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Adaptive Argumentation for Mediated Publics

A recent Pew study examined the news consumption habits for Americans. It revealed some interesting trends about where people get their news, and which sources were deemed legitimate. I found one aspect of the study in particular to be relevant for those interested in the study of public diplomacy and strategic communication. Basically, depending on how you get your news reflects how you best understand and comprehend the material. For example, “traditionalists” among U.S. consumers mostly watch TV, and “say that seeing pictures and video, rather than reading or hearing the facts, gives them the best understanding of events.” “Integrators”, who represent 23% of the public, access news across media platforms and pay special attention to political and sports news.

For those who think about crafting “messages” for international broadcasting and international advocacy campaigns, this kind of research raises some flags. Globalization, communication, and political science scholars (among others) have elliptically approached the conclusion that the increasingly “global” nature of news and information flows have enabled new kinds of political agency and networked communities of shared belief or ideology. But the technological dimension of this media ecology suggests something about the how we process this information. We aren't just members of dispersed niche media publics, we're segregated in our reasoning by the technologies we depend on to make sense of the world.

I know this sounds like a determinist argument. Of course the capabilities of media technology don’t necessarily determine how we access or incorporate such tech into the fabric of our lives. Thinking about strategic communication here: Daniel Kimmage’s report on Islamic extremist virtual media organizations suggests that Web 2.0 technologies don’t always translate into how it is put to work by those organizations to manage the message. As Langdon Winner reminds us, there are histories, interests, and politics to our technological artifacts.

This suggests more “homework” for those who seek to leverage transnational media flows and design campaigns for the purpose of advocacy. Different media outlets carry with them audiences that have different expectations for what counts as convincing, legitimate forms of media representation of events.

Social scientific scholars of influence and persuasion have traditionally focused on the issue of message source and/or  message characteristics. Social psychologists and persuasion researchers from the early 20th century, through more recent trends in dual process persuasion like Petty & Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model, Chaiken’s (et al) Heuristic-Systematic model, or even Robert Cialdini’s popular “six principles”, point to cues that direct us to attend to messages by the qualities of the messages, how it’s delivered (broadly speaking here), and contextual factors of trust and credibility (whether there’s a lot of consensus on the issue, and whether the originator of a message comes from a majority, minority either within or outside the audience).

There is certainly some experimental evidence that symbolic characteristics cue our willingness to pay attention to, let alone directly weigh the claims of, a message aiming to persuade. But how much of this is media-dependent? If a lot of the persuasion research boils down to normative factors (like, do we pay attention or agree because the argument comes from someone like us) or information factors (the message provokes a kind of response based on our relation to the message) – I’m not convinced we know a lot about differences in processing information based on the manner in which it is delivered over time.

Even the early scholars of rhetoric knew enough about human nature that good arguments linked claims to available pools of experience and information. Yet, I’m not sure that we have fully grasped the extent of technological impact on media-based reasoning. Put in classical argument terms, the geographic metaphor of Aristotle’s topoi  – the commonplaces of argument construction – are complicated by multifaceted media audiences. Certain media may make new commonplaces, or make some topoi more readily acceptable than others. Bohner, Moscowitz and Chaiken say it may really be the quality of the arguments that determine influence. Well, how do media shape our perception of quality arguments? How does it motivate us to pay attention to, let alone weigh the media frames that offer a particular representation of reality? I think it goes beyond simply accepting peripheral cues (like how we make snap judgments based on visuals, icons, and appeals to authority).

I think there are some issues to untangle here other than categorizing media use habits. For example, Group X likes pictures rather than lengthy textual exposition, ergo we need to reach them with pictures. I don’t want to reduce our cognitive habits so quickly as to dismiss the experience of learning, sharing, and acquiring identity formations through media. These are the kinds of issues that are ripe for humanistic exploration, that complement scientific persuasion studies, and may help expand the knowledge the strategic communication planners need to “reach” audiences.

What can we learn? Certain media audiences may more readily accept kinds of argument components (images, symbols, narratives, inductive vs. deductive logic, appeals to ethos, etc. etc.) that are intrinsic to certain forms of media and to cultural contexts. And, how might those contexts in turn shape the capacity of media to constrain or mold patterns of public reasoning? I’m not sure if this makes Harrold Innis , or say, Stephen Toulmin (who suggested decades ago that we have different standards of argument based on our background or “field”), the new unheralded heroes of strategic communication planners and global news scholars. But I think it does suggest there is room for researchers of global media to critically investigate the rich experience of news consumption that goes beyond just looking at news flow and media ownership. At the same time, thinking about media and culturally grounded thinking forces us to think beyond experimentally-derived theories that often reflect the context of the research (like, say, observing influence effects on students at a Western university).

Media ecologists might suggest that we “think different” in ways that reflect our instrumental and environmental relationship to media: what we have, what we know how to use, and how that media helps reaffirm the collective “we.” While I may not ascribe fully to their often determinist views of media, I think that a fresh look at the meaning-making relationship between media and specific audiences can greatly help strategic communication practitioners.

Craig Hayden, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of International Communications at the School of International Service, American University, in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Intermap.

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