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How to Communicate in a World of Civic Incivility

LSU Manship School's Breaux Symposium Discusses Political Communication in America's Polarized Media


The Manship School of Mass Communication's Holliday Forum hosted the Breaux Symposium's discussion of the challenges facing the modern media in covering America's divided political system.
Eddy Perez/LSU University Relations

The business of mass media has spent the last few decades constantly evolving to serve the public. What was once a 24-hour news cycle has become minute-to-minute and even second-to-second with the development of the World Wide Web and social media such as Twitter and Facebook. But how can those same outlets continue to serve a public that has become increasingly politically polarized in recent years? The LSU Manship School of Mass Communication's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs hosted some of the top minds in political communication as a part of the 10th annual Breaux Symposium to discuss the topic.

Titled "In the Name of Democracy: Political Communication Research & Practice in a Polarized Media Environment," the 2011 Breaux Symposium sought to examine the study and practice of political communication, focused on topics like incivility in political discourse, divided government and the challenges of reporting in a polarized media environment, and how universities bridge the gap between academia and the professional world.

Moderated by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost John Maxwell Hamilton, the panel included Dan Balz, national political correspondent for the Washington Post; W. Lance Bennett, professor of political science and Ruddick C. Lawrence Professor of Communication at the University of Washington; Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania; Robert M. Entman, J.B. and M.C. Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University; Roderick P. Hart, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin and the Shivers Chair in Communication and Government; Shanto Iyengar, Chandler Chair in Communication at Stanford University, professor of political science and director of the Political Communication Laboratory; Regina Lawrence, the Kevin P. Reilly, Sr., Chair in Political Communication at the Manship School; Robert Mann, Manship Chair at the Manship School and co-director of the Reilly Center; Bill Purcell, special advisor to the president of Harvard University and the former director of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government; and Amy Walter, political director of ABC News.

The symposium was kicked off with a panel discussion on Monday, March 28, titled "Media Professionals and Scholars Explore Opportunities to Work together for the Public Good," with Delli Carpini, Iyengar, Purcell and Walter. The group, led by Hamilton, pondered how to better connect media practitioners and academics.


Shanto Iyengar, Chandler Chair in Communication at Stanford University and professor of political science and director of the Political Communication Laboratory, served on the distinguished panel along with 10 other media scholars and professionals.
Jim Zietz/LSU University Relations

"The goal needs to be to bring the people and the academics together for the better understanding of both," said Purcell.

Hamilton noted that in the digital information age, reporters have to be even more conscious of just what is really in the public good, and that it's academia's role to help them understand that responsibility.

"Journalists are the dogs that have caught their tails, and now they don't know what to do with it," he said. "Now that they've reached a point where we can really report anything, anytime, at any place, they have to understand what they can do with that."

Walter expressed a frustration with finding reporters that can bring larger perspectives to complex jobs such as being embedded in campaigns.

"The type of reporters that have the stamina to spend months on the road with a candidate, work almost constantly, sleep standing up and still provide newsworthy copy, tweet and even produce video, can't give you that broad perspective the way a veteran reporter can," she explained.

The symposium itself began the following morning in the Manship School's Holliday Forum with the subject of civility, upon which Bennett, Entman and Hart each presented essays to the group. Each member of the symposium brought their own perspective to the topic, in how it is handled by the political partisans and by those who cover them.

"American democracy is based on each side of a debate adjusting to the other and finding a compromise," said Entman. "But it seems like people are more focused on the debate itself, rather than the issue at hand."

"I think that journalists can make a choice not to get into it," Lawrence said of the partisan mudslinging that has become all too common. "We can choose to say of a statement 'it's not true and we're not going to talk about it.'"

On the role of the press in the country's combative atmosphere, Balz referred to serving as a "policy lubricant."

"We've seen the triumph of the perpetual campaign," he said, noting that politicians are spending more and more time in office preparing for the next election as compared to the day-to-day business of governing. With both sides constantly working to push their side of an issue, reporters can be lured into talking points by the need to be the first to report.

"And journalists aren't as transparent about that as we need to be," Balz added.

When discussing how the academic side of media and political science can better prepare future communicators, Entman suggested a three-pronged approach.

"First, we have to free journalists from the influence of partisans, but at the same time, they shouldn't be afraid to have a recognizable voice," he said. "Why should those voices only come through on the editorial page? And third, the aim should always be for truth, not necessarily for balance."

Lawrence enjoyed the conversation, particularly the brainstorming of ideas for future forums for scholars and journalists.

"I thought today's symposium was a terrific example of what makes the Manship School and the Reilly Center so special – bringing together a variety of interesting and accomplished people to have sometimes tough conversations about the quality of public discourse," she said. "This could simultaneously improve journalism and improve scholarship in the public interest."

The Breaux Symposium, named for longtime Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, began in 2000. Its role is to elevate civic discourse around issues of contemporary concern.

"The Breaux Symposium has been a key to LSU's leadership in the nascent field of media and politics by taking on issues where little or no research has been conducted," said Adrienne Moore, co-director of the Reilly Center. "It attracts the country's top political communication leaders and thinkers to LSU's campus for rigorous debate about what the public needs to know in order to make good decisions. It might be one of the few places in contemporary society where two people with completely different views can sit across the table from each other and engage in thoughtful dialogue."

For more information on the 2011 Breaux Symposium, past symposiums or for other Reilly Center programs and activities, please visit www.lsu.edu/reillycenter, or contact Moore at 225-578-2223 or Mann at 225-578-2053.