Elm Staff Writer
On Friday, Nov. 2, former candidate and reporter Ben Boehl, C-SPAN Senior Producer Seth Engel ’93 and ThinkProgress editorial assistant Kay Wicker ’14 discussed rhetoric and American politics as part of the “Rhetoric In A Divided Country: A Journalism Alumni Roundtable” event at the Rose O’ Neill Literary House.
The three journalists touched on rhetoric’s influence on American political culture, the rise of social media and its role in journalism, the risks involved in journalistic work and the concept of “fake news.”
As a journalist who has covered national politics for years, Engel discussed the shift in how rhetoric is utilized by American politicians.
“Rhetoric used to be underpinned by legislation,” Engel said. “These days, rhetoric is driving the process rather than the other way around.”
In addition, Engel said that the increased use of social media in American politics has contributed to the prioritization of rhetoric over legislation. Despite the prevalence of rhetoric-driven political debate online, President Donald Trump’s regular and often controversial tweeting has been both a beneficial and a negative resource for journalists covering national politics.
“Even before the current president came into office, a lot of the communications and information that got to the media came to us via Twitter,” Engel said. “Trump has been criticized for not being accessible in press briefings, but he is more off-the-cuff and available on Twitter.”
Even local journalists like Boehl are not exempt from the whirlwind of news and other happenings on Twitter.
“We can’t catch our breath for five minutes,” Boehl said of the fast-paced nature of social media’s influence on the 24-hour news cycle. “There’s always something going on.”
In today’s political landscape, journalists face not only physical but also mental risks in their field of work. Just this year, on June 28, a mass shooting occurred at the office of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland that left five dead.
“After 2016, my office got active shooter training,” Engel said. “It is impossible to overstate the danger the media is in today.”
Journalists in America, especially journalists from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds, often also suffer from mental and emotional damages the job can cause. Wicker, who recently covered the potential lynching of a Ferguson protestor’s son, talked about the tolls of constantly monitoring social media and other channels of communication for acts of violence and discrimination.
“The news is creating trauma for us,” Wicker said. “We can’t get away from it.”
In the era of “fake news” and social media bots, the three journalists agreed that the responsibility to verify information and to curate the news cycle remained not only on reporters, but also on consumers. Whereas previously, reporters were almost solely responsible for ensuring that readers were receiving reliable content, the rise in false and severely slanted reporting has shifted some of that responsibility on readers.
“Sometimes, we have to pick and choose,” Boehl said of editorial curation. “We have to decide what’s newsworthy or not.”
“A lot of it is on the consumer,” Engel said. “It’s on them to be discerning and to know what’s true or not.”