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Researchers discuss how media report on complex information

The wide variety of information sources in the 21st century – coupled with a news media industry weakened by budget cuts – requires citizens to more closely evaluate the motives of governments and businesses that are today in a better position to push their own agendas, according to a panel of researchers who spoke Tuesday for an inaugural conference on politics and the media hosted by Elon University.

Panelists in the opening session of the two-day media & politics conference included (from left): Donald Shaw of UNC Chapel Hill, Barbara Miller of Elon, Sarah Cohen of Duke University and Dave Gammon of Elon. Elon professor Laura Roselle (far right) moderated the discussion.

The opening session of the conference, Media and Politics: Openness, Accuracy, and Honesty in the 21st Century Media Landscape, included observations by Elon University faculty, as well as distinguished professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and from Duke University, on how media portray complex information in ways the public can understand it.

Panelists were Donald Shaw, the Kenan Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC Chapel Hill; Sarah Cohen, the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, Public Policy at Duke University; Barbara Miller, an assistant professor of communications at Elon; and Dave Gammon, an assistant professor of biology at Elon.

“The press tells us what to think about. It doesn’t tell us what to think,” Shaw said during the discussion, which included questions from the guests who filled Room 212 of McCoy Commons. “Keep widening and looking at new sources (for news) constantly, fertilizing your own mind.”

Miller, who studies how audiences interpret marketplace advocacy campaigns that try to sway public perception of an industry or issue, added her own advice for conference attendees. “Do your own research and do your own fact-checking of media,” she said. “And look for motivations … the underlying factors at stake.”

Cohen made similar comments when asked what advice she could share with students. “If somebody can’t tell me how they know something, look further,” she said.

Gammon joined the panel after writing a series of columns for the Times-News newspaper in Burlington, N.C., in mid 2010. His series on the science of climate change was intended to separate the science from the politics of global warming, and the experience proved to be educational for him as well.

“What really burned me last summer was that people confused the human elements of climate change with the science,” he said. “I truly believe there are a lot of people out there who aren’t dumb … they just haven’t been exposed to what scientists have figured out.”

The Media and Politics conference is made possible by Elon University’s Turnage Family Faculty Innovation and Creativity Fund for the Study of Political Communication.

The Turnage Family Faculty Innovation and Creativity Fund for the Study of Political Communication emerged in 2010 through a gift from Dave Turnage, a former associate dean at Alamance Community College who wants to help the public understand the information they receive through emails, blogs, newspapers and television reports.

The two-day conference also includes panels on challenges for government officials, challenges for journalists and a public roundtable discussion open to students, faculty, staff and members of the greater community.

Frank Sesno, a professor of media and public affairs and international affairs, and director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, will serve as the conference keynote speaker on March 29.

Eric Townsend,
3/29/2011 4:50 PM