Deliberative democracy and the media

Deliberative democracy is based on the principle that politics should be inclusive, deliberative and consequential. This means that there need to be mechanisms to ensure that all those affected by collective decisions should be able to influence the outcome and that this should involve a process of reason and reflection.

Reflection on important issues cannot occur in an information vacuum. We need inputs into our decision making and the better the quality of that information, the better the capacity for us to reflect on what outcomes we think should be aimed for. Certainly there is a tendency to overplay the role of information alone in considering our positions. The common refrain from those concerned about inaction on climate change, for example, is that the public needs to be better informed. But information alone isn’t enough. There is plenty of that out there already. The problem lies in the way that it is put together, the context in which it is presented, and the level of trust in sources of information that reflect the complexity and nuances of the issue, while still being accessible.

In other words, we also need to consider the need for information to be provided in ways that enable us to side-step fallibility in modes of reasoning, such as the tendency to only seek information the reinforces our pre-existing positions (referred to as motivated reasoning, or commitment bias) or to draw intuitive conclusions that sometimes poorly reflect the substance of the issue (referred to as type 1 reasoning, or peripheral processing; as opposed to type 2 reasoning or cognitive processing). These are motivational issues that I’ll write about another time.

But no matter how well intentioned the motivations behind our political reasoning, it will be fallible to the extent that the information available is poor either in the way it is synthesised, balanced or if it attempts to misdirect or deceive. Not all forms of information are equal, nor trustworthy, if the intention of those providing the information is strategic (i.e. seeks to achieve a particular outcome beyond providing information, especially one that is in their direct interest) as opposed to communicative. Indeed, when it comes to climate change there are many sources of information that are provided strategically, but working out who to trust is difficult, especially when the issue, such as climate change, is so complex. Trust in scientists themselves has been undermined from some sectors. Some scholars, such as Ainslie Kellow (a former mentor of mine) argue that, no matter how well founded climate change is per se, the science has been over-egged in some instances — a perception that has not been helped by the famous ‘climate-gate’ emails. In a world where everybody communicates strategically, no matter how well intentioned, the overall effect is a decrease in trust.

So the question becomes, who can we trust to provide trustworthy information? It is well established that the news media (or fourth estate) has traditionally been important to the functioning of a healthy democratic system. Quality journalism (ideally) identifies issues and synthesises information for public consumption, providing a range of views that permit members of the public to develop well-informed positions, which are, in turn, ideally expressed through the political system via formal and informal mechanisms such as voting, public opinion etc. Ideally there is a kind of self-regulation in operation where there is an incentive for news media to provide considered and trustworthy information to consumers, who should be in a position to judge the quality of the information and whether they are willing to pay for it, or simply spend the time to digest it.

However, this assumption appears to be increasingly challenged, with traditional modes of journalism apparently under threat — both for better and for worse. There are a number of reasons why this appears to be happening, not least in the face of technological innovations delivering vast amounts of freely accessible information, undermining the ability of news outlets to fund what we refer to as ‘quality journalism’ — an issue that is identified by Michelle Grattan in her piece in the Conversation. This is a kind of supply side problem where the cost structure is affecting the ability to afford good quality journalism. Another supply side problem involves the concentration of media ownership (partly due to cost pressures) and the potential for the strategic use information going hand in hand with increasing political power, should the motivations of media proprietors switch from mere information provision and profit to activism — a charge that has been levelled a more than one proprietor in recent times.

But there is also related a demand side problem in which information overload and freely available information at that, undermines the appetite of citizens, as consumers of that information, to seek out and fund quality journalism, or to make discerning judgements about what they are reading. And there are longer-term effects that appear to in play as well. The news companies, who are under such tight constraints, need to find ways to attract readers. And in some cases there is a tendency to ‘dumb’ down content, seeking to titillate rather than inform. Or there can be increasing Balkanisation of news outlets who increasingly cater to the specific beliefs of their audience, stroking their sensitivities for profit. The effect is to entrench perspectives even further and produce information enclaves where whole sections of society get their information from entirely different sources, each supporting different conclusions. The result is a spiral into partisanship, and refusal to take into account competing perspectives, with the market catering for the demand for information that provides a firewall against any perspective that doesn’t accord with a consumers’ worldview. The same thing occurs in online groups, who can more easily find others with their own, sometimes extreme views, facilitated by technology.

Good democratic process requires that we, the citizens open our minds to competing perspectives, even if we ultimately reject opposing arguments. We need sources of information that digest these views and present them in ways that are trustworthy. It is the ultimate expression of freedom of choice, to actively choose among alternative, rather than blindly ignore them.

The ideal model of journalism that seeks to illuminate these alternatives seems increasingly under threat. Although there are alternative models to traditional media that do seem to provide ‘quality journalism’, they seem to be outcompeted by fragmented, biased information sources or even outright propaganda.

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