This post submitted by SOAN Professor Chandra Russo.
On September 30, sociology professor Alicia Simmons joined an esteemed cohort of Colgate alumni working at CBS, The Huffington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Moderated by Tim Byrnes, Charles A. Dana Professor of political science, panelists had a vibrant and timely conversation about the role of the media in American civic life. Audience members at the panel, part of the events leading up to Colgate President Brian Casey’s inauguration, included eager faculty, students, alumni, Hamilton residents and Casey himself. Panelists addressed challenges such as the increased polarization of political thought in American society, the lack of diversity in newsrooms, and the obligations of journalists. These matters feel ever more urgent six weeks before the 2016 presidential election, in which, as panelist Howard Fineman described, “one candidate challenges everything that we thought we knew about the American political process.”
Professor Simmons offered sociological context and data, supporting the panelists’ insider accounts and insightful analysis on how decisions are made from the newsroom to the boardroom and what the most pressing challenges are today for “the press.” Professor Simmons offered a few doses of media theory, helping us to make sense of our new media landscape, categorized by an ever more centralized and corporate mainstream media, the decline of local and regional news outlets, and the rise to prominence of online platforms for disseminating information. Professor Simmons also drew upon cutting edge scholarship to illuminate and complicate discussions around what counts as newsworthy and what is meant bias in reporting. Perhaps the most important lessons Professor Simmons imparted, however, were regarding our obligations as media consumers. “Be media omnivores,” she implored. A healthy media diet requires we include varied sources. Being responsible and engaged media consumers also requires that we “pull out our pocketbooks and support quality news.” Professor Simmons offered important sociological lessons. While the social structure plays complexly into how the media functions today, we collectively have a good deal of agency to shape that structure—the media—so that it better serves the needs of an informed citizenry.