Do news providers have any effect on public participation in policy-making? Perhaps not, according to a recent paper released by a prominent think tank. The increase of easily accessible information—through a 24-hour news cycle, social media, and Internet webpages—appears to be having little effect.
The paper’s authors, Darrell M. West and Beth Stone of the Brookings Institution, argue that many news media outlets fail to engage the public in a meaningful analysis of current policy issues. The authors list a number of problems that contribute to polarization, inaccuracy, and shallowness in news reporting. Among them, the public’s desire for constant and immediate news content, increased competition from mobile and social media, pressure to report content first to gain attention, and a short “half-life” for individual news stories.
The authors argue that as news media outlets struggle to compete with instant, user-generated social content, they increasingly blur the boundaries between news, opinion and ‘infotainment.’ The paper’s authors suggest this trend is particularly harmful since user-generated social media content is full of inaccuracies and bias, and may rapidly become viral—thus misinforming large groups of people very quickly.
By imitating the competition, traditional news providers fail to “educate and inform the citizenry,” and instead serve simply “to entertain and grab the all-powerful click of consumers.” Further, the absence of meaningful news analysis “creates an end product which is not terribly informative in terms of public policy coverage.”
The paper’s authors join a choir of scholars disenchanted with the inability of new media to engage the American public in a concrete manner. However, the Brookings paper goes a step further by suggesting that news providers fail to instill the mindset necessary for meaningful civic involvement, if it ever does occur.
According to a variety of scholars, there is a potential for media outlets – old and new –to increase the public’s engagement in civic discourse. Some have argued that social media platforms in particular—for example, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others—increase political engagement by youth as well as allow users to disseminate a variety of information, explore social issues, and form or shape politically-oriented groups. Nonetheless, there are few concrete measurements of changes in public participation; these studies focus mostly on informal interactions between individuals, rather than measurable engagement with policymaking institutions.
The potential for increasing public engagement has hardly escaped notice. President Obama has emphasized the ability of Internet and social media tools to inform and increase public participation in policy-making.
Public participation during the agency rulemaking process is already required by statute and executive order, although agencies independently decide how to encourage public participation. To nudge agencies toward increased online engagement with the public, the President issued an executive order in 2011 detailing at least two specific ways that agencies should try to increase public participation in rulemaking. The order requested that federal agencies provide the public with a “meaningful opportunity to comment” on proposed regulations by accepting comments over the Internet and by making related research findings available on Regulations.gov. The order was consistent with the White House’s Open Government Initiative, which aimed to improve governmental decisions by increasing the public’s awareness of, and involvement in, policy making. Efforts at increasing public awareness and involvement included the use of a wide variety of new media to disburse information.
Other scholars have expressed concern. They suggest the effect of social media content on public policymaking still remains uncertain, and that open government efforts may not effectively foster conversations between the public and their government.
Angela Evans and Adriana Campos have argued that recent open government efforts fail to increase public participation substantially, since they provide crude information rather than a nuanced analysis of facts and policy problems. Researchers for the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI) would agree. They argue that increasing the public’s information access does not lead to fruitful discussions. They suggest crude information may actually overwhelm and intimidate readers, and thus stunt meaningful public participation. The result, according to Cary Coglianese, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is that existing obstacles to citizen participation simply become “digitized,” rather than eliminated. When the public’s engagement in policy-making is measured empirically, there is no discernible increase in participation following new media and Open Government initiatives.
Like the Brookings paper, CeRI scholars suggest that users need to be educated “overtly and covertly” to be willing and effective civic participants. According to a CeRI report, even if public participation were to take place under the current system, the character and quality of that participation might not meaningfully engage policy problems if the public is incapable of analyzing the available crude information.
Overall, critics seem to agree that the level of information consumed, and number of opinions generated through social media, may not be an accurate reflection of the public’s readiness and willingness to participate thoughtfully in official policymaking processes.
And if the authors of the recent Brookings paper are correct, the public will be unable to meaningfully engage policymakers, even once they learn about a policy issue through their news provider.
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Elizabeth Warren is the senior United States Senator from Massachusetts. Senator Warren has served in the Senate since 2012, and she is the ranking member on the Economic Policy Subcommittee of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. She was the driving force behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and in 2008, she headed the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Jason Furman is the 28th Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, a role in which he serves as President Obama’s Chief Economist and as a Member of the President’s Cabinet. A member of President Obama’s Administration since the start of his presidency, Chairman Furman previously served as Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council and as Assistant to the President.
Jed S. Rakoff
Jed S. Rakoff is a United States District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York. He ascended to the bench in 1996 after being nominated by President Bill Clinton, and he assumed senior status on December 31, 2010. He is a leading authority in securities law and white-collar crime as well as a prolific writer, having authored four books, 100 published articles, over 220 speeches, and over 425 judicial opinions.
Susan Dudley is the Director of the GW Regulatory Studies Center and distinguished professor of practice at GW’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. She serves as president of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis, and as a senior fellow of the Administrative Conference of the United States. She served from 2007 to 2009 as the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget.
Richard L. Hasen
Richard L. Hasen is the Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. A leading expert in campaign finance regulation and election law, he is the author of the book, Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections, as well as the writer of the widely regarded Election Law Blog.
Wendell Pritchett is the Presidential Professor of Law and Education at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and he is a recognized leader in the field of higher education. He was Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Policy under Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who later appointed him to the School Reform Commission, where he served from 2011 to 2014. He also served as Chancellor of Rutgers-Camden from 2009 to 2014.
Mike Lee is the junior United States Senator from Utah. He is the Chairman of the Senate Steering Committee; the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights; and the Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He was previously General Counsel to Utah Governor Jon Hunstman, and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Patricia L. Bellia
Patricia L. Bellia is Notre Dame Law School’s William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Professor of Law. A teacher and researcher in multiple areas including constitutional law, administrative law, and cyberlaw, Professor Bellia is co-author of a leading cyberlaw casebook and has published articles on internet law and separation of powers. She previously served as an attorney-adviser in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Donald C. Langevoort
Donald C. Langevoort is the Thomas Aquinas Professor of Law at Georgetown University. He was previously Vanderbilt University School of Law’s Lee S. and Charles A. Speir Professor, and the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission’s Special Counsel in the Office of the General Counsel. An authority in the area of securities regulation, he is the co-author of a securities regulation casebook and author of a treatise on insider trading.
Rena Steinzor is a professor at the University of Maryland Carey Law School. She is a founder, former president, and member scholar of the Center for Progressive Reform. She teaches and has authored and co-authored books on administrative law, consumer safety, public health, and environmental law. She has testified before Congress multiple times, addressing such issues as the impact of health, safety, and environmental regulations on the economy.
Richard L. Revesz
Richard L. Revesz is New York University School of Law’s Director of the Institute for Policy Integrity and the Lawrence King Professor of Law. From 2002 to 2013, Professor Revesz was the Dean of NYU School of Law. He is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of environmental and regulatory law and policy, with a focus on issues including the use of cost-benefit analysis in administrative regulation.
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