The Triumph of Spectacle

Planting A Flag

While foreign correspondent Chris Hedges’ Visions and Ventures lecture on America’s superficial media and culture was dark enough to drop many students’ jaws, the problems he outlined are familiar.

Shouting matches pass for dialogue.

Our media’s desire to be first often trumps their desire to be right.

And we struggle to separate substance from nonsense in the daily barrage of information.

These problems have shaped the way Nebraska Wesleyan teaches both communication and journalism. NWU journalism students grapple with complicated questions of fairness in reporting and learn to analyze the media around them. “I do see a generally troubling media environment,” said Brad Gilligan, a senior from Fremont, Neb., and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Reveille. “Consumers today are being fed sound-bite news.”

Gilligan’s experiences at NWU as a student, reporter, editor and news consumer have strengthened his “desire for accountable news that bucks ‘infotainment’ as a genre and exists as a public service.”

We fear things that probably won’t kill us (terrorist attacks) and ignore things that probably will (texting while driving).

Gilligan recognizes that providing that public service fairly can be especially complicated work. Reporters are rightly bound to articulate the opposing sides of any issue. But a structure where the consensus of 98 percent of experts receives equal time as the perspectives of a loud two percent fringe for the sake of journalistic balance can skew the public’s understanding of important issues and warp its sense of risk.

That imbalance for the sake of balance has lent to what Mathew Honan and Robin Sloan called in Wired magazine “statistical illiteracy.” “We fear things that probably won’t kill us (terrorist attacks) and ignore things that probably will (texting while driving),” Honan and Sloan wrote. “And it’s getting worse: We are now 53 percent more likely than our parents to trust polls of dubious merit. (That figure is totally made up. See?)”

If we are sometimes too easily moved by flashy statistics, we are just as often unbending in our opinions and conversations. The mode of public dialogue where opposing demagogues bark at one another from their intractable positions has reached a threshold. Persuasive rhetoric has shifted toward verbal cage matches where adaptability is framed as weakness. Changing your mind in this model is the surest sign you’ve been beaten.

“It just reached a point where we agreed we had to adjust the way we teach communication,” said Assistant Professor of Communication Patty Hawk. The Communication Studies Department made significant adjustments to its curriculum this year. “Now we’re complementing the way we teach the persuasive model of communication with a dialogic model.” In addition to teaching students how to be effective persuaders, now the department’s faculty teaches students to see the benefits of remaining open to persuasion themselves.

“Our conversations can’t merely be about planting a flag and sticking to it at all costs,” Hawk said. “We want to give our students the tools to be comfortable in situations they don’t always control. We teach skills that help them make convincing arguments, but we’re also teaching them to relax and not be threatened by views different from their own.”