In June of 2018, a Virginian restaurant refused to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, igniting a conversation about civility within the Republican Party. Many Democrats scoffed at the Republicans’ hypocritical outrage. Then-candidate Donald Trump had joked about imprisoning Hilary Clinton. Clearly, the lack of civility exists on both sides.
The sensationalism of modern newscasts reflects their true priority: ratings. This trend also exists in online media. The number of people who click on an article or subscribe to a newspaper determines the economic success of that medium.
The emphasis on bold, controversial titles attracts more clicks and viewers but forms stronger opinions and first impressions, leading to further division between viewers with opposing politics. Vice Media, for example, makes controversial and outlandish claims without much factual backing to increase its bottom line. It operates this way because viewers are more likely to click on outrageous titles than investigate simple facts. Tragically, in a time of information overload, many people do not read past the headline, which then becomes accepted as fact.
The Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states that journalists should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” Because these provocative titles become regarded as fact by some viewers, Vice Media must take responsibility for the incivility fostered by its sensationalized reporting.
The media have a responsibility to encourage civility. Fox News, as an example, flouts this responsibility by heavily stressing the corruption of the Democrats and the perfection of Donald Trump and his administration, even at the cost of truth and integrity.
By creating animosity among its viewers, Fox News generates a dangerous mob mentality and encourages increased hostility based on party identification rather than on policy. Fox News and other such news outlets demonize the Democratic Party to create antagonism along party lines, furthering the divide that already splits the nation. Especially when politics touches every discussion necessary for change, the nation’s future, much like a family Thanksgiving dinner, cannot afford animosity at the very mention of disparate political views.
Republican President Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill heartily disagreed on policy. However, they looked past their differences as politicians to become friends once the work day ended. This act of civility, like those that once defined Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s bipartisan legacy, starkly contrasts with the current political scene, where the president jokingly threatened to arrest Hilary Clinton on the campaign trail.
The shift from the civility of past administrations to the hostility of today’s politics is, in part, due to the rise of media like InfoWars and Vice Media and their disregard for civility and the truth in pursuit of monetary gain and partisan politics.
To promote civility, the media should report facts, pen accurate titles and avoid demonizing politicians or their parties. Civility is an end in itself, but cannot exist when the media drive wedges through “purple” communities, attack political foes or make egregiously false claims for the sake of publicity or monetary gain.
The country’s political landscape once supported civility between political opponents, and though times have changed, two things that have not are the spirit of democracy and the ability of the American public to strive for positive change in a civil manner.
Laura Summerfield is a junior at Rowland Hall High School, Salt Lake City. This essay won first prize in this year’s Westminster’s Honors College Essay Contest.