Political Communication

Course Description: We examine the intersection of politics and communication. For example, we cover politics and media, interpersonal political discussion, organizational and governmental political communication, political campaigns, politics and technology, etc. Moreover, we cover the effects of political communication on individuals’ opinions and behavior. 

COURSE LEARNING OUTCOMES

Comic by American editorial cartoonist Donald Gordon “Don” Addis (1935-2009)
  1. Understand, observe, and evaluate political communication at various levels: interpersonal, family, group, and mass media
  2. Explain how political communication can impact the individual as well as society
  3. Apply communication theories to the analysis of media and politics
  4. Apply communication theories to the research, construction, and execution of a communication campaigns
  5. Deliver a prepared, recorded presentation in a natural, confident, and conversational manner  
  6. Interact effectively with classmates, engage opposing viewpoints constructively, and demonstrate perspective-taking skills.

COURSE EXPECTATIONS

Professional Skills: No matter what your future profession is, these skills are essential. Each of these skills is used in this course.

Textbook front cover.

Required Textbook: The Dynamics of Political Communication: Media and Politics in a Digital Age (2nd Edition) by Richard M. Perloff.
  1. Information Literacy:
    • Gather, evaluate, assess, and properly use research sources.
    • Access diverse information through focused research, active discussion, and collaboration with peers.
    • Recognize and synthesize multiple perspectives to develop innovative viewpoints.
    • Analyze one’s own and others’ assumptions and evaluate the relevance of contexts when presenting a position.
  2. Reading Comprehension – The ability to understand and remember what you have read. The ability to apply this comprehension to the evaluation of new contexts.
  3. Written, Oral, and Digital Communication – The ability to assemble and present empirical evidence to make reasoned arguments in writing and with spoken words.
  4. Interpersonal and Group Communication – The ability to work effectively with different people as a member of a team.
  5. Leadership – The ability to lead a diverse group of people to achieve a common goal.

On Being Challenged, Uncomfortable, Offended, and Passionate

Many issues that we cover are politically and socially controversial. Students in this class come from a variety of personal and academic backgrounds, so realize that they may look at these issues from different perspectives. Expect to disagree with what others say. Listening, questioning, and debate are encouraged, but personal attacks are not.

We will talk about compromise a lot in this class. This is not compromise, but it is funny. And I love cats.

To a substantial extent, the benefits derived from this course are facilitated by students’ willingness to expose their thoughts and their work to the scrutiny of the instructor and their peers. Although scrutiny can involve criticism and questioning, you are NOT permitted to be threatening toward others. You cannot question someone’s identity and the value of their identity.

You ARE allowed to be emotional, angry, sad, excited, etc.  Active listening, perspective-taking, and empathy are essential when trying to learn. In other words, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes before speaking critically about someone else.

Psychological biases, such as confirmation bias and in-group vs. out-group blame attribution, impact us all. We will talk about how psychological biases impact our media consumption and how we can overcome these biases to become stronger information consumers.

I am not saying that you have to agree with the person! In fact, you may even be shocked or offended by the other person. You may even find yourself angry or upset. If that happens, feel free to passionately express your own thoughts. But please do think like a social scientist and try to understand why others hold their perspectives. Also, understand the persuasive power of perspective-taking. Before we influence or change other people’s opinions, attitudes, thoughts, etc., we need to understand their views.

Again, when discussing class content, your job is to approach these controversial topics as if you were a social scientist. It is still OK to use your personal experience when thinking about how others respond to politics. However, we must be careful not to use our personal experiences and anecdotes as evidence when we generalize about human behavior. Just because you think something, doesn’t mean that everyone thinks the same.

It is possible that we will discuss content that you may find objectionable. This could range from information with which you disagree, criticism of certain political figures, or specific content. Any criticism is non-partisan. That is, as social scientists, we question and criticism everyone and everything, regardless of our personal beliefs and allegiances.  

Be curious. Push yourself to be open to new ideas, even if it’s uncomfortable. Learning and growth doesn’t always come easy. There’s nothing wrong with us for that. It just makes us human.

ENRICHMENT AND ENGAGEMENT

Screaming into the Void: How Outrage is Hijacking Our Culture and Our Minds

Hidden Brain is a weekly podcast that examines social psychology and most of its sources are professors, researchers, writers, and other experts on the topics.

This particular 42-minute episode “Screaming into the void” is about outrage culture, politics, media, and social psychology. I think you will both enjoy and learn quite a bit from this podcast.

Researchers say our modern culture of outrage draws on deep evolutionary roots. Image by Jan Stromme/Getty Images

As you listen, please consider the following questions:

  1. Who benefits from this outrage? What do they gain from an outraged public?
  2. What are some strategies that you can do to avoid being manipulated by outrage?
  3. How does your news diet (i.e., where you get your news) impact your outrage? How can you improve your news diet to minimize the outrage?
American Democracy: “Productive Conflict,” Or A Dumpster Fire?

We have been conflicted in the past, just as we are today. Our differences and divisions have garnered substantial press coverage over the history of our nation.

Let’s learn more about: How political conflict and divisions can be used to the benefit of our democracy and how the present polarized environment can be viewed in the long view.

Listen to the 37-minute Hidden Brain podcast titled “American Democracy: “Productive Conflict,” Or A Dumpster Fire?”

A 17-year-old Civil Rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963. This image led the front page of the next day’s New York Times. Bill Hudson/ASSOCIATED PRESS

As you listen, consider the following questions:

  1. What did you learn about the concept of political conflict?
  2. How did MLK (and the civil rights movement) use television to their benefit during that era of political conflict?
  3. How are President Trump and his administration using television, Twitter, or other platforms to their benefit during this era of political conflict?
  4. What view do you take on the future of American democracy, political conflict, and political polarization? Are you hopeful? Worried? Why?
The Choice: Trump vs. Biden

We are going to watch a two-hour Frontline documentary called The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden

This is a very thorough biographical look at the two candidates for president. I absolutely guarantee that you will learn a lot about Trump and Biden. Interviews range from supporters and opponents of the two men to journalists and authors reporting on the two men. 

Watch the documentary here

As you view the documentary, please answer the following questions:

  1. Apply the concept of political socialization to the (a) Trump family and (b) Biden family. How were (a) Trump and (b) Biden socialized into politics? What early events in their lives impacted their political views, engagement, and behavior?
  2. To what extent does the documentary frame (a) Trump and (b) Biden as populist leaders? Remember that populist frames are essentially identity politics. ‘Ordinary people’ are the in-group and portrayed as being threatened by various out-groups, such as the out-groups of: (a) Political elites: They are blamed for societal or economic problems harming ordinary people, and they are accused of actively working against them. This is anti-elitist identity framing and relies on anti-establishmentism. (b) Immigrants: Another strategy is to blame immigrants for social problems. This is exclusionist identity framing and relies on nativism. Populism makes the ‘social stranger’ your ‘social enemy’.
  3. What does the documentary reveal about (a) Trump’s relationship with news media and journalists, and (b) Biden’s relationship with news media and journalists? When (a) Trump and (b) Biden face political challenges, how do they use (or treat) the media to their advantage?
  4. How does Trump’s entertainment show The Apprentice relate to his style of politics, political communication, and/or political behavior as a presidential candidate and now the president?
  5. How do Biden’s appearances on political entertainment shows and his appearances at various events as vice president relate to his style of politics, political communication, and/or political behavior?  
  6. How does the documentary frame Trump vs. Biden? Why? What evidence did the documentary present to justify this framing?
  7. Finally, what new information did you learn about (a) Trump and (b) Biden that surprised you and/or impacted you in a meaningful way? 
The Facebook Dilemma

This is a deep dive into misinformation, social media, polarization, and microtargeting. Watch Part 1 and Part 2 of The Facebook Dilemma. Consider these questions:

Watch The Facebook Dilemma here
  1. How were the Arab Spring uprisings connected with Facebook? How did Facebook influence this political activism in positive ways and negative ways?
  2. There were “blind spots” in Facebook’s mission to create an “open and more connected” world. Why and how did Facebook fail to notice these burgeoning problems with misinformation? In other words, what incentivized Facebook to ignore concerns with misinformation?
  3. To what extent is misinformation perpetuated and amplified due to our own US politicians? In other words, what incentives do our own US politicians have at being complacent or worse, promoters, of misinformation?
  4. How are the concepts of microtargeting and polarization related?
  5. What are a few of the biggest takeaways of this 2-part series? What do you want to share with others and educate them about Facebook and its consequences on political communication?
The Psychological Traits that Shape Your Political Beliefs

There are many different political views in America. “Social psychologist Dannagal G. Young breaks down the link between our psychology and politics, showing how personality types largely fall into people who prioritize openness and flexibility (liberals) and those who prefer order and certainty (conservatives). Hear why both sets of traits are crucial to any society — and how our differences are being dangerously exploited to divide us. What if things weren’t that way?” (quoted material is the Ted Talk summary).

Listen or watch this 9-minute TED talk on how our personality and psychological traits impact our politics.

After you’re done listening:

  1. Describe at least two benefits of the diversity of political attitudes to America.
  2. How can you be a force for positive change when it comes to lessening the polarization in our country?
  3. If someone tells you, “we don’t need those conservatives (or liberals) in this country, they should all go away”, what would you say, given this knowledge you’ve learned from this Ted Talk?
What is Political Civility?

First, listen or read the following story on civility. You can play the 7-minute clip below or read it here, which addresses the question: “In these divided times, is civility under siege?”.

Second, read this brief story on, “Keeping It Civil: How To Talk Politics Without Letting Things Turn Ugly”. You can access it here.

Third, listen or read the following story on civility and race. You can play the 6-minute clip below or read it here.

Let’s consider political civility and how power and identity impact your own views on what is consider civil.

Finally, consider the questions below:

  1. Define “political civility” in a sentence or two. I know it is a complex term, but just do your best with how you understand the term. There’s no right or wrong answers here. There is no need to Google anything. No need to copy definitions from what you just heard and read. Just write or type what you think it is after learning more about it.
  2. Write a sentence or two about how power and authority relate to your definition.
  3. Write a paragraph about at least one new perspective/consideration of “political civility” that you learned from these stories. Again, there is no right or wrong answers here. I want you to show me your growth and consideration of others’ views and/or historical perspectives of civility that you learned. Feel free to discuss more than one perspective, too.
Ethical and Effective Political Communication

“Effective political communication” can mean a lot of different things. In this class, we mean that conversation partners:

  • Have opportunity to speak and feel heard
  • Respect the dignity and diversity of people
  • Do not demean or question the value of others with personal attacks
  • Treat people as free, autonomous agents that are able to make choices
  • Respect the free flow of information, even when it offends those in power or conventional views
  • Does not in any way use rhetoric or language that promotes, hints at, calls for, condones, or incites violence or harm to others

Notice that in our definition of “effective political communication” for this lecture, we are not referencing the successful persuasion of others as “effective communication”. That is, whether or not we are able to convince others to change their mind about politics is not a part of the definition of “effective.” 

Here are some other principles of ethical and effective political communication:

“Compassion is contagious,” Professor Scott Plous says. “We talk about paying it forward; the idea that if you do something good for another person […] it sets off a kind of chain reaction.” Hanna Barczyk for NPR
  • Display compassion: be kind, patient, and aim for understanding
  • Norm of reciprocity: if you listen to someone, or you open up to them, they’re likely to do the same with you
  • The power of empathy: when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it profoundly changes the relationship you have with them
  • Learn and be curious
  • It’s ok to adjust your opinion when facts and evidence warrant so
  • Remove the shame or embarrassment with changing one’s mind
  • Reflect on your own opinions and what values are guiding them
  • Gently probe and pose questions that seek to understand and identify other’s values

Listen to this 19-minute story on the power of compassion and how compassion is contagious.

Next, think back to a time when you had a frustrating, uncomfortable, or downright angry political conversation with someone else. Perhaps you disagreed about a political candidate, policy, or issue. Or, think about a time when you witnessed a frustrating, uncomfortable, or downright angry political conversation. Maybe you saw the conversation play out on social media.

Using the tools that you just learned,

  1. How do you think that political conversation could have been improved?
  2. If you were involved in the conversation, focus on what YOU could have done to improve the political conversation.
  3. If you witnessed the conversation, focus on how YOU could have intervened to encourage a more effective political conversation. 

** Note: This assignment encourages you to reflect on past conversations, brainstorm how the conversation could have been different based on the tips you learned. Going forward with your future political conversations, think about how these tools could lead to more effective political conversations. Practice these strategies in your real life political conversations.

Your News Diet

View a chart that illustrates how reliable and fact-based news outlets are. Spend some time on the interactive chart. You can search for a specific news source or just hover around and see where particular news sources are placed. The link is here. Remember a few definitions:

  1. Healthy News Diet: Objective, fact-based news can make you more well-rounded and knowledgeable about the policies and issues. News that gives you the most objective information possible and differentiates their opinion/editorial articles from their news articles. 
  2. Sugary News Diet: Partisan news can make you feel good about yourself. News that makes you outraged makes you more easily manipulated because your cognitive abilities are impaired. 
  3. Examples of high-quality information sources (in no particular order): National Public Radio, BBC News, local newspapers, AP News, Reuters, and Wall Street Journal. These sources consistently provide reliable fact-based reporting. 
  4. How can you improve your own news diet to become healthier and less sugary?
The Psychology of False Beliefs

Listen to a 51-minute Hidden Brain podcast about the psychology of false beliefs. After listening, think about how emotion can be involved in driving our false beliefs and sharing of fake news and misinformation. Consider why facts are not sufficient to persuade people. How can we use the concepts outlined in the “ethical and effective political communication” section above to talk with people who may be persuaded by false information?

How Our Identity Impacts Ours Ability To Distinguish Facts From Opinion
Everyone loves a good Office meme.

Explore this Pew Research Center website that shows how our demographics and our partisanship impact our ability to distinguish factual statements from opinion statements. Consider why partisans are more likely to see factual and opinion statements as factual when they favor their side? Consider how someone’s political identity, their job (e.g., an energy worker), other demographics (e.g., age) or their geographic location may impact their ability to answer a statement accurately. 

Is It Propaganda?

Consider these questions to ask yourself when evaluating political messages for evidence of propaganda and misinformation:  

  1. Who is communicating? 
  2. How much power does the communicator have? 
  3. What is the purpose of the message (to educate, persuade, judge, inform)?  
  4. What motivations may exist for the message and communicator? Does the communicator have reasons to manipulate or misinform? And are these motivations personally beneficial for the communicator? 
  5. What is the context of the media environment? Is it seen as favorable to the communicator and message? Is the message appearing on the free press? 
  6. What is the historical context of the message and communicator? What events are occurring that may influence the broader understanding of the message? 
  7. What is the public opinion climate like? Is it largely favorable, unfavorable, or perhaps split toward the communicator and current events? 
  8. How does one’s personal bias (e.g., dislike or admiration for the communicator) impact the disdain or appreciation for the message? 
  9. Are human rights (i.e., upholding the dignity and value of others) at stake in the message? This makes it even more important to consider given our world’s history of being manipulated or actively accepting propaganda that creates hate and violence toward “others by blaming them for problems. 

Using these questions to evaluate political messages, are there any times when government use of misinformation is justified, such as war? For example, consider the case of Japanese American internment camps during World War II.

Wyoming had its own internment camp at Heart Mountain. Search or watch these resources and consider the link between misinformation and propaganda. How may have news media played a role in spreading this misinformation? 

Learn more about Heart Mountain.

Watch a video of Milton Eisenhower present government misinformation about Japanese American internment (10 minutes).

Watch a video of Star Trek actor George Takei discuss his internment during WWII (15 minutes).

Published by Kristen Landreville

I'm an associate professor at the University of Wyoming's Department of Communication and Journalism.

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