By Emmie Deaton
This week, I took to the streets of Frankfort to ask pedestrians the simple question, “What would you like to see Kentucky legislators accomplish in the 2019 General Assembly?”
The task turned out to be more challenging than I expected. Due to the firestorm that has engulfed the politics of our state and federal governments, I assumed citizens would be eager to address their representatives. After all, the legislature was designed to represent the electorate.
The response I received was surprising. I was sure to include people from various age groups, races and genders. What I discovered was that the “man on the street” is astoundingly uninformed on issues that will inherently affect his daily life. I also discovered that those able to comment typically refused to disclose their identities in fear of being associated with strong or critical opinions of those in power.
The experience led me to several conclusions about the society we live in. It also raised many questions. Why, in the era of Facebook and other social media, are people afraid to voice their opinions through a vessel such as a newspaper? What makes posting from behind a screen less serious than being quoted by a reporter? What does the general malaise over directly addressing the government say about where our society is headed? And why do so many people lack basic understanding of our government and politics?
The idea that a citizen’s role in government ends at the ballot box is dangerous. There is a widespread notion in America that politicians handle matters beyond the practical understanding of average civilians. But if knowledge of policy is possessed only by those with power over it, then we have forfeited our rights as citizens and abandoned the overall goal of democracy. Complacency within the “man on the street” grants too much power to officials who cannot adequately serve us without understanding our opinions.
But to understand our opinions, they must first hear them. Newspapers exist to inform, speak for the marginalized and bridge a gap that might otherwise develop between authority and those they govern. It has even been argued that democracy could not function without the press disseminating valuable information.
From my experience, however, I felt people viewed my actions as potentially disingenuous and not in their best interest. Partisanism and propaganda have seemed to turn the public against the news industry. This is also dangerous, as totalitarian regimes dismantle or control the press to achieve greater power. If citizens are hesitant to address the officials they elect, then we have given our government too much authority.
Next time you open Facebook to share your political opinions, ask yourself if you would disclose the same thoughts to a reporter. Would you be comfortable with your most opinionated post being converted into news format? What makes the public forum offered through Facebook less formal than a newspaper? After all, Facebook offers the average person a larger forum than a newspaper. Yet the average person does not seem to recognize this, or understand their posts are rarely ever private, nor do they stay confined to their intended audience.
On one hand, Americans are quick to lay bare their personal lives online, yet as evidenced by my attempts on the street, seem very hesitant to make any kind of political statement to be published in a longstanding, familiar format such as a newspaper. Why is this?
The First Amendment is a testament to how strongly our founding fathers felt about the individual’s right and duty to participate in government. Speaking up and speaking out will always serve as a vital component in maintaining a democracy. While Facebook is a tool that allows the individual voice to be heard and is a valuable innovation, could it be contributing to the broken alliance between the press and public?
Being active citizens who understand that policymakers shape our everyday lives is something that should not be taken lightly. People need to realize that Facebook is not enough. It does not provide the same level of credibility offered by news media.
Emmie Deaton, a State Journal contributing writer, is a student at Western Kentucky University and a graduate of Frankfort High School.