Choosing Words Carefully

How the Media Directs the Tone of Political Discourse

Experts discuss the role of the media in the tone of political speech in the United States at a CAP event.

For more on this event, click here.

The increasingly divisive and heated tone of political speech in the United States is a great source of concern for many Americans. While the causes of such charged rhetoric are likely diverse, the media seems to play an important role in shaping and directing the tone of such discourse, according to experts gathered for an event at the Center for American Progress.

CAP hosted a presentation and panel discussion on April 12, 2011, to address the causes and consequences of divisive political rhetoric. The event focused primarily on issues concerning LGBT rights, immigration, Muslim relations, and the role the media plays in connecting the public with those issues.

Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, began the event with an insightful presentation of survey data about Americans’ positions on the tone of political speech. According to Jones, Americans by a margin of 2-to-1 found the last election cycle to be more negative than previous elections.

One-third of respondents found both parties to be at fault for the negative political tone, though a greater number or respondents blamed Republicans than Democrats.

On specific issues, Jones also found that political views strongly correlated with respondents’ most trusted media source. For instance, 70 percent of respondents who trusted Fox most stated that Islam was incompatible with an American way of life, whereas 70 percent of those who trusted public broadcasting most stated that it was compatible. Interestingly, the preferred choice of broadcasting was the best predictor for such views, suggesting the media plays a large role in shaping American political views.

Jones’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Center for American Progress Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy Angela Kelley. Panelists were Jones; Andrea Nill, Immigration Researcher for; former Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe; and Arab American Institute President James Zogby.

Consistent with Jones’s presentation, the panelists agreed the media was often responsible for promulgating misleading information. Zogby, who has worked extensively as an advocate for Arab Americans, argued that media outlets frequently perpetuated information that portrayed Muslims in an unflattering light. He argued that this has very real social and political consequences: “The problem is just not people not knowing, it’s people thinking they know. … being ignorant can be difficult, but being ignorant and thinking you’re right is dangerous.”

Jones cited statistics showing most Americans were uninformed about Islam. “Only 4 in 10 Americans say they know any Muslims at all … [and] the number of people who say they’re feel informed about Islam are about 45 percent. … we’re operating in this kind of vacuum of information, so people are more susceptible to images they get from the media,” he stated.

Speaking to the issue of immigration, Nill argued that media representation had been responsible for the shift in rhetoric concerning Latinos in the United States. Nill said that when she joined CAP three years ago, the passage of comprehensive immigration reform looked promising. Then, the tone quickly changed:

S.B. 1070 passed, and that changed everything. All of a sudden we weren’t talking about immigration reform—we were talking about beheadings, we were talking about a majority of undocumented immigrants being drug mules, we were talking about a war at the Mexican border. … the language was always colored with this anti-Latino sentiment.

Though panelists acknowledged the disturbing trends concerning views on immigration and Muslims, they still maintained an optimistic outlook regarding the future of political discourse—and more specifically, policy itself—in the United States.

Despite recent events that have suggested strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, most notably the debate over Park 51, Jones cited a more hopeful figure. According to survey data, 62 percent of Americans agreed Islam was an important part of the political landscape—and that number was on the upswing. Would Americans be fully accepting of Islam into the social fabric of the United States?

“Americans, I think, are willing to go there,” Jones said.

With respect to LGBT acceptance, Congressman Kolbe said younger demographics were more open to LGBT rights and issues. Kolbe said a journalist acquaintance of his had conducted a survey showing that young self-identified Republicans and evangelicals were more accepting of gay marriage than older self-identified liberals. Thus, Kolbe concluded, “It’s an entirely generational thing.”

Andrea Nill reinforced Kolbe’s point with a number of statistics about the political stances of young people: “The Millennials are more progressive than past generations. … 67 percent believe immigration strengthens Americans, two-thirds support legalization, 64 percent believe religious faith should focus on tolerance … and 58 percent support allowing gays to marry. … this is a changing spirit of America.”

It is incumbent upon politicians and media alike to civilize the tone of political discourse. Discussions of policy should not have the effect of stoking hatred and anger towards others. But though today’s rhetorical landscape might be troubling, Nill perhaps summarized best why, given the demographic changes afoot, one ought to maintain hope: “It’s not a question of … if the rhetoric is going to improve; it’s a question of when.”

For more on this event, click here.

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