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Columnist addresses politics and journalism

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Friday, February 8, 2013

 

American Studies professor Jack Colwell delivered the fourth and final lecture in the Mendoza College of Business Ethics Week series Thursday, stressing the public’s responsibility to stay informed and invested in politics without falling into the trap of “taking things for granted.”

Colwell, who is also a political columnist for The South Bend Tribune, framed his discussion of ethics with the interaction between politicians and journalists, two entities that deeply affect the public experience of government. He said the role of the journalist has shifted to accommodate the partisanship and divisive nature of politics today.

“Many viewers seek out the news that they want to believe,” Colwell said. “Objectivity is boring and fact-checking is biased if those facts dispute what you want to believe.”

The business of journalism affects the content of the message the public receives, Colwell said, and voters today are very willing to avoid logic and rationality in order to doggedly adhere to their political parties of choice.

“Voters want to believe what is claimed by candidates and commentators of their particular side of the political spectrum,” Colwell said. “They think the other side must be lying, must be cheating, must be stealing the election, must be defeated.”

Colwell discussed the prevalence of negative political advertisements and their success in altering the public opinion of political figures. The ads’ target populations take the policies of their affiliated parties for granted and assume these loyalties should supersede practicality, he said.

The parties’ unwillingness to compromise severely inhibits legislative productivity and polarizes news outlets, Colwell said.

“In Congress, it is easy to spout anger at any time, for any purpose, in any way and that is not good for democracy,” he said. “Divisiveness and anger in politics is not totally uncommon … but [compromise] is something I fear we lack today.”

Colwell said the increased number of news sources, legitimate or not, creates a disconnect between the reality of politics and public awareness.  

“Don’t think that [everyone] is providing unbiased news or objective news,” Colwell said. “I hate the term ‘news media.’ The term has come to encompass everything from The Wall Street Journal to tabloids at the supermarket … to Twitter to some blogger writing in the basement in his underwear.

“The term now means anything and everything and thus, it now means nothing.”

Colwell said the unbiased presentation of facts and political information is an important part of journalists’ duty, and society needs more qualified reporters to take on this mission.

“We need reliable news in our democracy, even if it isn’t coming from newspapers delivered on our porch like it used to be,” Colwell said. “We need real journalists. We need real news. We can’t rely on what is said by that blogger in the basement, nor can we rely on what politicians say in their 30-second spots.”

The ethical dilemma of the political media relates to the unbiased presentation of facts, Colwell said. The manipulation of public opinion to win elections is a dangerous, ignoble result of the media culture today.

“It’s possible, though I won’t say probable, that the voters will stop taking things for granted,” Colwell said. “And if they do, the political consultants will respond. Their job is to win and the negative attacks have won [in the past], but if that changes, their strategies will change as w