None of us has the ability to know what happens outside our lived experience except through others communicating to us – or reporting – what they have experienced. This is the purest form of news. More often than not, our picture of what exists outside our lived experience is formed through someone communicating to us someone else’s communication about their lived experience. Sounds complicated, but in simple terms, anything you didn’t experience yourself is a story about someone else’s experience, and likely it’s not the person who lived the experience who tells you the story.
With 7 billion+ people living on earth, there is no way you can receive the communication about each and every lived experience. Therefore we have mediators who highlight stories worth telling, which are important for you to know. A friend may decide what gossip they heard is worth sharing over a pint. Through that mediation, through deciding to tell you A but not B, they have already shaped or mediated your view of the world outside your lived experience. Moreover, their own point of view and bias will shape the story they’re telling. If they don’t like John, they may consider the end of John’s romantic relationship to be a consequence of John’s unlikable behaviour. They like Ben, though, so the end of Ben’s romantic relationship may be framed as Ben’s partner being unreasonable.
On a wider scale, professional mediators – journalists – decide on local, national, and international level what stories are worth sharing over a news desk. Time is limited, so journalists have to make a decision on what is relevant and important to know. Should they tell us A or B? On top of that, just like your friend in the pub has a bias, journalists have biases. It is a human condition (which journalists should be aware of and strive to move beyond, but that is another story). Yet an added layer of bias comes into play through the journalist’s superiors, another layer through the organisation employing both: what market is the organisation targeting? The story will be framed to stimulate an emotional response among the target market, and identifying what wil elicit the desired reaction is an increasingly sophisticated science.
News production is increasingly aimed at entertainment rather than dispersing accurate information. This entertainment is costly to produce. The entities that invest in the production of entertainment want to minimise their risk, and therefore are reluctant to put money into productions that may not be popular. However, owning everything also minimises risk. There has therefore been an increase in horizontal integration (when a media institution swallows another media institution providing the same kind of media, such as a television production company buying a rival television production company) as well as vertical integration (when a media institution swallows an institution concerned with another link in the chain of getting this kind of content to the audience, such as a television production company buying a satellite television service provider) [for more on both, see the last source linked to].
When an individual owns a range of media outlets, they control the image their audience forms of the world outside their lived experience. If you hear it on the radio, and see it on television, and read it on your newspaper app, why then, it must be true. Everyone is saying the same thing. Yet “everyone” is really just one person, whispering into your ear what they want you to think. The power of the vote of the masses can therefore be wielded by a single person. Both the Brexit vote and the Trump (page 18) vote can be argued to show evidence of mass opinion being shaped by a continuous stream of indoctrination from a range of media outlets owned by one person, or at best a small handful of people. How is it possible for such small numbers to hold such incredible power?
As I mentioned, producing news is expensive. To hold the modern attention you need a slick, professional appearance, and this costs a lot of money. Therefore news is controlled by those who have the means to invest millions in professional news production. What we see, hear, read, and ultimately think can easily be controlled by people who have the money to buy our thoughts.
This situation is probably the biggest challenge democracy has ever faced. One way of fighting it is to finance public broadcasters who are required to be neutral. People who turn to news sources that are not in private ownership/not operated for profit, are generally better informed. We also need to finance the arts, and media, to enable those other than the wealthy to get their voices heard. Finally, we should include media literacy in public education, to foster understanding of the danger of getting news only from sources telling you what you want to hear, and understanding of the importance of funding arts and media.