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Friday, September 14, 2012

The subtle, but astonishing, power of the media

Ok, I can already see the eye rolling from some those who just read the title.  Oh look, it's another conservative ranting about the "liberal media".  Yeah, I hear you.  As a self described centrist for many years, I know exactly what it looks like.  I never adhered to liberal ideology, but I also was swift to write off such concerns as hyperventilating partisanship by Republicans.  As with many posts, I write this preface so you the reader understand that while my conclusions may indeed look similar to what a so called "right wing nut job" might posit, it's at least being viewed through a lense tested by skepticism and a critical perspective.

Anyway, let's get down to business.  Let's just talk about the power the media has.  The media has a profound influence on its audience.  It's so ubiquitous that it's as hard to notice as a fish noticing the water they're swimming in (stolen from an article I'll link below).  It's an integral part of our society.  What is their power?  It's the power to shape the cultural and social landscape of their respective society.  Think about this:  How do you know what goes on in the world? In our nation? Or even in your town?  I'd venture to say that 99% of our knowledge of what goes on comes from the media.  The last 1% is what we see first hand ourselves.    Ok, so we get our information on what's going on from the media.  Pretty much, they tell us what's happening. And that's potentially powerful.  How come?  Because if we rely on the media to stay informed, we are automatically subjected to two important factors: Narrative and Bias.

What's Narrative?  The Narrative is the framework for a story, article, or any type of information relaying piece of work.  Imagine that you're on a set of a film being made.  The complete set is all the information out there to share.  The Narrative, however, is what's in the camera's view.  You don't see the other parts of the set outside the camera's frame.  And just by the camera only focusing on a specific angle and part of the set, it automatically sets a theme that may or may not fully represent everything that's going on on the set.  For example, let's say there's a shot of a man and woman talking with each other.  It looks like a normal, every day conversation....until the camera pans out to see both of them are pointing guns at each other.  Up until that point, the camera was relaying that this is just a normal conversation between two people and you had no idea the situation was so tense...until you saw the guns.  That's the power of the narrative and the media has virtually absolute control over it.

What's Bias?  Bias is when one's personal opinions and feelings affect how the information is relayed.   While   media in particular is supposed to strive to be objective and not let their biases affect their reporting, the fact of the matter is there is no such thing as a purely objective reporter.  The range of bias stretches from those who don't even try to hide it to those that do their best to remain objective but still have their own leanings naturally filter into their work.  Examples of bias would be where a reporter may present critical questions of someone or something they don't agree with, or they may reduce a certain piece of information counter to their own beliefs to only a few words in a single sentence tucked away somewhere in the piece.  Many reporters/journalists also know that the perception of objectivity is directly related to their credibility, thus many will do their best to appear outwardly objective while still injecting their biases in various ways.  Some are pretty subtle in doing this, while others are nearly transparent.   Bias' power comes from this subtle manipulation of a fact's perception.  By being able to slant information a certain direction while appearing objective, it bypasses the natural skepticism many people have against someone expressing their personal opinion.

Hopefully you can see how powerful the combination of narrative and bias is.  If a media outlet can not only control the framework, but then slant it a certain way while appearing objective, then it's very easy for those watching to take what's being presented as not only the gospel truth, but to assume that the slanted opinion being injected is the social consensus that "mostly everyone" believes.  And how is someone else to know if they only get their information from a single source?  They wouldn't.   That's the subtle power of the media.  They not only can control what you see and know, but they can influence the opinion you have regarding the information.

Notice that I've not mentioned the "liberal media" at all yet.  That's deliberate because I want to point out that every news outlet does this.  Not just the liberal leaning outlets.  The conservative outlets do this too.  And while I am conservative and appreciate that Fox News is a conservative alternative to other news outlets, to believe that Fox does not play the narrative game would be disingenuous.  Everyone does.  Thankfully though with the emergence of New Media (aka internet news outlets and radio), the stage for expressing alternate views has broadened, giving people the opportunity to hear a wider range of viewpoints.

But, there is a glaring problem:  in the media world, there's a huge imbalance that favors the liberal viewpoint.   Most news outlets, particularly the mainstream news outlets like ABC, NBC, and CBS are left leaning.  A study shows that journalists identify as liberal vs conservative at a ratio of 4:1, so it's not surprising that most news outlets are left leaning.  Why is that?  Well, one former liberal explains why the media overwhelmingly leans left.  In short, the kind of people journalism attracts tend to be those who harbor liberal viewpoints.  Thus it makes perfect sense why most of the media is liberal:  because the profession itself simply draws far more liberals to it than it does conservatives.  This isn't necessarily an indictment on liberals or journalism, but just a natural observation.  There's nothing condemning about saying that journalism attracts far more liberal minded people than conservative minded people.

This is why it's called the "liberal media".   And this is why conservatives complain about it on a regular basis.  Because the media has the power to shape culture and social opinion via the narrative and because 4 out of 5 members of the media have a liberal bias, it projects the idea that most of the country holds these same liberal values, which it does not.  Most of the country actually identifies as conservative or moderate.

So, the next time you believe "this is what everyone thinks", ask yourself how you came to that conclusion.  Is it because that's how it was presented on MSNBC or Fox? While I personally am a proponent of conservative values, the important part here is for someone to get in the habit of doing checks on themselves on what they believe to be true.  The sooner people recognize there's a narrative being constantly pushed onto them, the sooner they can break out of it and harness the power of information instead of being a slave to it.