Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How the media shape public opinion

While attending a plenary session at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Nairobi 18 months ago, I listened to a number of politicians from many countries speak to the problematic relationship they have with the media. Speaker after speaker challenged reporters to do their job differently and, effectively, declared themselves at war with those who produce the news. It is a battle they cannot win. 

One essential role of the news media in a democracy is to report on government policy, political parties and the decisions of politicians. It is not their responsibility to be an outlet for press releases. In this role, however, the news media do a great deal to shape the news and the public’s focus on issues. 

First, the media set the parameters for public discourse by the content they deliver. The stories published or aired help shape what the public think is important. During any given day there may be literally scores of stories that could make the news but only a few are chosen. An editor or producer somewhere makes a decision about what is newsworthy. Further, the placement of stories front page, page five, lead or last story equally sends a message about perceived importance. And these stories will form the basis of talk show, blog and water cooler discussions tomorrow. 

Related to this aspect of the news media is the myth that facts speak for themselves. They never have. A reporter can write a purely fact driven story yet leave out pertinent facts that would lead the reader to another conclusion. 

The power of the visual image can never be ignored. Again, editors and producers have to make decisions about the imagery they wish to convey on their front page or lead television story. Each image is carefully selected and in so doing is sending you a message, perhaps even more powerful than the written word.
Secondly, the news content is shaped by the worldview of editors and producers their ideological orientation. It is widely accepted that the news media in countries we are familiar with the UK, the US, Canada have clear positions along the ideological spectrum, and it is equally so here in Bermuda. 

Two important aspects of the news media on our Island merit attention since they too shape our views of politics. First, almost all of the news is event driven with very little investigative journalism. While this may well be a function of strained resources it means the public rarely get access to an in-depth understanding of critical issues: crime, the economy, poverty, for example. One result is a failure to see a bigger picture or obtain an enhanced understanding of the issues. 

The second relevant aspect is that the media here have an unwritten code whereby they do not report on the private lives of public figures. Again, in those countries we are most familiar with, what you do in your private life is deemed by the media to be absolutely relevant to your ability to serve the public interest. In fact, as we know, it can derail presidential ambitions. That the media eschew reporting along these lines might be seen as a concession to the politics of a small society but it does raise legitimate questions about their role as it relates to the news. 

The media report the news as much as they shape it. What is excluded can at times be more important than the actual content of a newspaper or television broadcast. My view is that the public interest is better served when we assess news actively and critically and are not merely passive recipients.

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