the local, state and national levels.
If we are to protect our nation’s democratic foundations for generations to come, we must be putting more time and energy into promoting the value of civic literacy and engagement. In the exceptionally well-researched Peabody Journal of Education article, “Civic Education and the Paradox of Political Participation,” author Lora Cohen-Vogel describes a “paradox of political participation” in which sizable numbers of younger Americans are opting out of the voting process and engaging more in protests as means for enacting societal change.
Given the importance of protests throughout American history and the right to protest enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, this “paradox” wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it weren’t for the low voter turnout rates associated with it. While increased access to flexible voting options — like mail-in ballots in 2020 — may turn the tides against this trend, the fact remains that our nation’s civic educational programs are in desperate need of a makeover if we hope to restore trust in our democratic institutions and encourage greater critical thinking among current and future voters alike.
Whether you’re a parent, teacher, youth sports coach, scouting leader, community volunteer or someone who’s just very passionate about the First Amendment, democracy and civic engagement, you can make a difference in the lives of youth by sharing the valuable lessons of civic literacy and political participation. If we can’t consistently rely on our state and/or federal education policies to ensure students are well-versed in civic affairs, then it’s up to us to fill in the gaps. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels, simply hoping that our middle and high schoolers are developing adequate knowledge and skills to become informed, engaged citizens prior to graduation.
The importance of civic education is further demonstrated by the article, “What Social Scientists Have Learned About Civic Education: A Review of the Literature,” in which author David E. Campbell argues that well-designed civic education programs have strongly correlated with a positive, long-lasting impact on the civic engagement rates of young Americans. Campbell explains that four aspects – class instruction, extracurricular activities, community service, and a school’s ethos – are essential to increasing civic engagement among youth. However, the aforementioned Center for American Progress report found that only Maryland and the District of Columbia require community service as a prerequisite to receiving a high school diploma.
Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau found that students engaged in extracurricular activities were also more likely to be highly engaged in school:
U.S. Census Bureau findings on engagement in extracurricular activities and overall school engagement.
With this information in mind, it’s our civic duty as American adults to not only engage in our own political advocacy efforts, but also encourage our nation’s youth to get involved and stay involved as well. Whether you have kids or not, the lack of rigor in many states’ civic education programs (or complete lack thereof) can impact all of us as we continue to face enormous challenges like the seemingly endless stream of disinformation swirling around online and ongoing concerns related to First Amendment protections.
So, what will you do to pass along the torch of civic literacy for future generations?
2020 is truly a year for difficult conversations. Rates of polarization in the U.S. seem to be constantly on the rise, and frustrations spurred by the pandemic have led to a widespread breakdown in clear, collaborative and constructive conversations in our society.
Inspired by the Difficult Conversations Workshops at our national symposium, let’s explore how a little psychological concept called “self-distancing” can lead to huge positive benefits in difficult conversations you may be having with your own family, friends, colleagues and neighbors:
What Is Self-Distancing?
There are two basic sides involved in almost any interpersonal encounter: self-immersed perspectives and self-distanced perspectives. Simply put, a self-immersed perspective keeps your mind focused on internal factors: your own needs, wants, interests and desires. On the flip side, a self-distanced perspective accounts for one’s own interests but views them as similarly important to the interests of other parties in a conversation.
With this in mind, self-distancing (not to be confused with this year’s popular phrase, “social distancing”) refers to processing negative emotions or events in adaptive (healthy) ways.
While it can be immensely challenging (and perhaps bruising to our egos) to back down or listen to others when we’re absolutely convinced that we’re “right,” doing so is a crucial step towards preserving our relationships with others and cultivating meaningful conversation climates. But the benefits aren’t primarily for other people; according to an article published in Greater Good Magazine (backed by the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center), self-distancing offers a host of personal benefits, including:
- Greater capacity for adaptive self-reflection (as opposed to maladaptive self-reflection, which magnifies negative emotions instead of constructively processing them)
- Reduction in aggressive, angry thoughts and behaviors
- Greater ability to make rational, clear-headed decisions
So how can you successfully self-distance from negative emotions without forgoing that difficult conversation entirely? Let’s see what the research has to say:
Change Your Self-Talk
Researchers have suggested that changing the way you talk to yourself (sometimes referred to as “intrapersonal communication”) can be a powerful mechanism in which you emotionally distance yourself from tense interpersonal interactions and/or maladaptive self-reflections and ruminations.
One of the best self-talk strategies involves changing the pronouns in which you refer to yourself. Specifically, referring to yourself in the second-person “you” pronouns (as though you’re speaking with a friend) or third-person (he/she/they or your name) can help you constructively assess negative thoughts and process upsetting emotions when engaging in difficult conversations with others.
Embrace Wise Reasoning
Another strategy for reigning in your emotions to more effectively engage in difficult conversations with others involves developing your wise reasoning skills. There are four central tenets to wise reasoning, including: (1) recognizing the limits of your own knowledge (intellectual humility), (2) recognizing and appreciating larger issues involved, (3) sensitivity to changes in social relationships, and (4) a willingness to compromise or meaningfully consider other opinions besides your own.
Wise reasoning is important for self-distancing because it encourages us to recognize and accept the fact that we don’t have all the answers and that our opinions are just that: subjective opinions. Not objective reality. Once you can genuinely accept the possibility that you could be wrong (or simply unaware of information that may change your mind), you’ll be in a much better position to take other people’s concerns more seriously and keep your emotions in check when dealing with an interpersonal conflict.
Voting is one of the most widely-recognized forms of civic participation, but it’s certainly not the only one. Civic engagement is typically defined as people coming together to socialize, advocate, converse, and make a difference in their communities, and it’s important for everyone to get involved in some meaningful way to sustain the community and help its members thrive.
Since citizenship is not a spectator sport after all, here are some additional ways to boost your own civic participation and positively impact people around you as a result of your good works:
Engage in Community Conversations
Did you know something as simple as talking or listening can be considered forms of genuine civic engagement? By seeking out and joining conversations — whether they’re held virtually or in-person — you’re playing an active role in shaping your community’s future just by showing up.
You can discover what conversations, public hearings, dialogues and debates are happening in your community by checking your local government office’s website, browsing local events in the newspaper or on Nextdoor, or by visiting the websites of your favorite advocacy organizations to see if and when they’re hosting civic events (such as First Amendment Voice’s coffee talks and annual national symposium).
Volunteer for a Nonprofit Organization
Volunteering is arguably the second most well-known form of civic engagement (after voting). It also has several positive health benefits for participants, such as reduced feelings of isolation, lowered risk for cardiovascular disease, lowered rates of anxiety and depression, and reduced risk of developing cognitive impairments later in life.
Millions of hours of volunteer labor go into supporting nonprofits’ activities, programming and events every year. Without volunteers, many of these community-driven organizations would struggle to operate and serve those who need them most. If you want to get involved beyond the ballot box, contact nonprofits in your area to ask about volunteer opportunities. To become even more engaged as a citizen, consider joining a civics-centered nonprofit organization or donate money to a civic cause.
Participate in Community Clean-Up Events
Perhaps your schedule is too full to add a regular volunteering commitment. How about joining a trash pick-up event once or twice per month as a compromise? Many community organizations — some of them registered 501c3, others just informal groups of like-minded folks — host weekly or monthly clean-up events, particularly in areas with high public use such as parks, beaches, trails, etc.
You can easily find a community clean-up in your area by Googling your city or county’s name and “community clean-up” or “trash pick-up events.” You should be prepared to bring your own supplies (gloves, trash bag, hand sanitizer, etc.) and consider donating additional resources to the group you clean up with, if your financial circumstances allow for it.
Join a Club or Recreational Sports Team
Last but not least: did you know that participating in a hobby or sport with other people in your community can be considered a form of civic engagement, too? It’s true! When you join a recreational sports league or join a hobbyist club, you’re regularly interacting with fellow members of the community, which could also involve conversations about the community and social support for other members of the group.
As you can see, there is no shortage of ways to get involved as a citizen beyond simply voting for candidates and propositions each year. If you have additional strategies for becoming a more active member of your community, please share them with us in the comments!