Podcast transcription: what is deliberative communication?

Prof. Daniel Hallin (USA)
Prof. Lars Nord (Sweden)

This piece provides the reflections on ‘deliberative communication by professor Lars Nord (Sweden) and professor Daniel Hallin (USA) who addressed the topic on the MEDIADELCOM kick-off meeting and also in the MEDIADELCOM’s podcast episode No. 2. Subsequently, we present their talk in writing.

The acronymic name MEDIADELCOM stands for media deliberative communication. In the last podcast episode, we disclosed the concept behind that expression. This is the core concept of the entire research.

The kick-off meeting was held last week, which set the sails for the Horizon 2020 research project for the next three years. Over the Teams communication platform, the inceptive discussions took place for four days. One of the first ideas there to be defined was ‘deliberative communication’.

Lars Nord, professor in Political Communication at the Mid-Sweden University, elaborated the notion of deliberative communication in the context of MEDIADELCOM research at the kick-off meeting. He also made a brief popular overview at the key tack of the project for the podcast.

He said, “As this project deals with media related risks and opportunities for deliberative communication, I think it is very important to ask ourselves what we mean by deliberative communication. I think it is a core concept of the whole project and needs some reflection.

An analogy to explain the project is ‘democracy’. All the countries each one has free and fair elections. People are voting for ‘their’ parties, and then get governments based on the results of the election. This is, of course, a key sign of democracy.

However, when you are talking about democracy with communication using the adjective deliberative for both, you not only take into account the voting process. But also the reasoning. And the arguing about different ideas, and about some of the great theories on deliberative democracy and communication. They suggest that you don’t only participate in voting, but you are also meeting other people for conversations about what is going on in the society. You have equal access to these public arenas, where you can discuss societal topics. And, you’re there for your own interest, not representing other of society’s interests or pressure groups. Such conversations really witness both working deliberative communication and deliberative democracy.

So in my view, these very high demands on such democracies mean that in reality, you probably won’t find any country in the world today to meet all these standards. But on the other hand, I think it’s realistic to say that this is a goal to strive for. You should try to become more deliberative in democracy, because it really improves its quality.

The media probably plays a great role here. If media only reports about political alternatives, and about political candidates, and mirrors the political conflicts in society, media do not really meet standards of deliberative communication. You should also expect the media to provide access to the arenas for the people on equal terms. You should ask media to encourage public discussions about current events. So you demand much more of the medium within this deliberative communication framework.

I think our project is very interesting in this aspect that, of course, we don’t expect to find the perfect democracy among the involved countries. But we will certainly try to identify what media processes actually improve deliberative communication and what risks there are for reaching it. Thus, we are not looking for an example that deliberative communication actually exists in. But we would like to map the conditions across countries and the possibilities for going in the direction of deliberative communication. I think that would be one of the biggest benefits of this project.”

On the third day of the kick-off meeting, MEDIADELCOM’s advisory board spoke up. One of the distinguished members on the board is Daniel Hallin, Professor in Communication at the University of California at San Diego. In his video address to the consortium, inter alia, he briefly provided the American perspective to the issue.

He said, “We had an extraordinary last year with the pandemic, the black lives matter protests and general social mobilization over issues of racism and the attempt by Trump to overturn the electoral process following his defeat. All these historic events produced a tremendous amount of discussion over the role of journalism.

One of my best-known contributions to the study of deliberative communication, the one that was referenced frequently during the discussions of the last year, is my schema of the three spheres of news, the spheres of Consensus, Legitimate Controversy and Deviance. It is most often interpreted in the form of an argument that the sphere of Legitimate Controversy is too narrow, and excludes too many points of view. And this is often indeed an important problem. But with the crises of last year, I think we can see more clearly that the sphere of consensus and the forms of journalism that contribute to building it, are actually very important: it is very important that society be able to reach consensus on certain kinds of issues—on a scientifically based response to the pandemic or the climate crisis; on the rejection of racism; on the rules of the game of democratic politics.

It is also legitimate that there are boundaries to the sphere of Legitimate Controversy, which become deeply problematic when powerful political actors refuse to respect them. And for journalists, it is not clear that just reporting the news accurately in the traditional way is an adequate response to the kinds of threats to deliberative communication we face today – in the US, there is a lot of interesting debate going on now about the meaning of “objectivity”, which, of course, has for so long been central to American journalistic professionalism and journalists are really rethinking that.

I would add finally here that, although there is a lot of reflection going on within journalism, I think that journalists themselves cannot solve the problems that we currently face. We have to understand their role within the whole context of what is going on in the political system.”

The 4-day kick-off meeting officially launched the project into three years of research. As a result, we will hear much more findings related to ‘deliberative communications’. Our website will consistently provide all of it, bit-by-bit.