By Ziad El-Hady
Ziad El-Hady looks at how government, elite and corporate interests shape media reports of international and domestic events, trivializing and sensationalizing news, corrupting our understanding of the world and reinforcing prejudice and bigotry.
All social, political and economic policies and debates are communicated through our media. Therefore, the breadth of our democratic experience is defined largely by the structure of the media and its content. This in itself may not be an immediate cause for panic but when viewed together with the centralization of corporate media ownership, the picture becomes a lot more worrying. If a handful of companies control the vast majority of what we see, hear and read daily, then the breadth of our information and democratic experience becomes considerably restricted.
News does not come down to us raw and unadulterated. Rather, it is “processed” and structured in terms of what topics are selected; how information is filtered; what is emphasized and what is ignored; how an issue is framed; and how a debate is bounded. Such tailoring gives Western news a specific “character” to which we have all become innately accustomed.
Sex, crime and sport
As Bernard Cohen, author of The Press and Foreign Policy points out, it is not so much that the media tell you what to think, it’s that they tell you what to think about. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, for example, owns in excess of 130 newspapers worldwide, including the world’s most widely circulated English-language newspaper, the Sun. Given that companies such as News Corporation are in competition with the likes of AOL Time Warner, Murdoch’s company will turn many of these newspapers into profitable sensationalist outlets, focusing on the three themes of sex, crime and sport.
The criteria for much news in general is about what can shock and rouse our emotions as opposed to what is actually informative and useful to society. Crime, sex/money scandals, bizarre/extremist opinions or behaviour and anything to do with celebrities occupy a large space within our mass media. Such attention-grabbing topics are also framed in ways that restrict our thinking even further. Violent crime reports, for example, take the form of concise horror stories, creating endless villains and victims out of our citizens rather than discussing the social problems that lead to such incidents. It’s as if unemployment, inequality, poor education and lack of moral sensitivity in society has nothing to do with such crimes.
Our universities are, of course, filled with experts in such social sciences, but media professionals are largely uninterested in using their knowledge to create an intellectual platform to suggest ways in which we can minimize such offences in the future. Instead, politicians give simple solutions to appease the masses, while disregarding the opinions of experts. Moreover, there have been many studies which show that certain social problems, such as terror, violent and sexual crimes, have been exaggerated way out of proportion, while other studies show that more serious issues – many to do with the environment – are not emphasized enough or are completely ignored. Unsurprisingly,research shows that people who engage most with the mass media are more frightened of the outside world and have less trust of other people.
The media also have a strong influence on people’s political opinions, but the majority of sources used by the media come from government and other establishment interests. In their bookManufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue that the modes of handling material by the mass media serve political ends and maintain existing political and corporate power structures.
War is a typical concern for such thinkers. Political scientist Michael Parenti, for example, points out that “whenever the White House proposes an increase in military spending, press discussion is limited to how much more spending is needed … are we doing enough or need we do still more? No media exposure is given to those who hotly contest the already gargantuan arms budget in its totality”. Typically, two choices are presented to the public but a third option that challenges the status quo is not.
There have been many studies analysing political biases in the mass media that are relevant to today’s political climate. In a research-based publication, Bad News from Israel by Greg Philo and Mike Berry showed that the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was biased towards Israel and that this had a significant effect on the attitudes and beliefs of Western audiences. The study showed, for example, that Israelis were interviewed or reported on more than twice as much as Palestinians, and Israeli casualties were strongly emphasized relative to Palestinians, despite Palestinian casualties being greater in number. Even the language of news reports was used in such a way that favoured Israel. Words like “hit-back” and “retaliate” were used for Israeli action, while words like “murder” and “cold blood” were used for Palestinian action. There was also a lack of coverage on the context of the situation. That is, the forced mass evacuation of Palestinians from their homes and a history of ethnic occupation which, when not mentioned, makes the Palestinians look like they are initiating attacks for no reason.
Contextual details are typically neglected in such reports because essential root causes are seen as far less interesting than more shocking superficial symptoms. French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu captures this point well when he describes news as “a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution…” Importantly, such social and political simplification or manipulation works contrary to the democratic goal of educating people.
Biased narratives in the film industry are far less subtle. In his book and documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Jack Shaheen shows that Hollywood has vilified and portrayed Arabs as sub-human, militant and barbaric since the beginning of film. In his research of over 1,000 films that involved Arab characters or references, he found that around 90 per cent were negative, one per cent were positive and the rest were neutral. For Shaheen, such “stereotyping has become so widespread that it has become invisible”.
Similarly, social psychologist Sam Keen, creator of Faces of the Enemy claims, “you can hit an Arab free; they are free enemies, free villains – where you couldn’t do it to a Jew or you can’t do it to a black anymore”. Such social scientists never fail to mention the clear political manipulation, which, throughout history, has been used by a variety of political regimes to construct vile, ferocious representations of their enemies to justify invasion, occupation, killing, torture and social exclusion.
We may not be physically forced to comply with state interests as in a dictatorship, though the result is similar. The corporate race for mass media consumption is a phenomenon that we as citizens pay the price for, both financially and psychologically, producing news that is generally negative, superficial and punchy; hardly ever constructive, beneficial or thought provoking.
Of course, not every item within the media is necessarily shaped by such interests, and good, honest journalism does exist. But the relentless prevalence of social and political misrepresentations on our TVs, newspapers, online and on the big screen is certainly enough for us to question the integrity of our cognitive freedom and the soundness of our democratic experience.