Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Question: Tell us about your blog “The Age of Engagement.”
Matthew Nisbet: Well "The Age of Engagement" is going to cover the many intersections among communication, culture and public affairs. Over the last decade as many viewers and readers know there has been a fundamental revolution in how we communicate. The people formally known as the audience are no longer just passive consumers of information, they’re active contributors. And almost every sector of society has been altered and transformed by the digital age and there is fundamental questions about these transformations. In particular is the public and groups that were formerly locked out of power, consumers. Are they empowered by these changes or are they distracted and more easily controlled? Do we live in an age of engagement or do we live in an age of distraction?
So from politics to science to health to the environment to culture and entertainment I’m going to take a look at the way that communication has changed these sectors of society and fundamentally the way that we live. And I’m going to take a look at those things from the perspective of a social scientist drawing on studies, drawing on data and drawing on the perspectives of my colleagues, researchers, faculty, as well as the voices and the perspectives of the students, so readers will be able to eavesdrop in and read about the many different types of conversations that are going on in the university classroom in the field of communication, in the field of political science, and other related academic fields.
Question: What’s an example of the public actually influencing a policy decision?
Matthew Nisbet: Sure. I think, you know, one of the leading examples I think was the last time we went for immigration reform in the United States under the Bush Administration. What was interesting about the attempted immigration reform—and it’s somewhat parallel to the failed attempt at climate change legislation—is that there was majority public opinion support to broker an agreement on immigration reform in Congress. The President was behind the agreement as well, yet despite a majority support among a relatively passive public, legislation was ultimately defeated. And the reason was you had this interaction between at the time the influence of the traditional conservative media, political talk radio and cable news and the ability for people who felt strongly opposed to immigration reform to voice their opinion through emails to members of Congress, and through a lot of online coordination that was hooked up to these different types of traditional media outlets and it was because of that opinion pressure from a minority viewpoint that legislation ultimately failed. Fence-sitters in congress were unwilling to take the political risks that were needed to pass immigration reform at that time.
Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman