News media is the primary means by which the general public receives important information, helping them form opinions about their world and make important decisions about politics and government. A free and fair press is the cornerstone of democracy. In this lesson, we explore the mechanisms of the news and unpack concepts such as hegemony, power, the public sphere, discourse, rhetoric, bias and more.
This week we look at the mechanisms of the news media, its power, freedoms, and its relationship to politics, society and culture.
“Historically, the modern … nation-state was constructed around an ideal of free expression and the participation of citizens in government. This free expression took place in the public sphere” (Lewis, 2008).
“The public sphere refers to a space of open debate, through which all members of the community can express their opinions and access the opinions of others. It is in such a space that reasoned political discourse develops, and an informed citizenry prepares to enact their civic rights and duties (i.e., voting, petitioning, protesting, etc.). A successful public sphere relies upon a diversity of voices through which citizens not only express themselves, but also expose themselves to the full range of thought” (Davis, 2015).
If we are to imagine the public sphere as a physical space, it was once a public square or similar physical forum, but eventually, public debate was enacted through the medium of print. Today, print media, radio, television and mass electronic broadcast media have transformed the public sphere into what we might call a global mediasphere.
Davis, J. (2015). Dethroning the Public Sphere. Cyborgology. thesocietypages.org/
Lewis, J. (2008). “Contemporary Culture, Cultural Studies and the Global Mediasphere” in Cultural Studies: The Basics. Sage.
News media is an important aspect of the way in which people form opinions surrounding their own governance and the basis of their ideologies. Moreover, it serves as the cornerstone of democratic society. To begin with, let’s look at some of the key terminologies that we will need.
A concept developed by Antonio Gramsci, it refers principally to the ability of the dominant classes to maintain power by exercising social and cultural leadership over the economic, political and cultural direction of the nation. In media studies, hegemony refers to the ways in which the media reproduce the ideologies of the ruling class and use the media as a way to make sure that these ideas remain status quo. Hegemony does not operate by forcing people against their will or better judgment to concede power to the already-powerful but wins consent by making sense of the world in ways that reinforce existing power structures.
Hegemonic values include freedom, democracy and capitalism which are perpetuated in all forms of American media. Hegemony is also operative in the way the news media cover things like sporting matches. Take the State of Origin for example: news coverage in New South Wales and Queensland differs based on the assumption of team loyalty to the State. No one forces you to watch the game or barrack for Queensland but the media perpetuate this as the norm, and social conversations around the time of a match tend towards the same assumption.
“Media power is generally symbolic and persuasive, in the sense that the media primarily have the potential to control to some extent the minds of readers or viewers, but not direct their actions. Except in cases of physical, coercive force, the control of action, which is usually the ultimate aim of the exercise of power, is generally indirect, whereas the control of intentions, plans, knowledge, beliefs, or opinions, that is, mental representations that monitor overt activities is presupposed. Also, given the presence of other sources of information, and because the media usually lack access to the sanctions that other such as legal or bureaucratic institutions may apply in cases of noncompliance, mind control by the media can never be complete. On the contrary, psychological and sociological evidence suggests that despite the pervasive symbolic power of the media, the audience will generally retain a minimum of autonomy and independence, and engage more or less actively, instead of purely passively, in the use of the means of mass communication. In other words, whatever the symbolic power of the news media, at least some media users will generally be able to resist such persuasion.”
Extract from D. Paletz (Ed.), Political Communication and Action. (pp. 9-36). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1995.
Discourses are an expression of power.
E.g. Western discourses of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ are often used to sanction violence.
Discourses are historically and culturally specific sets of rules for organizing and producing different forms of knowledge, e.g. Western medicine, the education system, criminal justice. Discourses tend to perpetuate concepts or truth claims that support established power relations. For example, women are more suited to raising children because they give birth; Homosexuality is unnatural as it doesn’t lead to procreation; Indigenous people are genetically predisposed to addictive behaviours because they have adopted western vices while being excluded from society. These institutionalised ways of thinking about a behaviour, conduct, emotion, belief, or object, in turn, limit how that thing can be thought about or understood.
Hegemony, power and discourse in the news
A useful way of understanding how hegemony, power and discourse work in news media and governance, is to consider the phrase ‘The War on Terror’.
Now watch this clip from Nextflix’s House of Cards. Here we can see how aware politicians are of the media’s power to disseminate their rhetoric. While this is a dramatised example of agenda setting, it remains an accurate account of how politics and media collude for the purposes of directing public discourse.
And it’s not just in discussions of political issues where we find news media employing discursive tropes that perpetuate a limited understanding of particular issues and social groups. Watch this comical analysis of youth representation in the media by The Chasers.
Freedom of the Press
When the press is free to write without fear of punishment then they are not afraid to write the truth, even when it may offend the government or institutions with significant power. When the press is free to write about the workings of government without the fear of punishment, they have the power to reveal both good and bad decisions or actions taken by government. This serves as an accountability measure for the citizens of a country. When citizens are fully informed, they are able to make a judgement about the effectiveness of a government and vote accordingly at the next election.
In many countries, you will notice a correlation between countries that have high incidents of human rights abuse and the degree to which the press is free in these countries. For example, North Korea, China, Russia, Sudan and Iran.
Australia’s Press Freedom
Politicians like to talk about the importance of press freedom as a vital element of a healthy functioning democracy. However, over the past 12 months in Australia political actions have spoken louder than words. The freedom of the press was decried by politicians when Australian journalist Peter Greste was sentenced to seven years jail in Egypt for simply doing his job; after the beheadings of journalists Steven Sotloff, James Foley and Kenji Goto by Islamic State; and after the terrorist attack on the staff of French magazine Charlie Hebdo. As Greste observed: “Journalists are no longer on the front line; we are the front line. Rarely have so many of us been imprisoned, beaten up, intimidated or murdered in the course of our duties.”
“We need to make sure the press are free to report within the constraints of what is in, I’d say, the national interest.” Senator Cory Bernardi.
When it comes to actions, politicians have shown themselves to be anything but the champions of press freedom that they claim to be invoking national security or national interests in their efforts to limit what the press is able to report. Between mid-2014 and April 2015, the government proposed three initiatives to limit freedom of the press. These included the jailing of journalists for up to 10 years for simply doing their job (like Egypt had just done to Greste), the accessing of journalists’ metadata in order to hunt down whistleblowers, and the monitoring, and even tampering with, the computer networks of media organisations, and designating journalists as ‘persons of interest’ under the ASIO Act. These national security laws were passed with bipartisan support.
Tony Abbott on free speech — July 17 2014: “News that endangers the security of our country frankly shouldn’t be fit to print and I’d ask for a sense of responsibility, a sense of national interest as well as simply of commercial interest, a sense of the long-term best interests of the country as well as the short-term best interests of creating sensation to be present right across our country including in the media.”
International Press Freedom
Reporters Without Borders has published its 2015 press freedom index. Conditions for journalists and independent media have got worse in the majority of the 180 countries assessed. In their assessment of press freedom countries were also ranked from most free (#1) to most restricted (#180). Perhaps you might find this a surprising fact, but Australia, America and Britain do not feature anywhere in the top 20. Below is a map which indicates the severity of restrictions by country. For more detail and to see the rankings please visit Reporters Without Borders freedom index.
📚 READING TASK
Familiarise yourself with the reports below and take note of any findings that particularly concern you. If you don’t have time to look at both reports then focus on the Australian finding. Please make notes while you’re reading as we will use these to lead discussions in your tutorial group. These are large documents so don’t try and read them word for word (unless you really want to). Skim the headings and pay closer attention to the sections that most interest you. Everyone should give some thought to the recommendations made at the end of the report.
► Excerpt from a report on Australian news media:
According to the 2015 Freedom of the Press Report, Australian journalists are being attacked for simply doing their job. For that to change, powerful people need to do more than just speak about press freedom. They must move to enshrine the principles of press freedom in our laws and throughout our communities, so that the work of journalists, their relationship with their sources, and the ability to tell stories in the public interest are promoted, encouraged and, importantly, protected.
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. (2015). Going after whistleblowers, going after journalism: A report of the state of press freedom in Australia.
► Excerpt from a report on the global news media:
News media have the potential to support economic and social improvements in developing countries and emerging economies. But in reality, they often fail to do so. Instead of serving the public and speaking truth to power, many media may act as mouthpieces of the powerful, repeat rumours without verification, discriminate against minorities, and feed the polarization of societies. Such media actions have a harmful influence that reaches far beyond the media sector itself. In this paper, the authors describe different phenomena of what they call the dark side of the media, and they look at how the dark side interacts in a dynamic way with other features of the governance environment.
Lublinski, J., Meuter, S., & Nelson, M. (2015). Development Agenda: Considering the Dark Side of the Media. DW Akademie.
Concentrated Media Ownership
In liberal Western democracies where we generally assume the press is free to speak, a news or media corporation may not report all the facts and therefore only speak partial truths, resort to salacious headlines to sell papers or try and disguise one-sided opinion pieces as news stories. Examples of both scenario are explored below.
In their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman propose a media effects model known as the ‘propaganda model’ which describes five editorially distorting filters applied to news reporting in mass media: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and fear. A concise definition of each of these can be found here.
When our news media is subject to economic control by a concentrated or centralised corporation this may pose significant threat to a free press. Media consolidation means that fewer companies own more news outlets, thereby increasing their influence over the flow of information.
Currently, in Australia rules exist to prevent concentrated media ownership. For example, the ‘reach rule’ prevents TV networks from broadcasting to more than 75% of the population and the “two out of three rule” prevents media companies from owning a TV station, radio network and newspaper in the same market. But this doesn’t necessarily safeguard us against corporate control. In Australia, 11 of the 12 capital city daily newspapers are owned by either News Corp Australia or Fairfax Media.
In the late half of the 20th Century, media and cultural studies theorists agree that true objectivity is never possible. Facts are never just facts, they are arranged to tell a story and it is in the arrangement of facts that subjectivity emerges. When certain known facts are stressed, omitted, skewed or blatant, we tend to say the news source is biased. Bias can appear in virtually all aspects of a story’s retelling, from information gathering to its textual composition. The info guide below provides an introduction to detecting bias in media texts.
Sensationalism is the presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy.
On October 5, 2014, the Queensland’s leading newspaper, the Courier Mail, published this headline immediately following a report that a young woman was brutally murdered and dismembered by her boyfriend who later killed himself in the upmarket Brisbane suburb of Teneriffe.
On October 7 (two days later), the same news outlet ran this report as their cover story.story.
In the two days between the reports, journalists had discovered that the victim Mayang Prasetyo, was a transgender woman originally from Indonesia and had worked as a sex worker. It also became known that her caucasian partner, Marcus Volke, worked as a chef.
📝 CRITICAL RESPONSE TASK
Do you think the above cover story is a fair and respectful account of this brutal murder/suicide? If, for example, in the two days between reports it was discovered that Mayang Prasetyo was a cisgendered teacher, the headline might have been quite different: “Young teacher tragically slain by deranged chef”. And what about the photo selection accompanying the text? Do you think this depiction of the victim is a fitting or a disrespectful choice?
Does this comply with the Australian code of ethics for journalism? Read through the code below and use refer to breaches of the code in your response.
Journalist Code of Ethics
Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism as journalists is a reflection of society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression.
Many journalists work in private enterprise, but they all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities. Alliance members engaged in journalism commit themselves to:
• Respect for the rights of others
Journalists will educate themselves about ethics and apply the following standards:
- Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.
Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.
Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.
Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.
Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.
Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.
Do your utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.
Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.
Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate. Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.
Do not plagiarise.
Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.
Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.
Basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.
Political and Ideological Bias
News media may be guilty of political and ideological bias when they selectively feature stories that favour a political agenda or slant a story so that it aligns with the values and ideologies of the corporate owners of that media outlet.
Prior to the election in 2013, the front page of The Sunday Telegraph featured a large photo of the then Opposition Leader in front of an Australian flag, with the headline ‘Australia needs Tony’.
This prompted a furious debate as to whether this cover was blatant political propaganda, or simply the right of a private business, albeit one that purports to inform, to express its views. Dr David McKnight from the journalism and media research centre at the UNSW, discussed the controversy on ABC radio. The following is taken from an ABC news report which can be found here.
David is the author of Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power, and is a former ABC and Fairfax journalist.
He says the cover featuring Mr Abbott is “more extreme” than we’ve witnessed in the past in Australia. “I mean that’s really quite extraordinary,” he says. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised as David also says that “Murdoch has a long history of intervening in politics.” When the election campaign began, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page with the headline ‘Throw This Mob Out’.
Similarly, in In the lead-up to a US Presidential Election, the Murdoch-owned New York Post published this cover declaring Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, as “The only choice” for President.
David recalls that in 1975 the Australian newspaper “turned” on the Whitlam government after previously supporting them. He says the paper’s journalists went on strike and issued a statement saying “we can’t be loyal to a propaganda sheet”. “That’s the only comparison that I can recall, something to compare with what the Telegraph, in particular, is doing these days,” he says. David points out that editorials in Fairfax papers have started to swing behind the Coalition as well, but says it’s not unusual for a newspaper’s editorial to favour a particular party. “What the Sunday Telegraph has done is run an editorial, so-called, on its front page with a gigantic photo of Tony Abbott,” he says. “What that arouses in people I guess is a feeling that newspapers, sure they can take a stance, but they have a public duty to be responsible, ethical. These sort of front pages just tip the balance right over. Yes, Fairfax also has editorial positions and probably in favour of Abbott too, but they don’t turn their front page over into a campaign organ of a political party. As for whether such front pages actually affect the way readers vote, is not so easy to establish. Most researchers would agree there’s a significant amount of influence, but it’s very hard to say”.
What do you think? Is the front page of a newspaper still an authoritative medium?
Is a newspaper more trustworthy than say a billboard advertisement?
Perhaps the answer to the question above is not all that easy to answer. While we have discussed many of the ways news media distorts or sways our opinion, we tend to still think of ‘the news’ as fundamentally different to advertising. But discerning advertising from ‘the news’ isn’t all that easy for a number of reasons.
Native advertising is an increasingly common form of advertising that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears. In other words, it tries to pass off ads as legitimate forms of content. For example, an article was written by an advertiser to promote their product, but using the same form as an article written by the editorial staff. Such as this Buzzfeed ad for Sony Playstation.
You might think that this is fairly inoffensive. Who considers Buzzfeed a legitimate and ethical source of journalism anyway?
While the Buzzfeed example may be innocuous, John Oliver’s report on native advertising in U.S News below is a little more alarming.
Abuses of Media Power
Below are two detailed case studies of the control and manipulation of the media. The first focuses on media ownership and the potential for abuses of power and the second focuses on government misinformation and inadequate reporting by journalists. As part of this lesson you are expected to complete one of these extension learning tasks. However, you are of course welcome to engage with both if you wish.
🎥 VIEWING TASK
The documentary film below entitled Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism focuses on reported Conservative bias of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel, which promotes itself as “fair and balanced”. The film examines the global growth of Murdoch’s media enterprise in the context of concentration of media ownership considerations and evaluates the effect of having one person in control of a large media conglomerate on freedom of the press. Among other things, the film features:
• A Review of Fox News’s coverage during the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
• Interviews with former Fox News journalists, discussing incidents where Fox News allegedly pressured journalists to slant their reports towards support for the Republican Party.
• Instances where Fox News commentators such as Bill O’Reilly allegedly attempt to intimidate guests with whom they disagree, such as author and activist Jeremy Glick.
• Studies which claim more airtime and coverage is consistently given to Republican politicians, particularly those in the George W. Bush administration, than to Democrats.
• Examination of whether Fox News’ premature result-calling of the 2000 presidential election contributed to George W. Bush officially being elected.
• Scrutiny of Fox News management, including Murdoch and president Roger Ailes, both conservatives, in allegedly controlling the network’s content, and editorial control from Murdoch down allegedly ensuring which stories and issues are covered and the strongly conservative perspective of such coverage.
The documentary is a little over an hour-long, so you don’t have to watch the whole thing at once. But it is recommended that you watch at least the first 30 minutes.
📚 READING TASK
The journal article below entitled Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003 Iraq War, reveals some of the ways in which politicians engage with and manipulate media messages. It focuses particularly on the US news media, revealing some of the political mechanisms that ensure that the ‘correct’ messages get out, ways in which press freedoms are limited, and the way news propaganda can direct public opinion. Among other things the article features:
• Details of the justification for the Iraq war including fraudulent intelligence presented as fact
• The regulation of the white house and military press corp to ensure that only journalists sympathetic to the government have press passes
• Direct action to limit unsympathetic views, such as the axing of Phil Donahue’s highly popular talk show.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING!
If you’ve delivering your dialogue on this topic and need a little inspiration, be sure to make use of the resources on the relevant SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest boards linked below. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.