How News Media Can be Dangerous

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by Neil Godfrey

A day after I posted The Limits of News Media as Information Sources Mano Singham posted what could even be called a companion piece, We need more analysis, less reading of tea leaves. He begins (I have reformatted it)

Political news coverage consists of roughly three parts.

  1. First there is the reporting of an actual event that occurred (i.e., what makes up the ‘new’ in news).
  2. Second, there is an explanation of the context in which the event occurred that consists of the history and background that led to the event and the people involved, plus any actual consequences, such as how a new law that has been passed will be implemented in practice and how it will affect people.
  3. And finally there is the question of What It All Means, which consists of drawing broader conclusions and predicting future events based on the news event.

It is that middle bit that gets omitted or at best seriously abbreviated from most news reports.

Without that middle bit consumers of news are left without the most important details of all.

The second part requires not only some knowledge and expertise but also time spent in careful analysis.

Without that middle bit the news story is open to feeding popular beliefs, prejudices, misinformation, ignorance. Without that middle bit news stories potentially add fuel to bigotry and stereotypical and political, cultural, racial, etc biases.

How can it be otherwise? The news stories have to be selected and presented on the basis of what will catch the attention of the consumers and give them material they find interesting. Naturally the stories be selected and presented in a way that will tap into what is going to emotionally involve readers and viewers.

Many years ago I was required to study a couple of books by Jacques Ellul, one of them titled Propaganda. One counterintuitive detail he mentioned really pulled me up. He said that the very fact of mass media overloading consumers with enormous amounts of information, that is factual information, can in effect be a way of propagandizing a society. Information overload does not allow time for analysis or reflection and investigation. It ends up fueling the beliefs and attitudes that are taken for granted, “correct”, and so forth.

Jacques Ellul
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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “How News Media Can be Dangerous”

  1. I agree with the observation that ‘information overload’ can actually reinforce stereotypical beliefs because the time for reflection just can’t be had before the next crisis erupts.

  2. I think we mostly select the information we want to hear and block out what we don’t. Similarly, those who are inclined to reflect, will do so. There is a big trade off between the active life and the contemplative life. A stressful job where you have to process a lot of information and make decisions often doesn’t leave much time or energy for reflection.

    1. I noticed in my career life that people at the higher rungs of society put in the most hours at work and work-related activities that they naturally had less time for exploring or checking for information that was outside their immediate needs. In other words, members of the “ruling classes” were more likely than others to simply accept the implicit messages of mainstream media and government statements. It was not just a question of time, but also of status, of getting along with the people at the top of business, communications, government bodies.

      And so we have “the power elites” sitting in the halls of the industrial-military-etc complex driving the whole shebang.

  3. I watched a documentary a few months ago about how/why older people get radicalized by Fox “News”. An interesting part was that in the 80s there used to be laws in place (in the USA at least) to differentiate between opinion/talking heads and actual unbiased news. With the abolition of that law, the line between pundits and reporters became blurred and that lead into the situation we have now.

    1. What sticks in my craw is our national broadcaster exploiting an opinion poll to advertise its news service as “the most trusted” in Australia. It presents itself as the most objective, neutral, trusted news source. I can’t imagine a better way to persuade consumers to soak up what is presented and be suspicious of questioning what they hear.

      The news program is closely connected with interview and documentary programs that likewise present the air of trustworthiness.

      A genuine news source, in my opinion, will always point consumers to their sources and make them aware of other sources, always explain the context and limitation of their presentations, and so forth.

  4. I always like to see references to thinkers like Jacques Ellul and Reinhold Neibuhr, men whose deep belief in religion translated very well into their secular writings. Thanks.

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