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County leaders can play role in helping fix ‘crisis in American civility’

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Key Takeaways

A current “crisis in American civility” can be traced back to changes in journalism and social media in the past few decades, but county officials can play a role in fixing the problem, according to longtime journalist Joan Lunden.

“Those of us in the journalism world and those in the political arena are facing some of the same challenges, together, like public trust — how did we get here?” asked Lunden, a best-selling author and former co-anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

General Session #2

July 23, 2023

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“Our parents and grandparents always started their day reading a newspaper,” she noted. “Today, only 6% say they start their day reading a newspaper.”

“Today, when people wake up, and they learn about what’s going on in the world, what do they do? We all know what they do,” she said. “They look at their phones.”

“And there’s also been an increasing number of alternative news sources that may come available on those phones,” she noted. “Need I point out the quality of some of these new sources? I hesitate to call them news sources. Even the most unreliable and discredited and unresearched sources of information are attracting more viewers every day. So authoritative news outlets are finding themselves these days competing with purveyors of what’s being called news, but it is often made-up news or conspiracy theories.”

The problem is twofold, she said. “People can’t always discern what they’re viewing. And now they spend very little time and form a very quick uneducated opinion after viewing a two-minute video on YouTube. They think they know more than if they read an article or a news report based on well-researched, credible evidence.”

Lunden pointed out that in a recent Pew Research study, more than half of all journalists say a lack of trust in news is the most challenging problem in modern journalism. In that same study, she noted, American consumers of media say they also feel that made-up news and misinformation, especially when it is made to incite fear and mistrust, is a critical problem. In fact, they said it was a bigger problem than most key issues in the country.

“That concern over misinformation and divisive rhetoric …. It was above terrorism, illegal immigration, racism and roughly on par with violent crime and climate change,” Lunden said.

Social media, she said, was designed initially to “bring us closer together and stay connected, and yet, that same technology can push us apart, polarize us and divide us.”

Misinformation on social media and politically slanted news channels have contributed to the crisis in American civility, she said.

“And I think that affects people’s ability to stay positive and hopeful, both personally and professionally. I personally wish we could turn back the clock, but I’m afraid we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube as they say.

“How do we fix this?” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has examples of how to bring back a return to civility, she said. 

The first recommendation is to be a leader, set an example and set a tone of respect and call out bad behavior in your own party. Another is to avoid jokes that dehumanize people. It was also recommended to be kinder on social media.

“Quite frankly, the American public is absolutely exhausted from all of it,” she said. “It’s our democracy and it’s our incredible way of life that is so worth the effort.”

 

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