I’m into the final semester in my final year at college and Media Analytic now becomes the platform for a new module, Media Discourse and Analysis. Over the coming months I’ll be posting blogs discussing the various topics we cover in this module. In this regard the ‘Media Analytic’ blog title I chose for previous modules is perhaps most apt for this one as we’ll be looking at the way the media presents and represents the reality of the world around us and analysing the factors and influences at play behind this representation of events on the world stage.
It is largely the world stage to which we look when we engage with modern media as the local has become international and events in a distant town in Syria or the United States are viewed by millions; the local with a phone camera becomes an international reporter or, on a perhaps less serious note, an unknown performer can become an international sensation overnight as ‘reality’ television bridges the gap between what is local and what is global, between obscurity and stardom.
While much of the ‘news’ that reaches us through the relatively new medium of the internet today does come from un-filtered local sources, large corporations or public bodies still play a very great role in forming our sense of what is real and what is important in the sphere beyond what is immediately and physically local to us. This is the case from print media to television to radio and perhaps to an increasing degree on the internet. With state-run television or radio, governments seek to present a particular view of reality and even supposedly autonomous public broadcasters are not unmindful of the consequences of presenting views that run contrary to those of government and regulators. Private media corporations would see themselves as having a responsibility to return a profit to their shareholders and in a world where particular types of presentation of the news sell more product, trying to present a truthful representation of reality is not always a priority.
In this latter regard two news stories we examined might be taken to illustrate how particular events can be portrayed in a fashion that some might see as serving an agenda beyond honest news reportage. The UK student protests of a couple of years ago were marked by a certain homogeneity when it came to choice of front page photographs, with a dramatic image of a protester kicking in a window and a burst of flames in the background being the chosen image of nine British national newspapers. Some might argue that this was not representative of the vast majority of protesters who acted peacefully in pursuit of a legitimate claim. Others might see the student body as a relatively privileged section of society and the ensuing violence merely capped the narrative of spoiled brats doing what spoiled brats do when they don’t get their way, a characterisation that would be grossly unfair to the vast majority of protesting students. Perhaps the biggest determining factor in the decision of newspapers to go with the picture in question was its drama and attention-grabbing potential, which would be more likely to sell newspapers than one of smiling students enjoying themselves on a day out in London. Indeed, given the violence that did occur, it might have been considered wrong to present such a portrayal rather than highlighting that violence, which was quite substantial.
The second story that we looked at was the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein following the invasion of Iraq by military forces led by the United States. I can remember being struck by how small the crowd seemed as I viewed this supposedly momentous event on television at the time and one commentator we watched in class basically claimed that the most active section of the crowd were not Iraqis and were brought in to add to the occasion. The footage of the falling statue we were watching was being provided by Al Jazeera and broadcast by Fox News, if I’m not mistaken, and the Fox commentator was giving the sort of performance we might expect from a Fox journalist when dealing with anything related to the US military. That’s what Fox does and if you understand where they’re coming from I think they can be a very entertaining and interesting channel. For a somewhat different point of view on events in the Middle East Al Jazeera is worth watching or perhaps Iranian state television’s English language service, Press TV, which was carried by Sky up until about a year ago. The toppling of the statue was clearly a stage-managed event and as a symbolic milestone in a very questionable war I don’t think we should be surprised if the US military fed a particular line to international media or that the press ran with it. I think the fact that anybody who watches the news in a democratic country is aware of the horror and bloodshed that followed these events is testimony to the availability of a reasonably clear presentation of events through the multiple news sources that characterise media in functioning democracies.
At the end of the day our own views on how biased or partisan the media are may be to some degree influenced by how much they conform to our own view of the world and what is right or wrong therein. The ‘Occupy’ movement is a case in point. Some might feel that our own incarnation of that phenomenon here in Ireland, Occupy Dame Street, did not get the coverage it deserved given the moral strength of the arguments they were making. Others might feel that they got far too much coverage, given the nebulous nature of their demands and the relatively small numbers that turned out for their protests. Others may not have liked the presence of an encampment in the centre of Dublin or perhaps felt that there was something slightly questionable about what might have seemed to be individuals from privileged backgrounds engaged in a somewhat theatrical protest. Protesters that might be seen as somehow privileged, whether students or occupiers, need to work that little bit harder to gain public sympathy and, while these protesters were probably not homogeneously well-heeled, those that were seemed to come to the fore. The presence and actions of anarchists – who also have dubious credentials as representing the interests of the supposedly downtrodden masses – probably didn’t help the students’ cause in the end.
To sum up, we can view the news that is presented to us as given in a way that serves the interests of others, rather than serving the truth, whether that is because of profit motives or because of the ideologically partisan position of the news providers. These factors do undoubtedly play some part in determining what we see on our television screens, hear on the radio or read in the newspaper. We could easily become cynical about the media in general and the society of which that media is such a vital organ. We do, however, live in an age when our choice of news providers is broader than it has ever been. You could say that the news provided is shallower than it has ever been but perhaps that reflects upon us as people and at the end of the day we, as media students, have it in our ability not just to question the news we are given but to honestly search for the truth and mediate it as a constructive alternative to self-contained cynicism.