TALKER: Dr. Matthew Pietryka — The Current State of Politics in the Mass Media

By KrisPietrykatine Craig and Aidan Coyne

In a comprehensive interview with UC Davis Lecturer and Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Matthew Pietryka, DPR Editor in Chief Kristine Craig and National Editor Aidan Coyne explore the current state of politics in the mass media, examining the factors that shape how we consume media, form political beliefs and participate in politics. After coming to UC Davis as a grad student in 2006, Dr. Pietryka received his PhD in 2012, and has taught upper division political science courses since then. He will be moving to Florida in the Fall to continue his teaching career as an Assistant Professor at Florida State University.

Early this month, President Obama held meetings with top weather forecasters from major news sources, taking time to brief them with a new report on climate change. This is the Obama administration’s latest attempt towards a new agenda to “penetrate the polarized media” and reverse the growing trend in which Americans only consume material that matches their political beliefs. Matthew Baum, professor of global communications at Harvard says that “presidential communication… …can either preach to the choir or convert the flock,” and due to the increasingly polarized media, “it’ll be easier than ever to preach to the choir and get harder and harder to convert the flock.” Because of this, the Obama administration has begun looking for alternative methods to penetrate the media. This includes hosting an animated page on Buzzfeed, appearances on the Internet show “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis, and encouragement to post “selfies” and other funny pictures. Many ask if this is an appropriate endeavor for the President of the United States. In your opinion, is this the correct response from the Obama administration? What are your thoughts on this strategy? Will it help mitigate the confirmation bias that Americans trend towards because of the increasingly polarized media?

The reason I think it’s a good strategy is that a lot of people, particularly people who generally don’t follow politics closely, still vote, and they vote based on character, on image, and this is a great way of showing that Obama is a likeable guy- he has a good sense of humor. That stuff does matter.

By doing apolitical media appearances, it can allow people with strong issue-specific attitudes to be influenced about a candidate as a whole. You’re probably not going to change your mind on an issue based on what he says to Zach Galifianakis right? It’s all the benefits of getting your name out there and showing you are a likeable person without the negatives of most hard political news. Hard news will ask tough issue-based questions, but late night entertainment shows will not. The tough questions can turn off a lot of people in ways that softball/humorous questions will not. For any answer you give, you may make a lot of friends but you will also turn a lot of people off.

What are your thoughts on the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag that has spread in response to the Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. At the Cannes film festival this past week, many high profile attendees held up the same white piece of paper printed with “#BringBackOurGirls.” How influential are celebrities and social media trends in affecting political outcomes? Do they work?

Awareness matters in trying to build international outreach. These hashtags can focus attention on topics in a way that can be useful… …in order to have any form on meaningful change, you need to have collective action. And this is a way of coordinating that collective action.”

“In the 2012 Kony campaign, it became fairly clear afterwards that there was a lot of misinformation in the initial documentary. There’s both ups and downs of social media and viral information in the sense that both useful information spreads and mis-information spreads. After the Sandy Hook shooting, there was a picture spreading around of Morgan Freeman with a quote about gun control or healthcare. It turns out, ..someone took something that one of their friends wrote and pasted it over a picture of Morgan Freeman. Social media is not a force for uniformly good or bad, but rather a tool that can promote awareness.

Do you think social media and awareness could affect political outcomes, necessarily?

Awareness does lead to outcomes, in some sense. Our government representatives take signals they get from voters and fill in the blanks- the more informed voters are, the more constrained politicians are. The extent that social media promotes actual knowledge, can really reign leaders in.

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In 2012, a Pew research study found that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report’s viewers were overwhelmingly young and liberal- 43 percent of viewers are under 30 and 45 percent of viewers identify themselves as liberal when given the choice between Republican, Independent or Liberal. In your opinion, is it a positive thing that most people who watch shows such as the Colbert Report are overwhelmingly young and liberal? Is it better than nothing? Would they otherwise tune out any political information?

People who watch the Daily Show do end up learning about politics, but it tends to make them a bit more cynical about the political process, …which leads to decreased participation. If they are tuning in to laugh, they learn in the process and then vote- and that really does matter. There are positive and negative effects, but the positive effects are larger. They accidentally learn in the process and are in turn better citizens.

Also, is there such a thing as satire and comedy bias? Could the fact that Colbert and Stewart pull out the comedic parts of news stories be good for democracy?

Some information is inherently easier to frame in a funny way that others, and a lot of important and complex issues are left out. Colbert’s campaign finance reform discussion is really difficult- and the fact that he was able to present it in a funny way speaks to his particular ability to do what he’s doing. There’s no one besides Colbert that could talk about the intricacies of campaign finance in a way that is appealing to the masses.

Lastly, do you think Colbert or Stewart are in the comedic business, or do they have alternative political messages they are trying to convey?

I don’t think there is a hidden political agenda- Stewart tends to be liberal, he doesn’t try to hide that, and he picks on conservative causes much more frequently, but tailoring content to his liberal audience. He is driven by audience demands, a result of the entire media marketplace being driven by consumer demand.

A political study focused on people’s perceptions of Colbert showed that viewers tend to see what they want to see, sort of a magic eye in which people who are liberal see him as liberal, and people who are conservative seem his as fairly moderate.

So would you say that Colbert and Stewart are acting as a function of their audience?

Yes, absolutely.

Much, if not all, of the popular coverage focused on the future of journalism and the effect of social media has been negative. Can you think of any ways our media landscape has actually improved in recent years, or if the way that media/journalism now operates has any beneficial effects?

I do think that simply having more media resources certainly allows people to seek out whatever kind of information they want, and they’re better able at doing that now than in the past. And so that’s a good thing from a freedom of choice standpoint. It’s bad from the extent that it causes people to systematically avoid political information (in favor of more entertaining info) because we want people to know about politics, because we want good citizens, and because we want a good government.

The other thing that’s certainly good is I do think that social media is a unique tool for organizing collective action. All of politics depends on collective action. Things don’t get done unless you can find a group and mobilize them. And so it’s much easier to mobilize with those kind of tools of communication; that’s probably the best aspect for democracy: it provides a tool, but a tool is only as good as whatever the aims of the people who use it. It’s not some sort of cure-all that’s going to get us to some much better place but it can allow us to mobilize and focus on issues that wouldn’t otherwise be addressed.

We can think of social media, especially with something like the Arab Spring, as a tool for grassroots movements, but at the same time, I can remember criticism from back when the Tea Party started. Dick Armey and lobbyist groups were seen as actually funding and were the force behind the apparent grassroots movement.

Well, there’s always going to be an important role of money in politics. But I think there’s a lot to be said of the Tea Party as a mobilization effort, a very closely coordinated mobilization effort that did start at the grassroots level. It’s not like these people didn’t exist before and suddenly in 2010, they emerged out of nowhere and made a group… It’s hard to tell the extent to which the Tea Party was influential or whether the Tea Party itself emerged out of a reaction to Barack Obama’s election and healthcare reform. It could just be whenever we have legislation that’s too liberal, a conservative voice emerges and likewise whenever we have policy that’s too conservative, a liberal voice emerges.

What, if any, consensus exists among media scholars about how well our media works? What do media scholars generally believe about the strengths and flaws of American media? Do scholars agree about possible biases?

There is a lot of consensus about the dramatization and sensationalist biases of the media. Basically everyone agrees that there’s these marketplace demands, you need to attract viewers or draw in readers to get clicks. Typically the best way to do this is to dramatize everything. Most scholars agree that you have a strong bias for episodic stories, where you have an emphasis on individual actors rather than groups or processes.

There’s much less agreement on the extent of political biases that are uniform across the media. But everyone agrees that there’s this bias towards more sensationalism and drama, and in some sense that may contribute to an anti-government bias as it disconnects people’s perceptions of what’s driving the news from systematic causes. It makes it harder to see how some sort of government intervention could have some effect on these processes.

There’s a lot of research that shows that the more episodic some stories are framed, the less likely they are to support government involvement on a particular topic. They don’t see the connection between the individual event in the story and whatever processes actually shape that event and others like it.

What are your current areas of research?

The most relevant research I’m doing to these questions is my work with Professor Boydstun on studying the effects of presidential debates on individual attitudes and behaviors. What we want to know is the extent of which individual moments or statements actually influence people, if they do at all. You could make an argument that what the candidates are saying doesn’t actually matter too much, certainly if you say something wrong or embarrassing that might hurt your chances, like the case of Rick Perry during the primaries… we’re trying to get a sense of whether different rhetorical strategies, different statements, whether they actually influence people.

That’s stuff that’s never been done. There are really basic questions that haven’t been addressed in a comprehensive and systematic way because it’s tough to get data on these questions…

Have you examined Mitt Romney’s gaffe during his 2012 Presidential campaign? The 47 percent remark.

I haven’t personally, but we actually spent some time on that question in my research methods class. A lot of people will claim that he lost the election because of that tape. I don’t believe it… What you’d expect if that tape reduced support for Romney ( if you were looking at opinion polls of Romney the day after it became known) there would be less support than the day before, and that’s true. But it was decreasing even before that tape became public knowledge and was continuing at the same trend. So more than likely, that particular statement didn’t have a big effect.. You could probably name 100 things more important than that tape, and at the top of the list would be the improving economy and the fact that Obama was an incumbent.

Clearly the media is flawed in the way it operates. But is there any way to correct for these inherent flaws? Are there any other plausible scenarios in which our media system may actually improve in the future?

Well, most of the negative things we’ve talked about the current media landscape in the United States are driven by corporate ownership of the media. That means that profit is the bottom line and they’re trying to tailor content to audience demands. So it’s really up to the audience, if they demanded more accountability in the news, the type that could hold representatives accountable for their actions, they would have it. That’s asking a lot, and I don’t expect to see that happening, but it provides hope. It’s up to us as citizens and individuals to demand that type of news, so if there’s some way of coordinating that demand we could see that type of reform. I don’t think that’s likely but I think it’s possible.

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