Media as Paintings (Discourse)

When a painting is created, its final appearance is affected by more than the talent and purpose of the painter, more than the image depicted. Every element making up the painting affects what it eventually is. What paint did the artist use? Oil, water colours, perhaps something else altogether? How thick was it? Did it contain glitter? Did they use more than one brush? What were the bristles made of, and how long were they? Were the brushes flat, round, or a mixture? What did the artist paint on: canvas, wood, metal, a wall, a rock? What size is the painting, how well was the canvas stretched across the frame, was the rock smoothed, the wall plastered, the wood sanded or not?

These elements that shape a painting as much as the artist holding the brush are to the painting what discourse is to media. It is the environment in which media comes to be, the myriad elements that influence what is eventually broadcast. The questions we can ask to form an understanding of the discourse that shaped a media artefact are, among others:

Who created the message? As I’ve discussed in previous posts, everything influences media, from the fingers hovering over the keyboard or the voice reading the teleprompter, to the editor who decided this story instead of that one should be produced, through link by link to the owner or shareholder exerting silent or not so silent control over the decisions of everyone down the chain, to the advertisers either spending or withholding their money.

Why did they create the message? In the neoliberal system currently dominating at least Western culture, the answer almost always is ultimately to make money. This also almost always means that “to make money” is preceded by “To draw an audience, so as…”.

When was the message created? Current events can play a role in shaping a message. Often, an understanding of the historic placement of an artefact is essential to decode its deeper meaning.

How was the message created? The tools at our disposal, or that we choose to use, can shape the message we deliver.

What are the effects on the audience, or the wider social effects? Especially in such cases as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as president, media artefacts have a wider and deeper effect in context that should be considered in analysis, especially taking a step back and seeing how an individual artefact fits into a pattern.

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.

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.

WTF, Independent.ie?

I am attempting to widen my news reading, as it’s probably as closed-minded to only read the Guardian as it would be to only watch Fox News. So I visited Independent.ie for a bit of a different view on what’s going on in the world. Good website, except they have in their menu across the top the following categories: News, Sport, Business, Woman, Entertainment, Lifestyle, Videos, Photos. My first question on seeing that was, why should there be a separate category for women?

I clicked on it and understood why: because clearly, the Independent is still extricating itself from the view that women are vacuous creatures who shouldn’t bother their cute little heads with such weighty issues as world news. No, ladies, we at the Independent realise that what interests you is Celeb News, Photos, Videos, Fashion, Beauty, Love & Sex, Diet & Fitness, Horoscopes, and Competitions.

Grow up, Luddites. Your sexism is showing.

Does it matter?