The Narrow Gate (Newsworthiness)

It is impossible for any of us to know everything. Considering that there are 196 countries in the world, if only a single interesting thing happened in each of them every day, it would be a full time job to keep abreast. We therefore rely on mediators to do that for us, and even then, they specialise in areas, or topics, or narrow their scope down in some way to keep the volume of information they have to process to a manageable level. We call the mediators of our information journalists, or reporters.

Reporters have to decide what, from the ever-flowing river of data, they should lift out and bring to our attention. In other words, they have to decide what is newsworthy. These decisions are never free from bias, no matter how much the reporter tries to stay neutral (and many make no such attempt). What factors do they need to consider as they decide what to report, and what to leave out? In no particular order, the following are among the many issues which affect what goes into our news reports:

  1. The person creating the report. Their personal tastes, political and social beliefs, likes, dislikes, goals, sensitivities, acquaintances and more can affect what they choose to report on.
  2. The people who will consume the report, the target market. What will grab the attention of a farmer in Louth may be of no interest to a nurse in Galway.
  3. The source of revenue. Reporters can seldom afford to offend advertisers, or the owners of their publication.
  4. Available space or time. Stories can be dropped simply because there is not enough space on the page or time in the television slot, or edited to fit what is available.

Such factors form a narrow gate through which potential news stories first have to pass before they can even be brought to my and your attention. Passing through that gate also shapes and changes what we eventually consume. With ‘fake news’ being an issue lately, I believe basic media analysis skill is becoming something we should all have. When you read, hear, or watch something, you should consider the following five questions:

Who created this message?

Try to become cognisant of the possible biases built into various publications, or the personal biases of various reporters. For instance, in Ireland, in a report on media ownership, it was pointed out that the vast majority of media were owned by the state broadcaster and an individual businessman. These two entities between them control almost all of what we see, hear, and read in Ireland. This problem of ownership controlling what can be reported, and how it is reported, was demonstrated by the Denis O’Brien affair in 2015. While these owners don’t personally write what we read, the reporters working for their publications are aware of and affected by their bosses’ preferences.

Publications also have certain standards, orientations, “party lines”, an often recognisable voice. What they report to you is shaped by all these “personality traits” of people or institutions.

How did they shape this to grab my attention?

Or, what creative media techniques did the creators of the message use to grab my attention? Reports are often shaped in such a way as to interest us, putting the most sensational aspects in the most noticable places. Headlines are written to make us want to watch the snippet, or read more, click the link or at least not switch the channel. Yet these headlines can be misleading at best, and downright false at worst. This story in The Sun, for instance, is called out in this tweet for linking singer Lily Allen’s name to a story to sensationalise it, claiming she was not in any way involved.

 

How might someone different from me understand this message?

Our cultural and social background affects how we interpret a message, and what it says to us. Age and congnisance of online culture can also result in different messages meaning different things to different people. While this is most often subtle, Donald Trump demonstrated the difficulty of trying to communicate with a wide audience when he recently referred to Easy D. Young, internet-savvy consumers of his message understood it to mean something hopefully different from what he intended.

Another example of a cultural reference lost on certain social groups is

What values, lifestyles and points of view are either shown in or left out of this message?

Certain lifestyles and points of view are presented in the media as important, through a myriad of subtle signs. Over and above years’ conditioning about who and what is important, this question links with our consideration of who is shaping our messages. We should consider that journalists are (at least in the USA) overwhelmingly white males. We are for the most part presented a picture of reality viewed through the eyes of this social group. This bias has been shown to affect how reports are framed, often with serious societal consequences.

Why is this message being sent to me?

To answer this question, we need to try to pull the curtain back and see what ultimate monster may be operating the levers. News reporting can and very often does have a purpose well beyond merely informing you. Again, this question ties in with who is behind the message. Media owners are people with political and economic points of view and biases. For instance, Rupert Murdoch may have used his spectacular power in British media to help orchestrate Brexit for his own gains.

I personally think basic media analysis skills should be taught in school, as a fundamental part of civic and social education. Without knowledge, we are controllable, and when we can be controlled, we can en masse be used by the wealthy and powerful to direct even thicker streams of wealth and power into their hands.

When words fail

When you hoot at me for not giving you space to overtake me on a blind bend and risking a head-on collision with oncoming drivers…

I will give you a one-finger salute.

When you drive up to me once I move closer to the kerb as soon as it’s safe to do so, and shout abuse at me…

I will give you a one-finger salute.

When you shout something about road tax, demonstrating that you are not only a danger to other drivers but also unintelligent and uneducated

I will give you a one-finger salute.

You are a careless, inconsiderate and dangerous driver who should never have been given a licence. I hope you lose it before you kill someone.

 

Is that an echo I hear?

The echo chamber effect works in two ways. First, it’s when you only get exposed to media which reflect your ideology, never challenging your already cemented views. Second, it’s when an opinion is uttered, and repeated in the media you are exposed to so often that you start believing it’s fact. The echo chamber effect is particularly associated with conservative media. A liberal echo chamber also exists, but it is more associated with the first than the second characteristic of the echo chamber.

Politics works differently in Europe and the left/right divide is more complicated (because in Ireland, where I live, for instance, there are nine political parties in parliament right now, with more having representatives at local government level. Compare this to the USA where they’re one party away from being a one-party state, and may already be there – but more on that in another post). Nevertheless, it’s safe to say I’m on the liberal side. I am as susceptible to the echo chamber as anyone else, and mostly see the liberal framing of news. I have noticed a worrying echo chamber effect in my news feed.

Take, for example, the recent Bowling Green Massacre gaffe. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway cited a massacre that never happened to justify the recent Muslim ban. Conway was roundly mocked on social media for her mistake. My Twitter and Facebook feeds abounded with examples of witty responses which I admit I found very amusing. Yet something bothered me. The way this was all framed was that Conway was being schooled, roasted, owned, trolled. It was all framed as this triumph over her, that she was embarrassed. That those so cleverly mocking her achieved a victory over her, and over the Trump administration. So… what was Fox, bastion of right wing media, reporting?

That she misspoke, and corrected  herself. Then the report goes into great detail of the story she was actually referring to, and this in itself serves a purpose: it achieves what she was trying to achieve with the interview in which she made the mistake.

See, here’s the problem: those opposing Trump are creating this fantasy world in which they’re winning. We paint a picture where our clever social media burns actually matter to these people. They don’t. The people who got them into power, and the people who got Britain out of the EU, and the people who are likely to put Marine le Pen into power: our clever social media burns never reach their eyes or ears. Their echo chamber doesn’t report on those. The people who achieve the trolling are not in their Twitter or Facebook feeds. They live in a fantasy world where all these developments are building their utopia, while we live in a fantasy world where our intellectual warfare is actually affecting the Trumps, the Conways, the Farages, the Le Pens.

And while we each create and live our fantasy where we are winning, the wealthy and powerful are sucking the world around us dry, amassing the riches that will see them through the catastrophe their rape of earth’s resources will bring about. It’s like they’re feeding us drugs to keep us high, to keep up our illusion, so we don’t notice ourselves starving to death.

Wet Cat (Out-Foxed)

The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one.

These words perfectly explain the current flood of misleading or even outright fabricated “news” that pours over our senses day in, day out, until it’s a mammoth task to separate reality from fiction. Yet they were written almost sixty years ago. The quote is from historian Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image, first published in 1961. In it, he posited that what we observe can be divided into three categories:

  • Genuine events are things that happened.
  • Media events are things that would probably have happened, but which take on certain peculiarities because of reporting. The main concern in these events is staging a story.
  • Pseudo events are fabricated for reporting, for the cameras. They are totally staged happenings which would not take place if reporting was not a thing.

So for instance, it rained. That is a genuine event. There was a hole in the roof of the house, so the cat got wet. Reporters are filmed talking about the plight of the wet cat, and people flock to help the cat who may not have been interested if the cameras were not rolling (the people, not the cat. The cat, mildly confused by the sudden interest but enjoying the generous offers of towel rubs, is otherwise unaffected by the presence of cameras). That is a media event. Later, a press conference is organised where the mayor announces a war on dogs. While the event happens live, technical or dramatic techniques are used to make it more attractive for the cameras, and of course to control its unfolding. That is a pseudo event.

Pseudo events are manufactured, and nothing is ever manufactured without a purpose. This doesn’t need to be something sinister, but it can be. Worryingly, pseudo events can by their very nature be more attractive to consumers. This means that even reporting of real events is increasingly undergoing something that can be compared to processing of food. It’s tastier, it’s more attractive, so we gobble more and more of it, becoming fatter and sicker from the poor nutrition it provides.

Understanding of the human psyche has become very sophisticated, leading to the discovery that certain emotions can be evoked by framing news in a certain way, so that you hook a consumer and, of course, make more money. If you control news reporting, you can control what people believe about the world, and subsequently you can control who they vote for, and therefore who commands power. Considering this, the ownership of media organisations should be something we all worry about. These owners are the real rulers of the world.

The Mirror (Reality)

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.

Media Discourse and Analysis

All news is fake news – kind of. Nothing you read or watch is what it is. Instead, even when a reporter strives to present no more than an unbiased account of an event or situation, what they offer for consumption is a representation of reality.

One of my modules this semester is Media Discourse and Analysis, and in this category I’ll be blogging about what I learn.

The jocks and the nerds

I can think of few better metaphors for our roads than my kids’ school. It was established more than 100 years ago, the building erected with spacious passages, if you consider the maybe two or three hundred pupils it catered for at the time. School, back then, was really for nerds (forgive the stereotyping in this article, it’s to prove a point): your more brain-strong than body-strong types, and of course they were all male.

As the years rolled by, school changed. It became common for more than just nerds to finish to Leaving Certificate level, so the school got fuller and fuller. The demographic changed from nerd-heavy to nerd-light. The doors were opened to girls, too. Additions were made to the school building, but there’s legacy infrastructure that catered to a very different need. Those spacious passages are actually really narrow, now that two or three times the number of pupils need to move through them.

Consider, now, the experience of nerds, the behaviour of jocks. The rowdy, energetic, strong, and often physically big jocks are by their very nature intimidating to nerds. Some of them are perfectly polite, but simply unaware of how they make life difficult for the smaller nerds when they stride down the narrow passage as if they own it, unconsciously offering the nerds the choice between being shoved aside or shrinking out of the way. Others delight in their power, and will go out of their way to intimidate nerds, veering just ever so slightly closer as they push past, laughing when the nerd is shoved or steps aside. Even in small, petty doses, power gives a big high. Still others are aware the nerds feel intimidated, but believe might makes right, and the nerds must just deal with it.

Then there are the nerds. Their life can be made a complete misery by the daily ordeal of trying to get books from their lockers while big, rowdy, often intimidating and loud jocks stream past. Being bumped into; for the girls, unavoidably coming into physical contact they would usually avoid, with boys they didn’t choose to rub against (and who most likely didn’t choose to rub against them, sorry, but the passage is so narrow, or perhaps they were even shoved into the girl when they themselves would rather have avoided physical contact).

It strikes me as illogical to solve this problem by getting the nerds to wear a bright waistcoat marking them out as nerds, and helmets to complete the uniform. When it comes to road safety, visibility is an issue, especially at night, but the inherent visual marking of vulnerable road users with what can be classified as a uniform has wider implications for social group issues, which are extremely powerful inhibitors to sustainable transport uptake. One can absolutely achieve visibility without using the standard, ugly, meaning-laden high visibility vests.

We’re stuck with the infrastructure, though, but here’s a thing. When I was at school in South Africa, moving from class to class was not just this wild free-for-all. You walked single file, in a row, and teachers stood outside their classrooms to police this rule. People who walked two abreast were nailed and could be punished, so it seldom happened. It’s hard to imagine this happening in Irish schools, it would require a fundamental shift in the paradigm from which people think when they enter the building. The same is true for our roads, though the countries to compare would be The Netherlands and Sweden, among others.

The solution to the problem lies in addressing the behaviour of the powerful, not in coaching the vulnerable to stay out of their way. Like all kids have a right to use those passages without stress or fear, just so all people have a right to use the roads without stress or fear. It’s not happening right now, so we have no choice but to make big changes. If you drive, you are the jock. Be aware that your mode of transport is inherently dangerous and intimidating to those around you, and drive accordingly: carefully, slowly, patiently, giving vulnerable fellow road users a wide berth to show you’re not going to harm them, and for the love of all that’s holy, stay out of their designated space.

You can be a jock without being a dick. It’s time we started aggressively insisting that everyone using the roads makes that their mantra.