Philip Napoli emphasizes moving away from the Fairness Doctrine in talk


Daniel Tian/Daily Senior Staffer

Annie May Swift Hall at 1920 Campus Dr. The Center for Communication & Public Policy in the School of Communication held the first lecture in a four-part speaker series on the intersection of communication research and public policy.

Lalla-Aicha Adouim, Reporter

At a Center for Communication and Public Policy event on Tuesday, Duke University public policy Prof. Philip M. Napoli said adhering to the Fairness Doctrine is ill-advised in today’s media landscape.

The Doctrine, created in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission, requires broadcast licenses to expose audiences to both viewpoints of an issue.

“We live in an environment now of much less non-partisan journalism, overall lower levels of trust in news organization,” Napoli said.

The event was the inaugural talk in a four-part speaker series aimed at exploring the intersection of communication research and public policy, according to Erik Nisbet, the founding director of the Center.

“I was excited…. because his research directly relates to (a) huge public policy issue around social media regulation and what to do with violent and hateful extreme speech,” Nisbet said.

Driven by how “close to home” the topic of disinformation has become for him, Napoli said his research was inspired by seeing those around him fall victim to the traps of new technologies and a desire to improve the media for future generations.

Back when the Fairness Doctrine was introduced, the pursuit of media diversity made more sense, Napoli said. Its goal was to create more informed citizens, but now with sources such as QAnon, he said it can result in legitimizing extreme political viewpoints.

“Because there are fewer right-leaning publications than center or left-leaning ones,” Napoli said, “In order to maintain this fair balance, hyper partisan far-right news sources that were generally of lower levels of trust were receiving more visibility than some more familiar and trusted news sources.”

Fairness and balance are not synonymous, Napoli said, and fairness can — and often should — lead to a lack of balance, especially if there is a lack of accuracy in the facts.

Napoli said he believes social media companies should not be passive and can be regulated since the choice to not publish certain content is editorial. While conservative viewpoints tend to be those most often removed, Napoli attributes this to their engagement with more hate speech and calls to violence in comparison to other viewpoints.

There must also be a focus on teaching people media literacy and how to be responsible with their posts because democracy depends on informed citizens, Napoli said.

Fourth-year Ph.D. student Daniel Trielli said he agrees with Napoli that the implementation of the Fairness Doctrine would be problematic today.

“The public policy of yesteryear is not necessarily applicable to our current media system and infrastructure today, that we have different problems,” Nisbet said. “It’s not that there’s too little diversity of speech, we might have too much diversity of speech.”

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