Mormon Media Observer: Media's focus on contention affects children

Published: Monday, Nov. 19 2012 4:20 p.m. MST

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, addresses President Barack Obama during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y.

Shannon Stapleton, Associated Press

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My 8-year-old came home from the election a couple weeks ago, thrilled that Barack Obama won.

Seeing as I am a fairly conservative guy and a Latter-day Saint, it's no surprise I voted for Mitt Romney. I mean, my doctoral dissertation was on his candidacy four years ago, so a win by the governor meant I might have something to talk about for a few years at least. I even had self-interested reasons to vote for him.

Needless to say, then, my first instinct was to wonder at my son's reaction.

But I comforted myself. You know, I'm a parent in favor of diversity and listening and letting my children go their own ways. That's what I told myself.

That is, until my little guy explained his reasoning.

In essence, his joy came because a Romney loss in his view meant ongoing civil peace. Latter-day Saints, he said in essence, would take the loss by turning the other cheek. The supporters of that other guy, well, wouldn't be so generous. I think he feared something like civil disorder.

Out of the mouths of babes.

I wondered where he got the idea. Likely, some of his imagined fear came from the idle chat adults around him engaged him, including me. Or maybe his views came from playground friends extrapolating what other parents said about the election. Maybe it was just his fervent imagination. Who knows?

Most likely, the cause of such a statement emerged from a little of all of those things mixed with a healthy dose of our contentious media culture.

To be sure, blaming media for the flaws in the national culture — and for our own choices — can be counterproductive, but it needs saying: News media are too contentious. And that contention gets reflected in our national dialogue and gets passed on to our children.

This contention in our media is part of a long line of academic thinking about what most ails our press. While politicians and citizens often worry about partisan bias in the press — and rightly so — scholars often critique the press more for its laser focus on conflict and the unpleasant effects that follow from that focus.

One example was a 15-year-old study by Katherine Hall Jamieson and James Capella at the University of Pennsylvania. The pair looked at how a proposed health law from Bill Clinton was covered in the news. They found that media focused mostly on who was winning and losing and on the strategy and tactics behind the bill — in short on the conflict.

One finding from their revolutionary study really struck me — citizens knew less about the substance of the health care proposal after several months of relentless news coverage than they did when the debate first began. In short, this focus on conflict leads to confusion, hindering deliberation so vital in a democracy.

Another finding — as I recall, it originates with Harvard's Thomas Patterson — is that in recent decades political candidates have been viewed in ways significantly less favorable than they were a generation ago — something that correlates with the rise of conflict as the primary way journalists cover campaigns. In short, this focus on conflict also leads to cynicism and distrust, hindering democracy in other ways.

Seeing as how I work at BYU–Idaho, I often invite my students to consider what the scriptures teach about journalism or media. We find verses about truth and about the need for teachings of the "wars and perplexities of nations." All of that is important.

But recently, I thought a great deal about one passage in the Doctrine and Covenants and what it may imply about our modern media: "Behold, I say unto you, there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances."

The press too often acts as a conduit for a terrible pollution of jarring and contention — not to mention of covetous desires.

And this contentious media culture is affecting all of us.

Our children are listening.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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