Monthly Archives: July 2009

Stop the press: All news is propaganda!

We should be all really worried, seriously concerned. This has the potential to shake up western society in its principle fundament: the News media is dying! Newspapers are folding in droves, television companies are on the ropes and hordes of journalists are walking the streets looking for a job.

We are being reminded of the role journalism executes in western democracies: exposing agendas in the democratic discourse, revealing offences against common sense, debunking false prophecies in finance and sciences. Without journalism, how would we know what’s going on in the world beyond our immediate perception? Who would grill the politician trying to sell us the next tax hike or the next humanitarian military invasion? Who would drag paedophile devoutness from its rose-glassed dungeon?

Thanks to the analytically trained minds of journalists, the media can also point to the root causes of their own demise and, hey ho, found the culprits! The Tubular Interweb, with its truck-driver-the-road-is-mine mentality, fast-food-thought pseudo-media 5-clicks-and-you’re-out culture, produced by self-centred bumptiousness and giving evidence that brain-cell-corrosion exists. Email subscription lists and Blogs! Citizen journalists! Twitter! Oh, and Google! Freely giving away their content and carving away on their advertising revenue.

So why are you still reading this blog? Go to the NYT, make your subscription/donation and do your effin’ part in helping these temples of liberty, defenders of your freedom of speech. Go!! While you’re there, don’t forget to click all their banner ads!

No? You think there should be something more? Oh, yes. The title does suggest that I don’t really buy into the view that I’ve just expressed. Here’s my theory on why the news media is haemorrhaging: they’ve stopped doing their job and we’re no longer buying it.

Once upon a time, journalists used to be eager to give you the facts, to the best of their abilities, unbiased and without prejudice. The quality of a journalist was measured in his investigative ability to give you more detail about and insights into the subject matter. Opinion pieces were confined to marked columns. It was not unusual to find people subscribing to a newspaper that expressed opinions in its commentary that differed from the reader’s, for appreciation of the quality of the factual information.

Today, most facts come from agencies and their news feeds.  Tom on CNN works from the same facts as Dick on Fox and Harry on the BBC. What differentiates them is how they package these same facts, how they tell their story to get the reader, listener or viewer engaged: they have moved from appealing to the rational to appealing to the gut, which makes subscribing a political brand endorsement.

News media needs eyeballs to justify its existence. Competition within a limited audience forces market segmentation. News organisations attract their audience by resonating with the cultural, social and economic values of their targeted segment, thus amplifying opinions. Whereas a news organisation used to stand for a certain value segment out of its own choosing, nowadays the majority of media outlets are designed to fit a niche defined by a “business model” determined by its funders. Where such interests are commercial, the model is designed to create revenue. Where they are non-commercial, the outlet is designed to carry out a political function, but in various degrees there are always overlaps between the two.

Journalists always were aware that they could influence how their audience forms its opinions. If it is revealed that candidate X was doing sleazy deals with a gangster, you’d no longer vote for him. If they uncover evidence that product Y causes cancer, you will no longer buy it. Whereas opinion-forming required journalists to find facts and figures that would support their view, they have learned from PR experts and psychologists how they can massage the message.

For example, priming is a popular “technique by which a stimulus is used to sensitize the subject to a later presentation of the same or similar stimulus”. Headlines or a lead into a report, often accompanied by imagery, are used to invoke a point of view before the facts are presented. Tone of voice is used to resonate with the audience on an emotional level.

When we’re consuming news, we rarely have the leisure or poise to disseminate and reflect upon the packaging of the facts. This makes us susceptible to the non-verbal content of the communication and can influence our response. (The Daily Show capitalises often brilliantly on this by its witty deconstruction of spin from fact and is worth watching just for this entertaining art of media education.) We’re no longer being informed: we’re being formed.

Television with its distinct advantage of “coming live to you” has also opened the door for the journalist celebrity. A news event now becomes not merely a fact worth of being reported, it becomes an opportunity for a reporter to make her mark. If the non-verbal aspect of the reporting strikes a cord, the tie with the audience is strengthened. It is not surprising that therefore reporters often seek to portray events from the perspective of the victims of the event. We will empathise with victims and through that not only feel more obliged to accept the angle of the reportage, but also to bond with the reporter. The focus on this emotional bond with the audience has lead to a change in preference from relevance to arousal. Traditional news outlets are still reluctant to completely sell out to the prostitution of satisfying a craving for emotionally charged packaging, but Rush Limbaugh is a formidable example that this format has a growing market.

By sacrificing relevance, journalism has started to slip into irrelevance itself. Increasingly, the news media fails to uncover what’s going on before it hits us. The GFC has shown how the media’s political and economical entanglement has prevented them from bringing the immoral practices in finance to our attention before the event.  Similar failures happen in conflict reporting, where journalists are willing to restrict themselves for the sake of “reporting from the epicentre”.

It is in this state that the Internet is hitting the media’s monopoly of providing information. Its mishandling of the Internet might prove to be this media culture’s final and fatal act.

Phil Bronstein on the Colbert Report described the situation for newspapers as

“You are on a ship and it’s taking water, the engine house is on fire and the life boats are out at sea. And maybe even the captain is out there, you probably are going to yell louder about the ship sinking than people on the shore.”

He admits that it’s not the Internet as such that is killing newspapers. He argues that news provided by newspapers is what’s effectively being read by people who look for news via Google, who’s getting its content for free, but then charges advertisers on the generated hits. He goes on, like many others do, to quote the case of the “predatory behaviour of clerics within the Catholic church”, which would not have come to the public’s attention without investigative journalism because of the cost and required political weight to publish such stories. However, flashing a dinky piece of investigative journalism does not suf
ficiently distract from the big piles of camel dung that go uncovered and have gone uncovered even at the height of prosperity of media outlets.

During the crisis in Burma, as now in Iran, the real news is on Twitter, where individuals tweet the facts as they can document them or hear them. It is correct to remind us that these Twitterers often do not have a background that qualifies them to report objectively, but where is the qualitative balance between an eyewitness reporting the event from her perception and the tailored message being delivered by media professionals? The media has long ago forfeited the claim of being an innocent mouthpiece and has succumbed to the benefits of having influence and weight. When it attempts to discredit the trustworthiness of new forms of news reporting, then it is just trying to defend its turf.

Here is how Stephen Fry describes this:

I’m not someone with press offices and all that kind of thing, but those like me in the public eye who have, have discovered it’s a magnificent way of cutting out the press. If people want to announce their new this or their new that, they’re going “I’m not going to do an interview, I’m not going to sit in a Louis Quelle-que-chose chair in the Dorchester for seven days having one interviewer after another come to me. I’m just going to Tweet it and point them to my website and forget the press”.

And the press are already struggling enough. God knows they’ve already lost their grip on news to some extent. If they lose their grip on comment and gossip and being a free PR machine as well, they’re really in trouble.
So naturally they’re simultaneously obsessed because they use it, as it fills up their column inches, but they’re also very against it. So you’ll get an increasing number of commentators going “Aren’t you just fed up with Twitter? Oh, if Stephen Fry tells me what he’s having for breakfast one more time, I think I’ll vomit.” They really will have a big go at it because it attacks them, it cuts them out.

I believe we are seeing the demise of the predominant news culture, not journalism itself. Where I’m critical of journalists, it should be seen as directed at those journalists who have bought into the described philosophies of “how to make news”. There are still plenty of journalists, and even some news media products, who subscribe to the old ideal of striving to report unbiasedly and without prejudice. They’re few in comparison and mostly carve out their existence not because of the wonders of modern media brands and their operational methods, but despite them. There will always be plenty of us who will listen to good reports, because there are plenty of us who care about what’s going on. It is for those journalists that we have to make ourselves available to new ways of financing their professional existence.

Wherever you choose to get your information, you will have to learn to be critical and try to unravel the motivation behind the reporting. There is no going back to the virginity of just reporting the facts.

Quoting Wikipedia on Propaganda:

Propaganda is communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense, often presents information primarily in order to influence its audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda.

“Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”

End Quote.

I ask you to go and watch some news and let me know if you can find reporting where this description does not apply. I find it increasingly difficult. In an enlightened culture, it is supposed to be the job of media outlets to inform us without trying to manipulate us. The media has chosen to aim for celebrity, money and influence. As we’re learning to compensate for their manipulation, we have found that we can apply the acquired skills just as easily to other information sources. Those, who in the old paradigm would have been sources to the media, are now publishing themselves. Traditional news media will become obsolete. I don’t think we need to be overly sad. All news is propaganda, but people have shown that they can handle it.


Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Society