UW-Madison journalism, media experts discuss political discourse in a digital age

A panel discussion sponsored by the Bipartisan Issues Group and the UW-Madison chapter of Society of Professional Journalists debated the effects of media innovations and their implications on the political process Monday night.

The panel consisted of three speakers and focused on new ways of informing the youth, online commentary in the digital age and how traditional media lives on.

Chris Wells, an assistant professor of UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, opened the discussion by describing five separate paths for news to reach consumers.

The first three—journalism, strategic communication and personal interaction—were already well-established practices, Wells said. However, the two new paths—social media and algorithmic targeting—reshape the media landscape and the way people receive news.

Despite the development of social media, Wells maintained the importance of traditional journalism.

“Journalists are one crucial channel that still provides information to us, even if we get all of our news from Facebook,” he said.

Wells concluded his lecture by pointing out that media innovations have allowed politicians to side-step journalists in an attempt to reach their target audience directly through social media and email.

Michael Xenos, a communication arts professor at UW-Madison, led the discussion on digital commentary, stressing his disappointment in political discourse found online.

“The story of Internet research and politics is that it’s so hard to make these sweeping generalizations of commentaries,” Xenos said. “So much is context dependent.”

Originally, the Internet was believed to be an ideal location for political debate, serving as a marketplace of ideas. Instead, negativity and insensitivity dominate the vast majority of online discussions, leaving little tangible benefit for participants in online discussions, Xenos said.

Robert Schwoch, a lecturer and undergraduate advisor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, concluded by speculating about the future of traditional media.

He emphasized the importance of objectivity and transparency in journalism, especially in light of sponsored news stories.

“For objective news to work, people have got to know it’s objective,” Schwoch said.

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