In honor of Penn’s 2016-2017 Year of the Media, Penn IUR hosted a conversation on February 2nd on “Media, Communication, and the City”. Panelists Michael Carpini, Walter H. Annenberg Dean and Professor of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication; John L. Jackson, Jr., Dean, Richard Perry University Professor and Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor, School of Social Policy and Practice; and Frederick Steiner, Dean and Paley Professor, School of Design, were joined by moderator and Penn IUR Co-director Eugenie Birch to discuss the media’s role in promoting equality and shared prosperity. Penn IUR Co-director Susan Wachter initiated the event by welcoming the audience to the interdisciplinary event designed to increase conversation and integrate knowledge across schools.
Carpini began the conversation by arguing that the current media environment, represented most obviously by the 2016 presidential campaign, is the result of decades of changes in the news and media operations in the United States. These changes can be broken down into four distinct trends: growth in media outputs, deregulation of the media environment, economic crisis, and the incredible decline in the trust in news, which is currently at its lowest point in history. The culmination of these elements has resulted in the blurring of interpersonal and mass media, allowing for examples such as the Trump presidential campaign to be successful using social media to communicate to the masses. Carpini argued that this approach, with its multitude of contributing voices, has incredible democratic potential, but requires active engagement to ensure the public interest is fairly represented.
Jackson focused on the role of faculty and academics in the new media environment. He first argued that miscommunication is an inevitable part of being a human. Perfect and purposeful communication, as the new media environment demonstrates, is impossible to achieve. Recognizing this reality, Jackson explained how the School of Social Policy and Practice is training its faculty to take a multimodal approach to communicating with the public in a way that accessible and deployable, such as through their PennTopTen.com website. He acknowledged that a key challenge to building momentum with such a project is the paradox of city living, as we see mimicked in the media landscape, where individuals have access to so much that there is always a reason to opt out.
Steiner closed out the panelists’ presentations focusing on how cities function as centers of communication and design. Using Philadelphia an example, he discussed the social, planning, and media history of the city during its founding. Today, Philadelphia serves as a terrific example of a city still experimenting with important aspects of communicative, through its proliferation of publications, local coverage of architecture and design, and the community design initiatives of institutions such as Penn. He emphasized that Philadelphia began the social experiment that is the United States and it remains an epicenter of design experimentation.
Following panelist presentations, Birch moderated a discussion covering predictions for the future of the media landscape, the intersection of academics and journalists in communicating complex topics to the public, and the need to recognize the aspects of communication that go beyond information content. An engaged audience of professors, students and members of the public asked additional questions of the presenters on topics ranging from whether media has a biased-focus on cities, the plurality of urban areas often portrayed in the media as single communities, and the often ambivalent role universities play in urban life.
This event was made possible with the support of the Office of the Provost and coincides with the University of Pennsylvania’s “Year of Media”. Special thanks to Jordan Hillier for contributing to this article.
Media, Communications, and the City