More than sticks and stones

International conference on character assassination studies the phenomenon from the background of diverse disciplines

by Anne Reynolds

More than sticks and stones

George Mason University’s Character Assassination and Reputational Politics (CARP) Research Lab has released a report summarizing key points from its first international conference. The report examines today’s contemporary media environment and how it lends itself to rising incivility in society, as well as the character-centered competition that has played an increasing role in politics.

The 2017 Conference on Character Assassination in Theory and Practice welcomed U.S. and international researchers who represented nearly 30 colleges and universities, as well as practitioners in crisis management, journalism, and public relations. Topics discussed included the climate of negativity and uncivil political discourse -- and the media’s role, the importance of impression management, and strategies against negative characterization. The conference was held on March 3-5, 2017, at Mason’s Arlington Campus.

Until recently, research on character assassination has been fragmented across many conceptual and analytical schools of thought. A key finding of the conference is that the phenomenon is best understood using a comprehensive framework linking diverse disciplines, including historical context, rhetorical studies, media studies, and psychology.

Mason communications faculty member Sergei Samoilenko stresses the importance of understanding the impact of intentionally destructive public discourse. “Both scholars and practitioners should raise concerns about the rise of incivility and character attacks,” he explained. “Their influence is significant, not only leading to public confusion and political polarization, but also to public distrust in democratic institutions.”

Samoilenko presented the findings of the conference report at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., at Beyond Fake News: The Role and Responsibility of Communications Professionals to Guide Public Conversations, an event hosted by the Public Relations Society of America.

“There is no better time for consideration of character assassination than right now,” said Samiolenko. “Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, questions of media responsibility, public distrust in political institutions and the media, and antagonism between political figures and the media have only increased. These issues have a profound effect on public discourse, and new methods must be developed to address them.”