We all live in the local, moving in and interacting with a limited part of the world. To form a view of and understand what lies outside our personal experience, we rely on the reports of others. In other words, mediators. Media – artefacts created to communicate – especially news media, are meant to act as a mirror which reflects society.
The usual function of a mirror is to allow us to see ourselves. Interestingly, what we see is not quite real, even though it’s a perfect reflection. While many a horror story or film have used the trope of mirrors being, in fact, a window to another world, or something in which a monster or ghost can be captured, in reality mirrors are no more than a surface meant to reflect.
Yet increasingly, this media-mirror has shown life stirring in it of its own accord. There’s a monster in that glass, and instead of reflecting society, it is reaching out and shaping society. This is indeed the stuff of nightmares. Take, for instance, the recent British vote to leave the European Union. Among many issues that were hyped up as an imminent threat was the spectre of thousands of immigrants from Turkey overwhelming Britain, with EU membership allowing their free flow into the country. The fear arising from this spectacle was a critical factor in many people’s decision to vote to leave the EU. Yet it was a false narrative. A similar situation exists in the United States of America, where the new president has made moves to ban Muslims from the country, while the reality is that only a tiny fraction of all acts of terror on US soil have been carried out by Muslims over the last decade. Media is used to create a false narrative, but people accept it as a reflection of reality, and act accordingly, with serious consequences. Media can lead us – whether we think of ourselves as liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, or more – to believe something that simply isn’t so.
The mirror, even if it is free of faults that warp what it reflects, cannot help but frame reality in a certain way. The people who tell us the story of what happened inevitably viewed events from a certain vantage point, and filter the story through their own biases, no matter how hard they may try to be neutral. Modern technology has exacerbated the problem: with 24/7 news cycles and competition for consumers, profit and sensationalism drive selection of what to report. People rely on the news media to condense world events in an easy-to-digest ready-meal, and reporters comply, even when the stuff of the meal is too nuanced to compress into a sound bite. It all has to stay fresh, too, so news pours over us too quickly to consider, digest, examine.
The mirror is small and unable to show us all there is too see, it is warped, with a monster stirring inside and reaching out to shape what it should only reflect, yet it is all we have to work on in our effort to understand what is going on beyond our local world. What are we to do?
The answer is not easy. It’s not a ready-meal. We have to teach ourselves to become media analysts. I am privileged to be in a position to formally study media analysis, meaning I can spend the time needed to look beyond the reflection and actually examine the mirror. Not everyone has that time, and that’s a dilemma. I hope to share my journey with you here as I take it. It might give you ideas on how, with the time available to you, you can also look more closely at the mirror’s surface and more accurately understanding the reality it should reflect.