By Ryan Peter
The media continues to be under the spotlight, not just locally but also in the US where questions about objectivity are moving to the forefront. Perhaps if there is anywhere in the world where these questions must be asked it’s in the US where, in my opinion, so much of the media has become immature, sensationalist and polarising.
But is the media like this because it’s reflecting society, or is American society (especially in the realm of politics) becoming more polarising because it’s reflecting the media? I’m beginning to think the latter is more the case. And what does this mean for SA?
In the US right now it seems media houses are not ashamed to say outright that they have a liberal or conservative bias. For some reason journalism attracts more liberals than conservatives (something we see in SA as well) so it stands to reason that we seem to see more liberal ideas in the media. Among other things, this shift to bias is probably due to marketing and the bottom line: having a bias means you have a ready-made audience. It means you can be controversial and sensationalist. These things sell. In a world of hyper-capitalism truth is measured in money.
The bottom line is very much being affected by the internet. Since print and even TV can’t always keep up with the pace of news online, journalism has become more about opinion and analysis than actually providing news. I can read on Twitter what’s just happened in Parliament, but I need to tune into the TV (not SABC, however!) or read a well-known publication to understand what it means. Or so they tell me.
Blogging and social media opened this up in a big way but it has brought a host of problems. Because blogging allows anyone to have an opinion I think journalists realise they need to make sure their opinion is more highly valued — especially since they feel they are more well-informed to talk on matters. And when opinion is the central focus all news must be slanted to suit it.
But the more journalists focus on opinion rather than news the more the public feels their own opinion is even more valuable. And so it spirals into nothing but noise.
Take the Huffington Post as an example. A post goes up there and within an hour it has more than 600 comments. The bean counters applaud the model (look at the traffic it’s getting! Look at the interaction! Look at the popularity! This baby is worth a lot of money!) But, in fact, is it providing anything of value? It seems to me that all it does is provide another platform where thousands of keyboard heroes can shout out their opinion and never bother listening. No one ever learns anything. Egos are inflated and snarky arguments rewarded. When everyone’s opinion is as valuable as the next then no one’s opinion is worth anything.
What’s needed at the Huffington Post, and what’s needed in general, is reflection and contemplation. There is a need for us all to just chill a bit, think a bit, calculate, wrestle and after putting in some decent time emerge with a courteous and thoughtful opinion. But is the media encouraging us to do this in the way it presents the news? Generally, no. In fact, I feel we’re often encouraged to do the opposite.
Where am I going with this in terms of my opening paragraph and questions? Simply here: so long as the media has a bias it will continue to encourage polarisation. If a media house’s agenda is to push its own liberal, conservative, libertarian or whatever else views, it will do nothing but continue to create division in a nation. What is the media there to do? Provide us news or tell us what to think? It seems to me that many editors know the power they have and it’s the latter they’re aiming for.
So long as a journalist looks at a piece of news and tries to figure out how the news can be spinned to fit with their views they are not being a journalist but a propagandist. The news is meant to help shape and influence our views, not the other way around, and it starts with the journalist and his editor. They need to be open to changing their views as much as anyone else.
So long as the media continues to jump to conclusions, look for sensationalist angles, is eager to be controversial and only cares for the bottom line, the public will become the same. The Western world is a media-saturated culture. Many people genuinely believe what they see on TV and the media knows this. It doesn’t express or reflect the public but looks to shape public opinion. If you think different to the media then it will tell you how wrong you are. It will brand you — liberal, conservative, heretic, anarchist, buffoon. And the public will brand you the same. Because we all want everyone to think we’re smart too.
Don’t think so? Spend just a few hours at the Huffington Post and you’ll see what I mean.
So what about SA? Here, it seems, we have two main problems. One, for some strange reason America’s ways of thinking influence us too much and I think a lot of the media here would love to look and sound like the over-hyped media there. Two, it’s clear that our media is mainly driven by editors and journalists with liberal and secular opinions. Are they looking to shape my thinking? Often I feel they do. If not directly then indirectly, by the opinion and news they publish.
It would be nice if, in an effort to create a more thoughtful society, editors find ways to publish work with opinions that they may even find ridiculous. How else do you create a thinking society except by exposing that society to different thinking? I really feel the Media needs to change its agenda to one of helping society to think for itself — facilitating the process of thought, reflection and courteous discussion.
We don’t need to go the way of America in its sharp liberal/conservative polarisation that from this side of the pond is starting to look childish and ridiculous. Our media carries a responsibility to help create a mindful and courteous nation. It does that with what it publishes, how it publishes it and how it analyses. I plead with editors to change their agenda.
Ryan Peter is a freelance writer and journalist and blogs regularly at ryanpeterwrites.com. He is the author of “When Twins War”, a fantasy book available at Amazon.com for print and Kindle. He is also the deputy editor of gaming.do.co.za.