The “Media.” It is often referred to in a way that makes it sound like a foreign entity, disassociated from the people who work in the field, like journalists and editors. I’ve always been fascinated by the way people have talked about media, especially news media.
How often have you heard that the media is to blame for, say, the rise of Trump? Or blamed for the undue focus on superficial issues, such as physical attractiveness or where Trudeau gets his donuts from? There are a lot of things the “media” participates in that should be examined—especially the propagation of fake news, but it is too easy to blame all these massive societal problems on some faceless entity that is so big and complex. We, the people, are what is responsible for the problems we see in our society; the media is simply our ugly reflection.
Take Trump for example. Did he rise to power because the news media was transfixed by his flagrant disregard of every political norm and his lack of decency? Or was he elected because a large enough group of people decided that his flagrant disregard and lack of decency was either exactly what they needed (or was to be ignored) for their own interest?
In truth, it is more complex than that. This issue is not a one-way street. The media influences society, that is true, but the media is also comprised of society. Every journalist, editor, cameraman, producer, executive, and corporation head exists in society and they bring with them the ideas, beliefs, misconceptions, and biases inherent to that society. Therefore, it is the structure of our society that proves dysfunctional (but you didn’t need me to say that). The media’s role in all of this is not, as previously believed, to be a cancer, but a symptom of our chronic disease, the diagnosis and treatment of which is a matter best left untouched in this piece.
So, why do people blame the media for societal problems so easily? Is it out of ignorance? Or because they don’t want to carry the responsibility given to them as a free citizen? Or perhaps we’ve been overemphasizing the role media has on our current lives? Well, unfortunately, the answer is that it’s probably all three and more.
The media supplies the masses with information. In modern western society, we often believe that our independent news media is factual and impartial for the most part. Yet as social scientists Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky pointed out in their book, Manufacturing Consent, the media does have a dark underbelly.
The current system of media is governed and operated by money and power, with corporations, governments, and the establishment controlling much of what is broadcast through five “filters”: media ownership, advertising, the media elite, flack, and the creation of a common enemy. These five filters work together to control the perspective and frame of the information broadcast across the country, and even across the western world.
So, if the media is so controlling and deep-rooted, is it not the manufacturer of our societal problems? Yet again, that would be too easy.
The structures that exist to enable such systems to grow and take hold are rooted in our own choices as a society. Ultimately, it is we who decide to let these structures remain because of our lack of collective will to change the system. However, it should be clarified that societies lacking in democratic institutions and ideals are not the target of this piece, those living in tyranny are in a vastly different situation. Nonetheless, citizens of western, mature democracies do have a responsibility to not only recognize the flaws in the system but to advocate for the reformation of the media because of its importance to the health of a society.
Of course, I can’t talk about media and not mention social media. Social media is a tricky area because it both concentrates power and distributes power widely. Social media, as is often pointed out, has many dangerous flaws, such as fake news and echo chambers, that penetrate beyond the screen and affect society and politics in a sometimes terrifyingly tangible way.
However, social media can also have a positive effect when used in the pursuit of truth and, with the support of an organized body, can even counteract the negative consequences of the media.
Chomsky himself still uses media sources, like The New York Times and Washington Post, but does his due diligence by looking at the sources and examining other sources outside of his media bubble. In the end, we need to accept our responsibility in the continuation of these societal problems and stop blaming the “media” for being a poor reflection of our dysfunctional society.