What socio-political difficulties do mass media face in reporting reality?

Credit of featured Image: Mikes-Photography / 1045 images, pixabay.

As part of my current master’s program, I had to answer this question. With the help of relevant readings and some sensational films, I tried to offer a unique insight into the world of journalism……

As committed and determined journalists and media industry workers are towards reporting reality, they face a number of socio-political difficulties in doing so. In this essay, using examples from literature, films and academic material, I will discuss the internal conflict which exists in all journalists when it comes to depicting reality. I will also discuss the external forces in society which hold enough financial or political interest to serve as an effective barrier for media.

In Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky argues that the major decisions over what happens in a society such as investment, production, distribution are in the hands of a relatively concentrated group. He explains to us that these are the same groups which staff all of the executive positions in government and more importantly, they own the media. They control all the resources and the need to satisfy their interests has a huge influence on the actions taken in a society. So given this observation, the socio-political challenge posed to journalists is how possible is it really to uphold their duty to the public sphere and best serve public interest if the owners are always going to try and serve their own interests at the same time. Chomsky argues that there are “two targets for propaganda”: The “political class” which makes up 20% of the population. These people are relatively educated, articulate and play a small role in decision making. They are the thought provokers, social influencers, managers, teachers, and writers in society. They play a small role in the way political and economic life occurs (Chomsky 1988). According to Chomsky, the main objective of the remaining 80% of the population is to follow orders. Not to think, not to pay attention to anything and ultimately to be the ones who pick up the tab when it comes to an economic downturn.

Sometimes the depiction of reality offered to the public sphere at the hands of journalists is that which correlates best with the owner’s interest. In Who Really Runs Ireland? Matt Cooper offers us an insight into Ireland during the Celtic tiger and the owners of the new found wealth the nation was experiencing during this time. He reveals his own experiences of moments of conflict as a journalist where his duty to the public sphere was overshadowed. “I had to tread

a line between what I saw as my responsibility to the readers and the reality that the loss- making newspaper was dependant on Independent for finance to survive” (Cooper 2009). James Curran highlights the reality that journalistic autonomy is ultimately exercised by employers. The extent of influence generated by owners varies greatly from one news organization to another. Always present however, in some form or another, are the influences exerted by the cultural patterns in society, the images and meanings readily available to journalists, and the wider ideologies to which they are exposed. Curran argues that we need to combine “political economy with culturalist insights” (Curran).

In The Post, we learn about the internal conflict faced by journalists. Owner of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) knows that consumers of the post demand quality, so she demands their needs be met by investing in capable reporters. Even though she feels like a novice in her role, since she ultimately landed in it due to the untimely death of her husband, she is an example of a journalist who accepts her first and foremost responsibility is to act as a service to the public. She understands and respects the public’s right to know and is determined to ensure that the Washington Post carries out its duties accordingly.

The editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradley (played by Tom Hanks) represents the much more oblique side to journalism. He also believes that first and foremost the public have a right to know and also believes himself to be a servant of the public. However, in his commitment to his duty he accepts that sometimes upholding this responsibility comes at a cost. At 18.27 we see how Bradley instructs the intern to go to The New York Times to learn what one of their reporters is working on. When asked by the intern “is that legal?” Bradley responds, “What is it you think we do for a living here kid?” implying that sometimes journalism has an unethical side and in order to best serve public interest, one must be willing to accept this reality. Bradley believes that sometimes being unethical is necessary in order to serve the “greater good”. essentially, the ends justify the means.

At 36.00 Bradley outlines why he feels United States Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara wants to maintain a healthy relationship with Katherine. He explains to her that McNamara is perfectly aware of Katherines capability to influence public opinion through The Washington Post and that if he can maintain her as alley then The Washington Post may be sympathetic towards McNamara and the government. Katherine struggles with the new internal conflict as she doesn’t want to damage the relationship between herself and her old friend but as the owner of the paper she feels compelled to serve the public interest which in this case means to print stories which are quite detrimental to her friend McNamara. At 57.00 Bradley speaks of a time when he felt a similar internal conflict. He remembers the time when he did not want to publish the picture of Jackie Kennedy with the blood on her outfit following the assassination of her husband, the President of the United States. This is because of their close friendship and although he understands the value of the story, he is hesitant to place her in an uncomfortable situation in an already stressful and chaotic time for her. He mentions that he never thought of her as a source but as a friend, which he admits as a journalist, was his mistake, “we can’t be both. We have to choose.” A choice which is made by Katherine at the end of the film, “The newspaper will be dedicated to the welfare of the nation and to the principles of a free press”.

Media depict reality by ultimately deciding what issues in society are most important. Whatever goes on the front page, becomes the most important issue, regardless of whether or not that correlates accurately with reality. Noelle-Neumann and Rainer Mathes address this idea in “Event as Event”. They outline a perfect example of how the media only requires a small window of opportunity to create a large influence on the public sphere. The photo which captured a policeman being kicked in the face by a demonstrator represented a tiny minority of all who attended the Anti-Vietnam war protest in London. Not only did the media depict a false and misleading reality in this instance, one could argue that they are also guilty of placing false ideas in circulation around the public sphere. What is talked about among members of society leads to the formation of ideas, opinions and ultimately one’s personal and political ideology. If you depict the opposition to the war as irrational, crazy and aggressive could it not be said that people will assume that the leaders in favour of the war must be rational people, with a strong sense of purpose and thus creating a public opinion that the war is justified? The framing of the moment of violence leads to too much time spent talking about the protests around the war in Vietnam, that unfortunately, rational and informed debate around the topic of the war itself falls to the background. The challenge for media is accepting responsibility when framing issues.

While journalists may decide that the public has a right to know, they must also understand exposing certain information may cause a number of lives (including his/her own) to descend into chaos. In The Insider we see witness this first-hand. We see how committed Al Pacino’s character Lowell Bergman is to his role as a journalist. He is willing to put himself in perilous situations in an attempt to secure a valuable story (3.00). Bergman’s quote “You’re in a state of conflict” (41.00), echoes the state of conflict journalists endure throughout the course of their careers. Every action in journalism has an ethical dimension (writing, editing, reporting,

etc.) which means that journalists are constantly required to make choices and stand by their chosen course of action even if it could prove detrimental to themselves, their employer or even their families. The Insider shows us that above all else journalists should respect the public’s right to know even if corporations would rather keep information secret. If the information is in the public interest then they feel that companies have no place preventing them from sharing it (44mins). “It’s a public health issue. He can talk, we can air it, they’ve no right to hide behind a corporate agreement”. Following this statement another member of the news team points out that whether or not it’s in the public interest to know this information (essentially, regardless of whether or not we as journalists do the right thing), if they take legal action they have the power to absolutely cripple the network “they spend you to death” and therefore would place all of their livelihoods in jeopardy, reminding the viewers again of the extremely real socio- political challenge for media when dealing with large corporations.

Russel Crowe’s character, Jeffrey Wigand’s family endures intimidation at the hands of the company he is preparing to release information about. The stress and unrest of the situation eventually causes his wife and his two daughters to leave him. Journalists take on enormous pressure and responsibility when they agree to work with a source. In times of severe crisis such as this, journalists, as Bergman does, have to maintain that it will be worth it in the end, “you’re very important to a lot of people”. The Insider also revisits the challenges posed from the corporate side. Despite the monumental efforts of Bergman to firstly earn, then secondly maintain, Wigand’s trust, even throughout moments of crisis, the CBS network decide it’s best not to air Wigand’s interview, in an attempt to protect their own interests. Despite the interview eventually being aired, Bergman resigns. He reiterates his principles as a journalist and maintains that trust and the ability to uphold your end of the bargain are essential ingredients. Due to the events that have transpired over the course of the film, he admits that he won’t be able to earn the trust of any future source and therefore believes his purpose as a journalist ceases to exist.

In conclusion, we can see that every action taken in journalism carries an element of choice. Each action brings different outcomes which have a unique influence on the public sphere. Sometimes the socio-political difficulties that journalists face come from within. In their attempt to serve public interest, they are sometimes required to take a course of action which will prove detrimental to those close to the story or to their own personal relationships. Alternatively, the challenge can also come in the form of private ownership and economic/political influence. The duty that journalists feel they owe to society is restricted by the influence of the more powerful members of that same society.


Bibliography

Chomsky, N. (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011.

Cooper, M. (2009) Who Really Runs Ireland?: The Story of the Elite Who Led Ireland from Bust to Boom and Back Again. Penguin UK.

Curran, J. Cultural Perspectives of News Organisations: A Case Study. Available at: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/11Y4PJVhyNGJZdk7FYEsylxaF23JpuYYl?lfhs=2 (Accessed: 30 November 2020).

The Insider (1999) [Thriller] Directed by Mann, M.

Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent Directed by Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTBWfkE7BXU&ab_channel=Chomsky%27sPhilosophy (Accessed: 3 November 2020).

Noelle-Neumann, E. and Mathes, R. The ‘Event as Event’ and the ‘Event as News’: The Significance of Consonance for Media Effects Research. Available at: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/11Y4PJVhyNGJZdk7FYEsylxaF23JpuYYl?lfhs=2 (Accessed: 30 November 2020).

Cooper Matt Who Really Runs Ireland Penguin 2010 (Excerpt).Pdf. Available at: https://moodle.griffith.ie/pluginfile.php/164145/mod_resource/content/1/READING%20Coo per%20Matt%20Who%20Really%20Runs%20Ireland%20Penguin%202010%20%28excerpt %29.pdf (Accessed: 25 November 2020b).

The Post (2018) [Drama] Directed by Spielberg, S.

Published by Rory Corbett

My take on the world and everything in it

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