Guest columnist Maria José Botelho: Critical engagement as democratic participation

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Published: 10/3/2023 4:29:20 PM
Modified: 10/3/2023 4:28:20 PM

Accessing political news has become a national activity and, in some cases, a form of entertainment, or what political scientist Eitan Hersh calls “political hobbyism.” In his 2020 book, Hersh claims that one-third of Americans spend over two hours daily viewing, listening to, and/or reading about politics. Hersh maintains, however, that this pastime does not promote political engagement.

In this column, I propose that viewing, reading and listening across news sources critically can offer insights and tools for local and national democratic participation that can free us from what one recent guest columnist described as “certainty traps” and reduce the current polarization fomented by partisan politics and mainstream media. [“Trapped by Our Certainty,” Gazette, Sept. 8].

Foremost, we must acknowledge that having access to a limited amount of news sources and only those that align with our political leanings seldom creates conditions for critical engagement. Even though one news outlet — a television or radio show; a digital source like a newspaper or magazine website, YouTube, podcast, or social media might claim to offer “the whole story,” it only provides a curated and partial view of issues and reality.

Critical engagement with limited information does not lead to complex understandings of issues. If we want to truly understand an issue or a historical moment, it requires full engagement across time and across media sources, without self- or external censorship. Juxtaposing or comparing texts helps us to see, read, and hear openly and expansively.

Critical viewing, listening, and reading are lifelong practices. They are ways of knowing, being, and doing for deconstructing (taking apart) and reconstructing (remaking) worldviews circulating in political reporting and other texts. Critical engagement requires that we collect information across multiple news outlets with disparate worldviews and then gain some distance, analyze (take apart to understand implicit and explicit social messages), and use the insights gained to repair what we know of the issue or event.

It is important to note that these news sources or texts are not sociopolitically neutral. All texts are created from particular perspectives to convey particular worldviews. Compare how two or three or more news programs represent the same political event. Take notice of what is centered, backgrounded, and/or silenced. What is not said does social work as much as what is said.

These texts position viewers, listeners, and readers to think, believe, and act in particular ways. If the same news story is not featured in another news source, what replaces it? What does the substitution convey to you as a viewer/reader? What advertisements support these news programs across different media?

In what ways might they have a hold on this reporting? What patterns do you notice? News reporting is created by people for sociopolitical purposes.

How texts are designed and produced provide additional opportunities for analysis. These practices demand that media consumers consider what they know and how language and other modes (e.g., how images and words are combined) are used to describe different events, people, and political practices in news reporting.

For example, consider the front pages of several national or local newspapers. What is featured in each front page? Look at how language is used to represent the same story. If photos are used, how do they work with the words? How do the words and images position the people or communities featured in the stories?

We read from particular positions and so our readings of texts are never neutral, and we need to question the positions from which we read, view, and hear. Our past experiences and understandings of texts and the issues taken up and how the world is organized shape how we make sense of them. How we understand democratic process, for example, will shape how we make sense of a YouTube representation of a congressional hearing.

Critical engagement demands that we observe our own thinking processes and practices as well as how we use language as we participate in this work. We must robustly inquire into what we know, how we know, why we know what we know and, more importantly, why we don’t know what we don’t know.

Critical engagement also requires a critical perspective of the world. Our goal is to rethink what we know as we name power and reporting practices as well as question our own questions. Understanding that reporting and power relations of class and race, for example, are inseparable, is part of this process. Understanding moneyed interests have a hold on reporting and construct what we come to know as reality are key to staying vigilant in our critical engagement.

Critical engagement can support thinking for ourselves but not by ourselves. Respectful dialogue with family members, neighbors, and work colleagues is key. “Stay in the room” when disagreements emerge. Critical engagement practices have the potential to contribute to our sociopolitical awakening and foster less division and more dialogue, and a fuller understanding of ourselves, families, communities, and the world. Democratic engagement is a co-responsibility.

Maria José Botelho is professor of Language, Literacy & Culture of the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She specializes in critical literacies, K-12 pedagogies that consider the social construction of literature, digital media, and other texts as well as the social and academic possibilities of text production.


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