Several times a year, a network of Seattle residents gathers for lectures on current political issues. Meanwhile, young people gather at Puget SoundOff, an online community that explores social and political issues. In Europe, the UW professor behind both projects is researching issue networks that engage citizens transnationally. He wants to know what will foster their growth.
And for his work, Lance Bennett has been named the University Faculty Lecturer.
A communication and political science professor at the UW since 1974, Bennett works at the intersection between the ivory tower and the city square. He researches political conversations, particularly ways to make them happen more easily and probe more deeply.
“I’ve always been fascinated by whether societies manage to create good lives for most of their citizens, and what either hinders or facilitates it,” Bennett said. “We can use civic tools to create realities that work better for people and the political power to bring them about.”
In November 2010, when there were nine measures on the Washington state election ballot, Bennett worked with UW computer science professor Alan Borning, the local nonprofit CityClub and several graduate students to create the Living Voters Guide. It used the 140-character limit set by Twitter and a ranking system similar to that of Google to help citizens create their own voting guide.
Bennett also helped create the Citizen Roundtable on Politics and Democracy. Working with retired Seattle physician Dick Wesley, Bennett recruits UW faculty members and visiting authors to lecture on political issues several times each year. Speakers have included David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times stories on favoritism in the U.S. tax system.
As founder and director of the UW Center for Communication & Civic Engagement, Bennett and his colleague Borning won a $730,000 National Science Foundation grant to improve online civic forums. They are pursuing a partnership with the City of Seattle to better engage citizens in government. They envision such things as live chats fed into City Council hearings so people not physically present can nevertheless voice their opinions.
Bennett also helped initiate the Civic Learning Online project, an informal digital site that helps young people and their teachers not only talk about civic affairs but take action. Puget Sound Off shows how university research finds practical outlets.
The product of a military family who lived a number of places, Bennett received his doctorate in political science from Yale University in 1974 and is the Ruddick C. Lawrence Professor of Communication and a professor of political science.
He has written 10 books, including When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (2007). With co-authors Regina Lawrence and Steven Livingston, Bennett explores the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and the controversy about abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The authors argue that reporters’ dependence on official sources means voices beyond Washington power circles don’t get heard as well as they should.
Bennett is dividing his sabbatical among research projects in Seattle, the Kennedy Institute of the Free University in Berlin and the political science department at Stockholm University, where he has been Olof Palme Visiting Chair.
At the UW next autumn, Bennett will deliver a public lecture on the democratization of truth. As more ways of getting political information emerge and traditional modes such as newspapers become less influential, Bennett will explain, people are gathering and disseminating information on their own. It’s drawn more people into civic discussions but has also made consensus more difficult.
“Lance has defined research in political communication,” said David Domke, who chairs the UW Department of Communication. “He connects political leaders to journalism to civic engagement to generational changes to new technologies to voting behavior, and he talks to both scholars and the general public. That’s pretty much the holy grail of scholarship.”