WEEKLY DISPATCH: The Media as a Venue for Political Contest

Posted on May 15, 2011 by


BY BEN HABIB.

The media…

Sometimes it is a check on power.

Sometimes it is a tool of power.

Sometimes it informs us.

Sometimes it misleads us.

The media is usually the main public forum for political discourse.  At its best, the media provides a venue for all sides of a debate to make their case, yet this does not always occur.  Media outlets like to present issues in terms of two equal but opposing points of view.  This adversarial style is good for boosting ratings or readership, but can often distort an issue.  By giving equal weight to competing opinions, it gives the impression that both sides of an argument are equally valid.  Often, as we have seen in the public discussion about climate change, this is not the case.  At its worst, the media is openly biased toward one side of a debate, or narrows the focus of a debate to the exclusion of other mitigating factors, or even disseminates outright untruths.  In short, the media is a venue for the contest of power and ideas.

The importance of a free and independent media in a democratic state

In a fully functional democracy, the media acts as a necessary check on the misuse and abuse of power.  It should ensure accountability and transparency by closely scrutinising the nodes of power within society—the government, business and other private interests—and identify issues of public concern.  When vested parties of any kind publish information about themselves, they usually release information that portrays them in a positive light.  Ideally, the media’s role is to challenge that information to test that it is accurate, discover what is being deliberately omitted, to construct a picture of the whole truth.

If voters are to make wise, informed choices at the ballot box, the news media must provide them with access to a diverse range of views as well as information about rival parties and their policies.  This comes back to the idea of choice.  It is one thing to have voting options—more than one candidate—but it is quite another to be able to make an informed choice about which candidate best represents your interests.  If a person does not know the difference between competing candidates, their vote is essentially a donkey vote because their choice is arbitrary.

If we assume that the media is doing its job as a check on government power, we shouldn’t be surprised that the government will from time to time try to inhibit the media from performing its role.  Government agencies will often obstruct legitimate freedom of information (FOI) requests in order to protect potentially embarrassing information from being made public.  FOI requests can often take years to be honoured and can be extremely expensive.  Even when documents are retrieved, they are often heavily redacted.  It would appear that the difficulties imposed on FOI claims are deliberately designed to discourage people from going to the trouble of making one.

Why are political parties and government agencies so sensitive about transparency?  All organisations like to paint a glossy, positive picture of themselves.  The public service is a good example of the culture of secrecy.  In the bureaucracy the modus operandi of any public servant is this: avoid culpability for any mistakes.  Career advancement in these institutions depends on carrying out orders from above.  Yet the pyramidal bureaucratic structure of the public service ensures that mistakes will occur because it is inherently inefficient and wasteful.  Therefore, if the activities of the bureaucracy are publicly scrutinised, mistakes will inevitably be found and careers will be damaged all the way up the chain of command to ministers.

The government’s frustration of the media’s democratic functions suggests that the media does have influence over public opinion.  Often governments, political parties and other entities will attempt to use this influence to their advantage.  Developments in communications technologies have radically changed how government interacts with the people.  Parliamentary elections pre-date television and the broadcast news media.  Prior to this, candidates campaigned face-to-face through public meetings, canvassing, and through word of mouth.  Today, people’s contact with the democratic process is mediated, meaning that we do not generally encounter politicians face-to-face and are only exposed to politics through the media.

Agenda setting: Media as gate-keepers of information

Because the spectrum of all available publishable information is so vast, media outlets inevitably have to make decisions about what to and what not to publish.  This is not a conspiracy.  Judgements have to be made in the editorial process because no media outlet can cover every aspect of everything that’s going on everywhere.   The editorial process acts as a filter on information.  How these judgements on content are arrived at, and to what purpose, is where the media becomes a site for a power contest.

Media outlets are in a position to define what information is important through the types of information they release to their captive audience.  Audiences tend to see as more important those particular issues which are given prominent coverage in the news media.  The theory is this: people make judgements about issues based on information immediately at hand or through easily recalled memories.  Several studies confirm that people’s political opinions are shaped by media to which they’ve recently been exposed.  This is especially obvious when an audience has not direct experience of what is being reported.  For example, one could argue that the psychological impact on Australians of the events of September 11th, 2001, were far more profound than would have been the case for a similar event a century ago because of the immediacy of live television and internet coverage.

By emphasising certain issues over others, the media can alter the criteria people use to evaluate their leaders.  For example, the media focus of the day is on terrorism, people may prefer leaders who appear resolute and strong on national security.  If the media focus is on crime, voters are likely to favour leaders who are ‘tough on crime’.  If the media focus is on government debt, the public may fancy leaders who present themselves as ‘responsible economic managers’.

He who holds the purse strings

Beyond setting the agenda, the media can more directly influence the political process by editorialising.  All newspapers have editorial and op-ed columns that performs this task, as do television programs presenting informed commentary on current events.  However sometimes, journalistic articles pick sides and take a direct stance on a given issue.  For example, the difference between journalism and editorialising is like difference between reporting and endorsement: ‘the government said we should send troops to Iraq’ versus ‘we should send troops to Iraq’.  It becomes a problem when the whole newspaper or entire stories on the six o’clock news bulletin become editorialised.  Such as act is especially egregious when the publisher claims to be objectively presenting ‘fair and balanced’ information.

So what factors drive editorial bias?  Mainstream corporate news media outlets are privately owned commercial organisations whose chief goal is to return a profit for their shareholders.  Their reason for existence is commercial rather than political or democratic.  Their principal revenue source is the sale of advertising space, generating income by gathering audiences or readers and selling access to other companies or organisations wishing to advertise their products or messages.  It should come as no surprise then that in the corporate media, content is presented for the primary purpose of attracting the largest possible audience.  In turn, content designed for this purpose is more likely to err toward the broadly entertaining as opposed to the intellectually stimulating.  In addition, the content published by commercial media outlets is likely to reflect the interests and political biases of their chief sources of income, their advertising clientele.

Turn on your bullshit detectors

So many of us passively absorb the media we consume without actually realising what it is we are being presented with.  Whether we realise it or not, media content—from high-brow current affairs programs to reality television to AFL football—presents us with a worldview, a blueprint for political, economic and social behaviour.  By coming to understand the media as a venue for the contest of power, we can come to understand its systemic biases and more effectively filter the information we receive.  Ultimately, this awareness can enhance our effectiveness as democratic citizens and members of the complex web of inter-dependent relationships that is our modern society.

What do you think?  Readers thoughts are always welcome.

Further Information:

(Audio) Dumbing down our politics: Lindsay Tanner discusses Sideshow with Bernard Keane, Crikey.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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