President's column

We need to be keenly aware of the potentially dangerous role of social media, or “cyber cascades,” as it has been called, in which information — true or false and often anonymous — spreads like wildfire.

By Phyllis R. Koch-Sheras, PhD

Congratulations and thanks to all those who worked so hard on the APA Annual Convention and the name change for the division. Now that those things are accomplished, we can move forward on the Media Ethics Casebook and other important projects. A proposal for the Casebook will be submitted to APA Publishing soon. Please let me know if you would like to be involved in that project. All are welcome.

Speaking of ethics and the media, my Presidents Address at the Convention in August (8/3/12), as some of you know, was a panel entitled “Civil Discourse in the Media: An Oxymoron.” (You can read a review of Dr. Pauline Wallin’s informative presentation on that panel in this Newsletter.) Also presenting interesting viewpoints were Dr. Mary Alvord and a representative of the local Orlando news media. The Presidential Trio has been a living example of civil discourse throughout our meetings this year, and we continued to model that in our presentation on the panel. (No incivility demonstrated — just cooperation and the facts!) I wanted to take this opportunity to share here some of the facts and thoughts that I presented on that panel.

Words are powerful emotional triggers. Throughout history, going back to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, our country has always had intense debates on important issues. However, it seems that we have entered an era of unusual intensity and velocity of partisan bile with an escalation of the dialogue in politics, on the internet, television and radio, and in the print media about healthcare, abortion, gay marriage, and so on. Dr. Wallin gives significant statistics on this. As media psychologists, we need to be keenly aware of the potentially dangerous role of social media, or “cyber cascades,” as it has been called, in which information — true or false and often anonymous — spreads like wildfire.

We might ask ourselves why there is so much incivility in the media these days. It may partly be due to the competition for votes and ratings. There is often a focus on the negative, sensational, or outrageous because that brings in more listeners, viewers and potential voters. In the media, the sensation seems to trump substance. Another reason may be the lack of investigative reporters in a tight economic environment, leaving a vacuum filled by the internet catering to personal perspectives. There is an absence there of complexity and informed civil discourse and argumentation.

Another reason for the incivility may be the view that free speech is an absolute. Certainly, all views are important to be recognized, but points of view should be made responsibly with distinctions clarified and sources acknowledged. We need to educate ourselves and others. There is now a whole generation of people who, in the words of journalist Kathleen Parker, “have spent a frightening percentage of their lives consuming data in a world of tweets, blogs and food-fight commentators for whom fame is a goal and reality a show.” Civil discourse and ethical behavior starts at home. We can’t depend on the government to regulate it; we need to regulate ourselves. We can start by talking and listening to our colleagues, family, and friends respectfully and by encouraging others to do so.

I have learned from my work with couples over the years that lifelong love can be sustained through accomplishing Four Cs: commitment, cooperation, communication, and community. That means committing to cooperate and communicate with our partner respectfully and compassionately. Cooperation in this sense is compromise in which both partners win by working together to achieve a common vision. When we all realize that we are working toward the common good, perhaps that goal will encourage engaging in more civil discourse to accomplish it. That takes a community of people working together, whether it is to strengthen couples or society in general.

Hopefully, fostering and teaching self-control and boundaries to our kids and others will encourage critical thinking and ethical behavior and reduce incivility in the media — and even the incidence of violence in society. Social programs like the News Literacy Project and the Center for News Literacy are addressing these issues. As media psychologists, we might want to take on media literacy training in the schools. Any suggestions or ideas for projects in this regard that our division might pursue are welcome. There will likely always be incivility and violence in the media, but by being vigilant and active, we can make a difference in our profession, in the media, and in the world.