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Media and politics: What an SAU professor thinks of our current landscape

As the events on Jan. 6 unfolded at the U.S. Capitol, anybody with a smart device was able to see what happened in real-time. This is the relationship of how the media plays a part in the politics of our society, even though learning about it can be tricky, as one SAU professor can agree.

Professor Sivell teaching in the basement of the Galvin Fine Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Alan Sivell.

Assistant professor Alan Sivell has taught in the communication department since the days of Ronald Reagan. One class he has taught since then is COMM 232: Media & Society, which teaches students about the role of the media and a free press in the world we live in.

“I hope they gain some media literacy,” Sivell said. “I hope they can understand how information comes to them.”

Professor Sivell started teaching full-time at St. Ambrose in the fall of 1988. He began teaching COMM 232 in the fall of 1989. Sivell combined the history of media with media issues to create the curriculum for the class. Sivell talks about current events in COMM 232 as a way of teaching students about the media in real-time, which is something he enjoys.

Sivell as a TV reporter for Active 8 News at WQAD in Moline, Illinois. Circa 1983. Sivell would start teaching at St. Ambrose as an adjunct five years later.

“That’s what makes the course so much fun,” Sivell said. “It is always changing from semester to semester. There is something new every go-around.”

Sivell recalls discussions in class about the O.J. Simpson trial, controversies with Michael Jackson, the Iraq War and the conflict in Kuwait. Seeing the divisiveness of today’s society is nothing new to him.

“This comes down to the old story of ‘shoot the messenger,’” Sivell said. “If you don’t like the message, people have the option to completely disregard it. Nowadays everybody can put out information with no guardrails.”

Professor Sivell is not the only one wary of the media’s future in the current political climate. With a new presidential administration, some White House journalists are wondering what is in store for them.

McKay Coppins, staff writer for The Atlantic. Photo courtesy of Amazon Books.

McKay Coppins is a staff writer for The Atlantic who has written a novel and several articles about the GOP and its future after President Trump. His article here discusses what he questions going into a new administration.

“For those remaining on the White House beat, pivoting to a more conventional administration presents its own odd set of challenges,” the article says. “Should the press strive for a similarly adversarial relationship with Biden? Will their new fans revolt if they start doing tough stories on Democrats? And has the bar for presidential conduct been so lowered that any criticism of Biden will look like both sides nitpicking?”

Sivell’s solution to this problem is something he mentions in his class semester after semester. The need for diverse media gatekeepers, or editors who refine the message for their audience, is more important than ever.

“You need a variety of voices coming from different angles so you can hope to surround the truth,” Sivell continued. “Honest, vetted information is crucial because if you don’t know where information comes from, all of it seems equal.”

Sivell is used to teaching about current events, such as the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. He thinks the cause of the insurrection stems from blatant misinformation in the age of mass media. Image courtesy of Vox.

Sivell understands that there is a human element to this process, which can lead to mistakes and errors, though unintentional, commonly seen in the area of mass media. 

“The creation of mass media allowed for more information for more people,” Sivell said. “This access to information gives us an educated electorate, otherwise our democracy would fail.”

Having analyzed problems in the media for years, Sivell is able to establish some credibility in his opinions.  Seeing the issues with Facebook and Twitter today is just one example.

“Free speech is meant to be public, so it doesn’t mean a private platform has to accommodate – which is well within their rights,” Sivell mentioned. 

Sivell thinks these ideas of censorship and limiting political speech is bred more from anger than actual censorship seen in other societies. 

“If your idea is worthy, it will get out,” Sivell said.

Regardless of what political division will look like in the future, informed decisions can be made – as long as we know how to look at it.