Published on Thursday, January 13, 2011 by YES! Magazine Words Matter: How Media Can Build Civility or Destroy It The media can, as we know, promote fear, hatred, and extremism. Can it also lead us to greater civility and more productive debate?
by Sarah van Gelder and Brooke Jarvis
"Just as media outlets have been used to create a pervasive sense of fear, they have also been used to convince people that conflict is inevitable. This leaves media consumers resigned to the notion that conflict will happen."
Those words could have been used to describe an increasingly hostile and provocative media in the United States. In fact, they were written to describe the use of the media to incite Hutus to slaughter their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
After Jared Loughner opened fire at a political event for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona, attention quickly focused on the role that divisive and aggressive media may have played in his actions. Pima Country Sheriff Clarence Dupnik lamented "the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government."
Members of the media were quick to defend themselves. Any discussion of possible political motives, the editors of the National Review wrote, constitute a "vile attempt to tar the opposition with the crimes of a lunatic so as to render illegitimate the views of about half of America."
The reasons for Loughner's actions are still unclear, and evidence suggests that he is mentally ill. We can't know at this point what role media provocation may have played in his decision. Indeed, his actions raise as many questions about our policies on gun ownership and mental illness as they do about our political climate.
At the very least, though, this should be a moment to reflect on the role that media can play in directing the political dialogue in this country. It can, as we know, promote fear, hatred, and extremism. Can it also lead us to greater civility and more productive debate?