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Media and Politics conference at Elon University discusses how to present complex information to the media

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By Julia Sayers

Elon University hosted Media and Politics: Openness, Accuracy, and Honesty in the 21st Century Media Landscape, a conference about the many challenges for journalists in today’s society.

“Presenting Complex Information: Scholars Discuss Media, Public Policy, and Audience Response” was a panel held on Tuesday, March 29 that discussed the challenges of presenting complex data and scientific information to the general public.  Four panelists from Elon University, UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University gave short speeches and then answered questions from the audience.

Donald Shaw, Kenan Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at Chapel Hill, gave a talk about setting political agendas. He admits that media does set agendas, but these agendas are based on the issues we find important.

“In American politics, the idea is that issues matter. We make decisions on the basis of issues and there is always a competition of issues,” Shaw said.

The press sets the agenda with these issues, but tells us what to think about, not what to think.

Shaw also discussed the two types of media and how the agendas differ for each one. Vertical media, which are newspapers and big name television networks, focus on the larger community. Horizontal media, which are magazines, Twitter, Facebook and blogs, are catering to a group of people already interested in a particular topic. Vertical media sets an agenda, whereas horizontal media is used to connect people.

Political based advocacy comes as a result of the issues in the agenda set by the press. Barbara Miller, Assistant Professor of Communications at Elon University, discussed audience response to advocacy.

“Marketplace advocacy has a risk or societal concern associated,” Miller said. “Most campaigns are launched in response to these, such as environment, science or technological issues.”

Miller discussed campaigns by the American Petroleum Institute, the American Coalition for Clean Coal and the Council for Biotechnology. Each campaign has a political motive at the core, but they are not lobbying efforts.

Sarah Cohen, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University, took a different approach and talked about the challenges that journalists have in collecting and going through large amounts of data. Cohen, who was previously an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, is currently working on trying to find more efficient ways of sifting through data.

“In each agency, there are large document collections, but their methods are not up to par,” Cohen said. “They started using social science methods and tools from business in the 1990s, but not much as changed since then.”

Instead of having to go through boxes of information, Cohen in interested in creating an RSS feed of original reporting by story, finding a way to get handwritten police incident reports in a database online and easier way to gather information from court tapes rather than having to listen to the whole tape. This would make data collection easier.

Building off of Cohen’s idea of data collection, David Gammon, Assistant Professor of Biology at Elon University, talked about the importance of presenting that data to the public. Gammon wrote a piece on climate change for the Burlington Times-News because he felt that the public was ignorant of scientific issues. He wanted to work with mass media to reach a variety of people, instead of just publishing a blog that would be read by people interested in science.  He published the piece with no opinion, just data and how to interpret that data.

At the conclusion of the session, each panelist gave their advice on what students should be doing to assess complex information. They all agreed on the importance of doing individual research and fact checking everything.

“Be hesitant to reach a conclusion,” Gammon said. “Know what questions you have instead of knowing the answers to the questions.”


Written by juliasayers

March 30, 2011 at 11:39 am

One Response

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  1. Photo? Video? Pulled-quote graphic?


    March 31, 2011 at 3:13 pm

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