Gordon in the News: last updated 10/24/2008

The Presidential Discussion: How Listening Will Be The Key For Voters In A New Media Age

August 19, 2008

Jo Kadlecek
Office of College Communication

--When Rick Warren, best selling author, pastor and Gordon College's 2008 commencement speaker, invited presidential candidates, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, to Saddleback Church's Civil Forum last Saturday, he was modeling a new and important type of citizen journalism.

"It was an exemplary format for voters," said Nathan Baxter, communication arts professor at Gordon College who will be teaching a class this fall called Responding to Civic Discourse to coincide with the presidential election. "The quality of questions and the amount of time given to each candidate were helpful for voters. Here we had a forum initiated and conducted by someone who's not a traditional player in the media, someone who asked questions representative of a significant number of voters but who also modeled civil practices. I'd call this a good example of an emerging form of citizen journalism."

Even with the Internet's new media as well as traditional news sources, Baxter called Warren's discussion with the candidates, "an increasingly rare event in the public square. It offered viewers rare access to listen to the candidates uninterrupted, without the usual sound-bytes."

Such listening skills, Baxter says, are exactly what voters will need in the coming months as the candidates move beyond forums like those at Saddleback Church. Based in part on Warren's example, Baxter offered four specific tips to responding to the ensuing civic discourse and will explore each in his course as well.    

The first is to listen to the candidates as they discuss the same issues, but in the context of their statements and in their own words. For instance, when Warren asked the candidates to define the word "rich," both acknowledged how easy it could have been to take their responses out of the context of that discussion. "They knew their answers could be freighted with controversy--if they were taken out of the setting in which they were asked," Baxter said.

Second, Baxter suggests listening to and learning what the candidates have in common, not just how they differ.  "If we're only listening to their differences, we're contributing to an already polarized culture. No matter who takes office in January--and both are claiming to be able to unify our country--we'll need to be ready to support him and be led. The unity starts here, with us," Baxter said.

Even so, both the traditional media and most political blogging will try to show the differences between the two candidates and within the candidates' careers, Baxter said, because "similarities don't sell papers" or sustain viewer-share. The third key will be for voters to be aware of this strategy and to listen carefully to how both men have changed. "A mark of leadership is personal growth, which as Warren put it, is not the same as flip flopping," Baxter said. "Bull headed consistency is hardly a mark of character."

Finally, it is important to recognize that the questions being asked of the candidates are as important as the answers. Questions often reveal a concern or an agenda, Baxter said, and can be equally significant in the rhetorical process. "Obviously, when Warren asked certain questions--such as the question about orphans in the world--he was hoping the candidates would consider their policies regarding his deeply felt concerns," Baxter said. "Some questions don't get asked, perhaps because of the time limits of a broadcast or because of priorities. But there are a lot of assumptions that inform certain questions. We'd do well also to consider what questions aren't being asked."

Baxter believes that Warren's 'citizen journalism' was instructive for the coming months as well as reflective of more participation in this new media culture; the fact that Saddleback Church video-streamed the forum along with traditional broadcast networks is a sign of a converging media that invites more participation. "We've got a chance now to sift through the words of these candidates like never before and each (media) form bodes well for our citizen process, especially if we know how to listen well."

For information, or to request an interview, please contact the Office of College Communications at 978.867.4235.


Gordon College is a Christian college of the liberal arts and sciences on Boston's North Shore. The college offers majors in 37 fields and has graduate programs in education and music education. Leading the way in Christian college merit, Gordon is nationally ranked for its excellence in academics and its role in character building. These achievements recognize Gordon as one of the nation's top Christian colleges.