October 23, 2018

Kneejerks – Media and Instant Opinion

The media is a powerful force in everything that we do today.

Newspapers are read on buses and trains as we travel from one place to another. The radio or television is turned on at breakfast and again in the evening. The internet is accessed and searched at work and in lunch breaks.

The world is in a constant merging of media and real opinion, where the people make the news and the news informs the people. This is good for information sources and factual details about the state of affairs, but what about when the opinions of the media become the opinions of the people?

Opinion is one of the irritations of the media: how can a media outlet claim to have ‘objective reporting’ when their reporters are human and therefore have opinions? Most media faces this quandary, admits that this is the case and produces what are called ‘opinion pieces’.

However, some media outlets don’t tacitly inform their readers or listeners of this, and present their opinions in the form of ‘objective reporting’.

The majority of people who engage with media tend to realise that newspapers have a political bias depending on the managerial influences on employees, and because of the employees’ own political biases. It is difficult, however, to stay alert and inquisitive to these factors when media is such a powerful and ever-present element.

As well as this, there is an ever-increasing modern need for instantaneous information that stems from, and is supported by, the media’s exclusivity to information. We find ourselves in a situation in which the media has all of the information that we are convinced we need. This information is only accessible through the official media outlets and is only available filtered through political biases. The media constantly provides new information, and political biases, to us without allowing us to process the last glut of information. We, as forced media consumers, have a wealth of information, but this information is constantly being reinterpreted and redistributed. This means that our own interpretations of facts are changing as constantly as the media’s.

If it’s this hard for the consumers of the media to make sense of this constant stream of information, then how can the media outlets have opinions of these continuous and changing stories?

The answer is that they can’t.

This puts the media outlets into another difficult position: how can they present news stories and information within their political and managerial viewpoints almost as soon as they come out, so that there is hardly a delay between information received, information processed and information redistributed? Most media outlets have a collection of ‘experts’ who are either part of the outlet or contactable by the outlet, who they can speak to when they need to interpret information. The experts process the stories and redistribute them so that the outlet can send them back out to the public. This seems correct: experts in a certain field know about their subject and are the best people to ask. Just like the media, and the media consumers, experts also have to deal with a constant stream of information which can be extremely difficult to process instantaneously. Experts, then, are just as likely to make mistakes or misjudgements when they are put on the spot by media outlets, as any human being can be.

By forcing people to make and accept ‘instant opinions’ the modern media outlets are creating and reinforcing a culture that is full of inaccuracies and misjudgements, which could certainly be avoided, or at least lessened, by allowing experts and the public to process information and news in a more measured way.

There have been many examples of misjudged opinions in media presentation, most of them, understandably, issued during chaotic times when constant new information is coming to light. Two major examples within the last ten years are the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Oslo and Utøya Island attacks in July 2011.

In the September 11th attacks, the American media was praised for its ‘around-the-clock’ broadcasting, the apparent success of getting rid of rumours before airing and the composure of the news anchors as they were presenting. Despite these assertions of the American media’s professionalism, there have been many counter arguments, by both American and Worldwide media critics, that state that the media in America acted in an increasingly propagandist way. Many critics have said that although Osama bin Laden was almost immediately indicated as the person behind the attacks, there were many other inaccuracies which marred the reporting. Many of the presenters on the main news channels were using ‘loaded’ language within hours of the attacks. This language was extremely aggressive and pugilistic, using terms such as ‘war’, ‘vengeance’, ‘bloodbath’, ‘anti-Americanism’. This terminology was mirrored by many of the smaller media outlets and by media outlets in other countries.

The effect that larger media conglomerates have on smaller independent media outlets is worth looking at. The pushing-power of the larger companies tends to force the smaller companies to adopt the practices that the former do in order to stay on the same level. This promotes a culture of uncertainty and competition among all levels of media, pushing all media outlets to conform to the practices of the larger media companies. Large media companies are businesses firstly and accurate information providers secondly, if at all. They therefore see information and news as a product to push and to sell to people. This has certainly led to the current climate of ‘instant news’; the people who get the news to the people the quickest and by all means necessary will be the ones to reap the financial rewards and the highest market share. Because of this, many people have become receptacles for information obtained from media outlets, waiting constantly to be filled with more media, rather than conscientiously obtaining and thinking about information and news. This allows some people to pass off media opinions as their own without taking the time to think and process the information accordingly. Ordinary people have started to compete with others in order to be the first to know about a news story or glut of information, becoming much like journalists. The fact that smaller, more independently-minded media outlets have had to adhere to these sorts of competitive practices in order to survive means that it is very difficult for media to get a measured view of events. They are too busy running after the next story to analyse events properly. Modern media consumers, then, find it difficult to present clear untainted details; stories are painted with the political colours of the media outlet’s executives as a quick way to give a story a feeling of thoughtfulness. This façade is in lieu of real measured thought about stories and issues. To see how corrosive these issues are to media, just look at how the 2000 Presidential elections were presented by mass-media outlets: George Bush had lost to Al Gore undoubtedly, but because Bush and family had high connections in the Fox News network, they, and Fox News managed to persuade everybody that Bush had won. All the other media outlets, large and small, despite what they believed to be true, went along with the Fox News-endorsed story that Bush had won: if Fox News said it, it must be right. As Goebbels once famously said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”.

The use of loaded terms and aggressive reporting by the anchors of the main news channels in America seems to mostly stem from the fact that the channels were allowed to keep on broadcasting constantly. This meant that the researchers and anchors had to react to information and news as it was being received. If there had been some amount of time between information and images being received and then being redistributed again, then researchers and presenters would have had time to analyse things appropriately and in a measured fashion. As it was, the presenters fell back on the political biases of the particular media outlet, and used loaded, connotative language because of this.

Another time that the space between information received and redistributed has not allowed for a full examination of facts and situations was in the UK media’s initial response to the Oslo bombings and shootings on the island of Utøya in July 2011. The first responses, embarrassing for many of the media outlets that aired this view, were that the attacks were “almost certainly” the work of Islamic Fundamentalists, probably Al Qaeda. This view was even put in print by one tabloid newspaper; an error that was too late to put right. One issue that came up during the reporting of these attacks was the use of scrolling news reports on media outlet internet sites. Many of the media outlets were constantly updating the status of the news story but forgetting to delete earlier reports that were made in error or using data that wasn’t properly analysed. This meant that people were scrolling down through the statuses and getting incorrect information when, further down the page, newer information was proving this information wrong.

News has to be up-to-date, there is no doubt about this, but when news is presented with a veneer of expertise when there is nothing but conjecture and political language underneath stories, then there needs to be a change.

Firstly, the ‘instant gratification’ service that media outlets provide at the moment needs to be modified. Instead of outlets priding themselves on getting the stories first and distributing their ‘knowledge’ of the stories to the people in the quickest time, outlets should be priding themselves on their research, on their measured and thoughtful approach to the news. The former, more competitive, method only leads to outlets using devious and illegal methods to get to the information first, and this brings down the whole of the media and causes outlets to become destructive.

Secondly, media seems to need to comment on news as soon as it is distributed, giving their own, mostly political, reasons as to why something is happening. This means that as soon as something is received by media outlets, it is moulded and shaped by researchers, editors and presenters/journalists. All media, as we perceive it, is then adulterated in order to fit with the political allegiances of the executives of the media outlets. Media as an unadulterated, flowing, comment-free creation can’t be far away from what we have now: we have a free-flow of information, but the information is changed to fit before it is allowed to flow through the outlet.

One of the media’s favourite chants is that media should be made freer. I think that, in some sense, it should be more controlled. Not by the media executives, the bosses, the shareholders, the government or even by the public, but by the people who are responsible for the media’s output; the journalists, researchers and editors. If these people were in control of the media then they could discover, and smash, the corrupting power of competition, and could push media back in the direction of media for fact’s sake, not media for money’s sake.

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