The mass media, including news outlets and newspapers, are a powerful influence on most people1. Their impressions influence public opinion and democracy itself, so their reach is not to be taken lightly. Aside from the biases that are to be expected from corporations and editors, tabloids in particular portray the world in an unrealistic way. The warnings of academics about the institutional biases of Murdoch's news outlets are longstanding and the bias is so great that it has a statistically detectable effect. In the USA, a University study from 2011 found that those who watched Murdoch's Fox News channel were less knowledgeable about current events even than those who watched no news at all - in other words, Fox News spreads misinformation2. Studies have shown that education, and consuming respectable news instead of trash, results in a more sensible view of the world in all matters, including views on the economy and crime rates. This is also about the tendency for people to accept overly negative and foreboding forecasts of societies' declining moral worth. Research reveals that excessive television dulls the mind, causes stupidity, causes failure at school and perpetuates ridiculous and simplistic stereotypes. Social commentator Robert Carroll warns that "a critical reader must not assume that stories we read in the press or hear on TV are true" even when similar stories are repeated by multiple outlets3. Educating people that TV is fiction, and that violence is wrong, can reduce some of these effects and break the link between TV violence and criminal aggression. The sorry state of populist media in the West is effecting democracy and politics and degrading society. Media studies lecturers teach students that by understanding the power and influence of the news and the mass media, and by understanding its failures, "people are better able to resist the power of 'the media'"1. Read on.
“Downmarket media publications reflect - and exaggerate - many of the fears of society itself. News outlets have dropped most fact-checking and critical analysis steps in order to churn out news more cheaply and quicker and as a result daft and untrue stories are appearing in mainstream news4,5. There are virtually no checks or quality control mechanisms that newspapers have to adhere to, and, occasional outrages against press misbehaviour are quickly forgotten by paying customers. The purpose of it all is (1) sell more newspapers, or (2) influence public opinion. People are all too willing to believe exaggerated claims. People want their lives to be part of historical drama6. The millennium bug, worldwide pandemics, moral panics and fear that society is going wrong all betray humankind's neophobic reactions to progress and change. Newspaper editors pick on this fear and concoct alarmist stories from everyday events and statistics; for example they publish alarmist articles on dangers from mobile phone masts even though there are none, and there are almost no good-news stories about children despite massively improved circumstances7. Many editors and media owners have explained the usefulness of fear-mongering and sensationalism - it certainly sells more copy than balanced news. Fears become amplified and made more real by their appearance in headlines, creating a hysteria about a topic whereas in reality things are much more mundane and acceptable8. Professional broadcaster Fraser McAlpine says "news outlets are behaving like spoof sites, and they're making spoof sites look like sensible news" and people are finding it harder to tell the difference9. Modern newspapers and news outlets are producing low quality, misleading and untrue stories because they are driven by consumers who prefer entertainment, gloom and outrage rather than serious text of reasonable reading. Always remember that after thousands of hyped-up press warnings, on midnight of the 31st of December 1999, nothing happened.”
My page on this (quoted, above) has the following chapters:
A massive series of corporate takeovers has seen, over a few decades, nearly all news products coming under the banner of just a few companies. The shrewdest companies are those that have made massive staff cuts, for example, preferring to obtain news through 'monitoring' of television and through a very small number of wire agencies, rather than directly do journalism themselves.
The process is: (a) commercialisation, (b) efficiency-drives (drastic staff cuts), which lead to (c) churnalism. As the giants gobble up local, smaller, media and news outlets and apply their staff-cutting regime to them, news becomes more and more centralised. In 1992 in the UK, locals were owned by about two hundred companies. There had already been a decline. "By 2005, according to the media analysts Mintel, ten corporations alone owned 74% of them"10.
“Journalism in the world's most powerful country is deep in the same trap. The American media critic Ben Bagdikian has traced the corporate takeover. In 1997, he wrote about the corporations producing American's newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books and films: 'With each passing year... the number of controlling firms in all these media has shrunk: from 50 corporations in 1984 [...] to less than 20 in 1993. In 1996 the number of media corporations with dominant power in society is closer to 10.' By 2004, he found, the US media were dominated by just five companies: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom.”
“In 1982, fifty corporations owned almost all of the major media outlets in the United States: they owned 1,787 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 1,000 television stations, 2,500 book publishers, and seven major movie studios. Five years later, ownership of all these media outlets had shrunk to twenty-nine corporations. By 1999, nine corporations owned the lot (McChesney 1999).”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Carroll (2011)11
“The five leading providers in global news are Al-Jazeera English, with 100 million viewers globally (but not in the US); France 24, with French and Arabic versions; CNN, (double Al-Jazeera's audience and presenting an explicitly American news agenda); Russia Today, often state-biased, according to commentators but never conceded by the organization itself; and BBC World, viewed by analysts as the most impartial.”
Now that investigators and journalists have been massively reduced in number, where does news come from? The answer is more centralisation. The UK now gets most of its news via a centralised depository known as a wire agency: the Press Association. This body gathers news, and shifts it on to broadcasters at high speed. Although its job isn't to check facts or investigate stories, papers tend to merely accept and rewrite wire copy. It's not just the UK - as we have seen, the commercialisation of news is a global affair - "most of the newspapers and broadcasters and websites in the world rely for most of their international news, pictures and video on just two wire agencies - Associated Press (AP) and Reuters"10. Dr Chris Paterson used software that was initially designed to spot plagiarism online, to trace the flow of global news. There is an ever-increasing quantity of news that flows automatically, without human editors. He found that by 2001 the most popular media websites were duplicating 50% of their material from the two big wire agencies and a smaller one, Agence Grance-Presse. Half was duplicated word-for-word! On half of these mass media outlets, over half was routinely copied from wire. This doesn't even include output that comes from wire agencies but is rewritten: in all cases, these sources of information are simply not checked for truth or validity. Pure disinformation can flow straight into the public consciousness. An article in The Economist on the future of news services notes this automation:
“The Wal-Marts of the news world are online portals like Yahoo! and Google News, which collect tens of thousands of stories. Some are licensed from wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press. [...] They are cheap to run: Google News does not even employ an editor.”
The new brand of commercial owners transformed journalism from an investigative enterprise that sought to uncover truth, raise issues and debate politics, turned into an industry of mass-produced "churnalism", operating as cheaply as possible. News speeds through news factories manned by overworked journalists who have little time for research or investigation. The total number of stories processed by journalists in a day always exceeds the number of actual human beings talked to about those stories. Workers rarely get out of the office, and, the numbers of phone calls made are scrutinized by time- and money- conscious bosses.
This process has affected all normal newspaper titles, even the 'qualities'. The best-quality titles still had PR and/or wire copy in 80% of their stories (although in 20% of those contained substantial additional commentary). Yet only 1% of these stories admitted their true source. Even the best titles could only produce 12% of their stories themselves.14
In the best papers, 70% of the important facts relied upon by stories went completely unchecked, and only 12% were checked properly. This isn't just an issue with newspapers. The Cardiff researchers who done this investigation for Nick Davies, over half of all mainstream broadcast news is also wire (via the PA) and public relations material. The attraction of PA and PR, writes Davies, is not that they are better sources, but that they are cheaper. "It is no longer a matter of independent newspapers competing with each other to produce the best stories, but of mutually dependent newspapers working in tandem to produce more or less the same stories - stories which may or may not be 'the best'. Or honest. Or accurate".14
Most news outlets purchase news from news agencies. The most well-known of them are The Associated Press and Reuters. Even if they often intend to supply unbiased news to the world, social scientists know that multiple human factors come to distort the process. A selection bias leads to agencies only collecting news which they think meshes within the commonly accepted protocols of what news should be, and, even worse, news is selected because it is sellable.
“However, you won't be surprised to read that analysts and academics take a sceptical view of this and argue that, although the news agencies do not explicitly share the news agendas of the Western networks, because they know that Fox, CNN, Sky and the BBC are their main 'clients', they will provide news that they perceive to be 'customer facing'. If that's the case, then news provision becomes circular, and the concern is that non-Western events are marginalized by never even becoming news.”
Combined with the dwindling numbers of journalists and the much greater volume of news that the produce (churnalism), this means that our news is more decentralized and biased than ever, but in a system where each individual player cannot do much about it nor even see the selection bias in order to avoid it if they wished. Not only does this bias reduce the style and scope of news sources, but, when the news story makes its way to a news outlet, it then has to content with the editors and policy of its news sponsor.
Analysis of 32 news articles by researcher John McManus found that over half of them (18) were misleading. Not only that, but they were misleading in a certain way: "to increase the story's appeal, help cut down the cost of reporting or oversimplify a story so it could be told in two minutes" (Carroll 2004)16.
Sensationalism replaced critical thinking in a race to halt the declining sales of newspapers. In abandoning truth-seeking as the cause of story-telling, journalism became a source of misinformation. Nick Davies quotes the news editor of the Sunday Express in a leaked memo from 2003:
“We are aiming to have six sex stories a week. In an ideal world, we should have a "cabinet minister affair" story. Sex and scandal at the highest level of society always sells well [...]. We must make the readers cross: the appalling state of the railways, the neglect of the Health Service, the problem of teenage pregnancies, the inability of bureaucrats to get enough done properly, etc, etc.”
Jim Murray, Sunday Express news editor (2003)17
The combination of commercialism, staff cuts, and profit seeking leads to sensationalist reporting without regards for whether the underlying story is true. It has seen news change focus from accurate exposés and public engagement, to cheap stories and PR along "if we can sell it, we'll tell it" lines. It makes news desks easy to manipulate, as long as you send them something hot or easy to broadcast. The job- cuts and efficiency-drives of commercialist owners has meant that overworked staff do not have time to check stories and commercialist owners will run lines for commercial gain without caring about spreading lies and disinformation.
“Markets do not have democratic intent at their core. When markets fail or come under threat or simply become too bullish, ethical journalistic practice is swept aside in pursuit of competitive gain and financial stability.”
This loss of journalistic rigor is affecting all of society, as much of the populace (as we will see) gain their knowledge of politics and current events from such sources.
Scores are calculated according to indicators including pluralism - the degree to which opinions are represented in the media, media independence of authorities, self-censorship, legislation, transparency and the infrastructure that supports news and information, and, the level of violence against journalists which includes lengths of imprisonments. The index "does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted."
"The same three European countries that headed the index last year hold the top three positions again this year. For the third year running, Finland has distinguished itself as the country that most respects media freedom. It is followed by the Netherlands and Norway. [At the bottom are the] same three as last year - Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea".
It must be noted that press freedom is not an indicator of press quality and the press itself can be abusive; the UK suffers in particular from a popular brand of nasty reporting that infuses several of its newspapers who are particularly prone to running destructive and often untrue campaigns against victims. The Press Freedom Index notes that "the index should in no way be taken as an indicator of the quality of the media in the countries concerned".
For other international statistical comparisons, see:
There is a massive market for mass media products aimed at the low-attention-span trash culture types. Male-dominated trashy tabloids depict female nudes, fictional short stories of the most banal and stupid kind, advice columns designed to shock rather than educate, and news stories that are widely known to be entertaining rather than true. The Sun, The Star, The Daily Sport, for example, are three of most popular "news" papers, and almost entirely devoted to the decadent content just mentioned. Television has become the resident priest of Trash, nearly all programs cater for people with short-attention spans. Adverts are quick and shocking, programs are simplistic and moronic. Although more educated content exists it is unpopular. Thankfully the government takes a strong hand in monitoring domestic channels for content and worth, otherwise I suspect local TV would be almost entirely lost to stupidity & contentless trashy entertainment.
British soap operas are famously violent, angry, shocking, melancholic tragedies depicting casts of characters that are all stupid, short-sighted, emotionally-challenged failures who seem allergic to honest, good relationships and intellectual pursuits. The masses are taught every way to fail a relationship and shown none of the compassions or developed attitudes expected of responsible adult relations. Petty crime, short-tempers and stupidity on the TV soaps reflect perfectly the mentality of trash culture, the self-perpetuating cause-and-affect cycle of this coupling is hard to break without serious top-down change.
“It's too bad that stupidity isn´t painful. Ignorance is one thing, but our society thrives increasingly on stupidity. It depends on people going along with whatever they are told. The media promotes a cultivated stupidity as a posture that is not only acceptable but laudable.”
One of the reasons I highlight the effect on mass media on democracy is that the media is a big influence on most of us, frequently greater than both peer pressure and parental controls. How many parents sit their children in front of the TV in their most formative years just to keep them from being a 'nuisance'? It thoroughly informs all of us with specific cultural mores that are stoic, commercialist, short-term, thrill-seeking, unintelligent and moronic. Not only that, but sociologists have found that we all watch more TV than we think we do21, and, it influences us and our opinions even when we are guarding against it..
“The chief problem of human beings is passivity [...]. If you watch television all evening, or read too long, you feel a 'freezing' of your mind; it congeals; your eyes become capable only of a blank, dull state.”
Some hold that this effect of passive light entertainment is cultured by the powers that be specifically for the purpose of pacifying populaces. As "modern free time" tends to lend itself to citizen activism and the size of the overall population increases, it is necessary to keep people occupied, and TV is ideal for this purpose. There are many sociological investigations into finding out the effects of the popular press on peoples and groups. "One view, that of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school, is that the popular media exist to dull people's minds and get them to accept the work and consumption patterns that are needed to sustain capitalism"23. They argue however that people are not taken in by such a simple ploy. People 'take their own meanings and pleasures from the popular press'; people may seem passive whilst watching and reading, but, their imagination and subconscious form their own interpretations. I imagine the same process happening when people imagine what the 'real meaning' is behind obscure song lyrics. You can nearly always construct a more interesting story than the songwriter hirself was telling. Yet such passivity still numbs the mind's creativity, and the effects of this make for more docile and dumber citizens.
“They don't call it the idiot box for nothing. Three studies suggest that watching too much TV makes you stupid, at least as measured by school grades and test scores. In the longest-running study [by Bob Hancox's team at the university of Otago in New Zealand, ] children who watched the least TV between ages 5 and 11 were the most likely to graduate from university, while those who watched the most TV at ages 13-15 were most likely to drop out of school. [...] Two US studies [...] draw similar conclusions. [...] Persuading children to watch quality TV is easier said than done, says Barry Milne, who worked on the New Zealand study. "The type of TV kids actually watch is not good for them".”
The counterculturalist and founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, explains how TV has replaced the modern dark ages Church:
“In previous centuries, the Church was the great controller, dictating morality, stifling free expression and posing as conservator of all great art and music. Today we have television dictating fashions, thoughts, techniques but doing it so palatably that no one notices. Instead of "sins" to keep people in line, we have fear of being judged unacceptable by our peers (by not wearing the right running shoes, not drinking the right kind of beer or wearing the wrong kind of deodorant), and fear of imposed insecurity concerning our own identities. Borrowing the Christian sole salvation concept, television tells people that only through exposure to TV can the sins of alienation and ostracism be absolved.”
There is an on-going debate in the popular press about whether violent TV causes violent behaviour. This study is one of the classic areas of study in sociology, and findings have largely found that viewing TV violence does indeed cause aggressive behaviour.
“Leonard Eron and Rowell Huesmann (1980, 1985) found that violence viewing among 875 8-year-olds correlated with aggressiveness [even after checking for other causes]. Moreover, when they restudied these individuals as 19-year-olds, they discovered that viewing violence at age 8 modestly predicted aggressiveness at age 19. [...] Aggression followed viewing, not the reverse. They confirmed these findings in follow-up studies of 758 Chicago-area and 220 Finnish youngsters (Huesmann & others, 1984). [...] They found that at age 30, those men who as children had watched a great deal of violent television were more likely to have been convicted of a serious crime. [...]
The convergence of evidence is striking. 'The irrefutable conclusion', said a 1993 American Psychological Association youth violence commission, is 'that viewing violence increases violence.' [...] This [effect] is strongest when an attractive person commits justified, realistic violence that goes unpunished and that shows no pain or harm (Donnerstein, 1998).”
Educating children that TV is inaccurate and fictional reduces the aggression that children display as a result of violence programs27. The psychologist Richard Gross confirms this in his overview of the types of studies involved:
“Field experiment [studies are those] in which children or teenagers are assigned to view violent or non-violent programs for a period of a few days or weeks. Measures of aggressive behaviour, fantasy, attitude, etc. are taken before, during and after the period of controlled viewing. [...] Almost without exception, they confirm the results of laboratory studies - in general, children who view violent TV are more aggressive than those who do not. [...]
The longitudinal panel study [can] tell us about cause and effect and which normally uses sound sampling methods. The aim is to discover relationships which exist over time between TV viewing and social attitudes and behaviour and so it is concerned with the cumulative influence of TV - [...] for example, in a 20-year follow-up of 400 children, heavy exposure to TV violence at age eight was associated with violent crime and spouse and child abuse at age 30, at all socioeconomic and intelligence levels (Huesmann and Eron, 1984). Sims and Gray (1993, cited in Newson, 1994), in a paper presented to the House of Lords Broadcasting Group, pointed to a vast world literature linking heavy exposure to media violence to subsequent aggressive behaviour. [...]"
[In contrast:] "According to Gunter and McAleer (1990), studies have shown that portrayals of kindness, generosity, being helpful and socially responsible can exert both short-term and longer term influences on similar behaviours among children.”
We have a social instinct that inclines us to tell interesting stories. Cognitive processes in our brains tend to make us hear the more exciting and out-of-the-ordinary aspects of a story. People automatically attempt to tell a story in a more exciting, immediate and entertaining way than when they themselves were told the story originally. This inclination towards entertainment is described by the social psychologist Thomas Gilovich:
“Our appetite for entertainment is enormous, and it has a tremendous impact on the tales we tell and the stories we want to hear. The quest for entertainment is certainly one of the most significant sources of distortion and exaggeration in everyday communication.”
"How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991)29
“The billions of people who rely on the mass media for information have suffered the worst injuries of all under a bombardment of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.”
The West's popular press generally divides publications into those aimed at the realists and intellectuals ('qualities'), and those designed to titillate the masses. Not all journalists or papers are about churning out crowd-pleasing entertainment and crowd-stirring negativism about the world. Many outlets still aim to educate and inform their readers, and to reject untruth by doing investigation into stories, rejecting public relations spins, and above all, trying to give a balanced picture of the world. However, this is not what the public wants. The newspaper industry is in trouble. High-brow and quality newspapers are faring far worse than downmarket titles - the three worst-quality tabloids (The Daily Star, the Daily Express and The Sun) were the only papers to increase their sales between 1990 and 200232 (the latest date for which I have statistics).
The increase in sales of trash tabloids is indicative of a cycle: they sell more, because trash culture is growing, and, trash culture is growing because of the successful marketing of trash-targeted mass media. Marketing expert Winston Fletcher said in 1998 that what wins readers is "scandals, misfortunes and disasters"32. This trend is also the third-biggest problem facing democracy in the West, as the shallow issues that the press whip the public into a frenzy about become the ones people vote on.
So, what about outlets that represent the better end of the mass market media? A funny story from Nick Davies serves as a warning to us not to trust in their ability to break this cycle. Two insiders argued for more meaningful content:
“The BBC's occasional media critic, Raymond Snoddy, in a review of week's BBC output in Jul 2006 [began] by querying the fact that the deaths of two British soldiers in Afghanistan had been knocked into second place in the news by coverage of the tearful resignation of the England football captain, David Beckham. The former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell condemned the decision, saying: 'The BBC has set itself adrift in a whirlpool of trivia.'”
Snoddy then highlighted a viewer...
“... who had complained that, by comparison with ITV news, the BBC was spending too much time on each story and going into too much detail, and as a result, she said, it had failed, unlike ITV, to run an item about a new film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. There you have it: Martin Bell, the veteran journalist, speaking up for editorial judgement; and the consumer speaking up for less information and more entertainment, even if it is nothing more than PR. In a commercial culture, the viewer has more power than the journalist.”
For how long can media outlets survive with their integrity intact if they have to rely on sales, and what sells is low-quality sensationalism? Thankfully, the BBC is state-sponsored so can resist such pressures. Other outlets survive through specialisation, by catering to specific audiences who already seek what the newspaper specifically sells. Unfortunately, this means that consumers can (and do, en masse) choose to involve themselves only in the shallowest news and entertainment, and remain completely ignorant of the actual true events and debates of the world.
“Research shows that the information that news provides becomes the building blocks for our political attitudes.”
Professor Justin Lewis
“[John Dewey (1859-1952)] believed that the emergence of a modern mass media had the potential to improve the conditions and operations of American democracy, if structured with those ends in mind, but he worried that the particular shape of the American media system, governed primarily by commercial interests, would have a much more negative influence.”
Julian McDougall (2012)34
The press has long served as an important part of democracy. Its role is to investigate the truth when politicians try to hide it, and to uncover government's failings. It is a protector of the people against those with power. Without effective mass media the populace cannot cast informed votes. The Economist looked at the decline in sales of newspapers and worried about the collapse of the newspaper industry:
“News is not just a product: the press is the fourth estate, a pillar of the polity. Journalists investigate and criticize governments, thus helping voters decide whether to keep them or sack them. Autocracies can function perfectly well without news, but democracies cannot. Will the death of the daily newspaper [...] damage democracy?”
The effect of inaccurate and hyped mass media on the working of democracy is palpable and has already been voiced by professionals: Professor of Law M. Loughlin points out that the founders of modern political theory believed that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy35. The lack of intelligence in the content of poor quality media has an effect on the quality of democracy; leaders are forced to circumvent the wills of the masses simply because the masses are misinformed and have been prompted to care about shallow issues by the press and TV.
Professor Lewis continues by comparing the MPs' expenses scandal of 2009 with global warming and terrorism: the two short term issues are reported with much more drama because they are immediate, simple and timely, whereas global warming largely escapes the news (except the odd scandal) because it is complicated.
“The media thereby set the agenda in shaping our concerns. When the MPs' expenses story dominated the news in the summer of 2009, public concern and anger about the issue followed, with ramifications across Westminster. [...] At its best, this allows us to hold our representatives to account. The danger is that our political priorities are shaped less by an informed analysis of the threats that face us than by a news agenda that favours some stories over others. [...]
The gradual nature of climate change fits awkwardly with the requirements of a 24-hour news cycle. Its impact may be potentially profound, but the time lag between cause and effect is difficult to communicate in news terms. [...] Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, pointed out that the threat of terrorism is likely to be far less significant than climate change. And yet terrorism, which combines politics with drama and violence, 'fits' the requirements of our news culture perfectly.”
Professor Justin Lewis
Head of School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University36
Most mass media outlets have ceased to cover political current events fairly, accurately, adequately or in some cases, at all. Coverage focuses on side-issues of politics: politician's sex lives are covered way out of proportion to their intellectual accomplishments. In addition to the almost absolute dumbing-down of political coverage is a reduction in the amount of coverage at all aside from scandals. In other words, coverage is almost entirely negative and pessimistic. Parliament is hardly covered at all - the vast majority of debates, motions and questions go completely unreported. Nick Davies, the media analyst and critic, points out that this is largely due to the staff-cuts and commercialisation of news. In place of journalism, many outlets now recycle government material and PR.
“Media monitoring of Parliament has collapsed. As a Labour shadow minister in 1993, Jack Straw published an analysis of the coverage of parliamentary debates which showed that the major dailies had been running up to eight hundred lines of copy a day, more or less steadily from 1933 until 1988 when there was a 'sudden decline' to less than one hundred lines by 1992. This is, in part, because the grocers shifted their focus to stories which were more likely to sell their papers. But it was also the result of the now familiar destruction of reporting staff.
The number of specialist journalists based in Parliament has been slashed to ribbons. Until the 1980s, all the major dailies had teams of reporters covering the chamber; The Times alone had sixteen gallery reporters. Now [...] only twenty-three of the 1,200 local newspapers still have their own staff there (although some file to more than one title). [...]
Chris Moncrieff, who has covered Parliament for PA since 1962, told us: 'We have so much monitoring of radio and TV, far more now than ten years ago, that we have less time to get stories ourselves." He added that PA now covers far fewer political meetings and speeches than it used to and relies far more on government press releases. 'They've won,' he said. 'If they put out in advance a copy of the speech, then we will not go. We now print what they want us to print. We go to far fewer meetings or not at all.'”
It was the year 1836 that saw the first cheap newspaper appear (La Presse) that depended upon a readership that was not an intellectual or class élite of some kind. Mass media had arrived. Politicians worried about the destabilizing effects of the misinformation and sensationalism that news papers frequently contained.
“The growth of such powerful engines of information or misinformation inevitably had large political implications. [...] Conservative fears that an irresponsible trouble-making press, given enough rope, might become a danger to political stability and public order, seemed fully justified. [...] Opposition papers were more often than not factious, irresponsible and sometimes dangerously violent.”
Close to two centuries later, and not much has changed: mass produced cheap newspapers remain an anathema to civility. In the wake of the media frenzy against John Prescott, early 2006, David Aaronovitch wrote about the role of the media in precipitating crises where there should have been none, and rightly labels it "story inflation", as was also the case with the media's attack on the Home Secretary, Mr Clarke:
“The voters' problem is how well they are being served by the present self-perpetuating media fire-storm. I'll give an example from the Clarke imbroglio. Several newspapers have featured the call for Mr Clarke to resign, from a woman who was raped by a man who had been released from prison after serving a previous sentence - but who had not been considered for deportation. The details of the case were shocking, but somehow the fact that Mr Clarke was not Home Secretary at the time either of man's release, nor of the subsequent rape, passed the papers by. Readers were left with the clear impression that all this had happened on Charlie's watch. It hadn't. [...]
He's doomed, say the media, if we go on about it. He will look too ridiculous to carry on. So let's go on about it. I thought it was wrong and hypocritical then and I think so now. [...] Prezza [Mr Prescott], whose adultery is no one's business, becomes by degrees Prezza the serial predator (the Daily Mail) and then Prezza the Unprofessional. It's the way David Mellor - a good minister if an occasionally unlovely man - was forced from office a decade ago.”
David Aaronovitch (2006)39
If a group of citizens got together and conspired to cause the downfall of a politician in such a way, they would surely be committing a crime. The press enjoys more freedom to indulge in harder tactics, because one function of the press in a democracy is to expose things that need to be exposed for the public interest. But now news outlets are largely commercial, 'public interest' has been replaced by interest in profits. And political scandals sell, so, they are churned out without regard for their underlying truth. If this sounds serious for democracy, then try the next example:
Far from being a reporter on politics, many papers and news outlets become easily malleable as their busy workers release easy stories rather than accurate ones. Journalism becomes an easy tool to wield for those who want to spread lies, rather than an investigative force exposing those who spread lies.
The effect "is not merely to mislead its readers about the state of the world but to distort the whole political process"
“[Nick Davies] painted a damning picture of journalistic practices that seemed to be alarmingly borne out by the phone-hacking scandal of 2011.”
When the Irish voted against an EU initiative, the Belgian Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, blamed British newspapers for spreading 'wild stories' about Europe42. It is not only individual politicians who have their careers unfairly damaged, it can be entire political entities. It seems that British journalists consider the truth to be worthwhile only to the extent that people buy it. The more people who buy it, the more factual it becomes.
With the press operating like this, what chance does the general public have in learning about true politics? Not much!
My text on democracy discusses the place of a free press, plus the dangers that it will undermine democracy by misleading the public, and therefore causing policy to have to be produced against the misguided wishes of the populace:
“Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit.”
Legendary broadcaster Ed Murrow (1908-1965).
Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations
Modern journalists work at breakneck speed to process stories as fast as possible. Much of this news comes from trusted wire agencies, but these also rely on public relations (PR) material, as do the news outlets themselves. Most news services rely heavily on PR material in order to rapidly produce a stream of news. Because of these pressures, public relations firms and commercial companies are having a heyday and find it easy to insert material into news media. News outlets get cheap, professional-looking news at no cost. In general, over half of all news stories are mostly PR or contain substantial PR-sourced material43. Journalists themselves do not check the facts or figures of such inputs, nor admit in the articles themselves that PR material is the true source of the information, so the news often appears unbiased43. For example in 1991, CBS Evening News, USA, aired a video source from the Institute for Injury Reduction showing that cars' safety belts are actually unsafe and cause more damage than they prevent - an idea which managed to catch the attention of the public. Did the journalists of that news station check the source of this video to see who it was that was passing them the information? No. They didn't. And it turned out that the Institute for Injury Reduction is actually a lobby group supported by lawyers who make money from clients who were suing automobile companies for crash-related injuries44. Too many journalists are engaged in an unthinking, uncritical conveyor-belt of news, and old journalistic practices such as fact-checking and critical thinking have proven to get in the way of corporate efficiency. Powerful commercial lobbies use this weakness to pervert public opinion.
“Vice President Dick Cheney complained in an interview with conservative media commentator Armstrong Williams about bias in the press. Cheney was absolutely right about bias in the press. The Bush administration had paid Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in broadcasts and in print. Williams lost his job with Tribune Media Services when it was revealed that he was a hired propagandist producing covert puff pieces for the Bush administration. [...] Many bloggers and websites that appear to be independent are actually fronts.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Carroll (2011)45
In the 1950s the smoking lobby created a range of innocent-sounding and scientific-sounding groups in order to discredit government information about the dangers of smoking. Oil and petrol lobbies have spent fortunes on the same PR tricks, as have food industry lobbies. They produce scientific reports engineered by their own scientists, which serve to boost their own industries by deceiving the public. The Global Climate Coalition was founded in the around 1990, and funded "scientists and writers who would provide disinformation regarding climate change to anybody who would listen. For more than ten years they supported research that would cast doubt on scientific reports" about the dangers of burning fossil fuels45. Basically, their reports were distorted lies, pretending to be science. Who funded this maverick outfit, which received a lot of media coverage each time it produced a report? "Exxon, Ford, Texaco, General Motors, British Petroleum, and DaimlerChrysler"45 yet there was no indication in the mass media that these "scientific" reports were funded by the oil lobby - it was all presented as unbiased research, and has damaged the USA's population knowledge of climate change in the long-term.
In short, don't trust the news media directly even when they are reporting on scientific-sounding research groups. Always check facts with long-standing scientific bodies such as the Royal Society. Rich and activist commercialist lobby groups have a set of well-practised and efficient methods for manipulating the news and public opinion. The scientists and welfare groups who wish to get real scientific worries about certain industries out into the open are not funded or equipped to run public relations campaigns. Only multinational information campaigns, legal agreements and inter-national political bodies such as the EU have the oomph to be able to fight back against such powerful industries.
Edward Bernays is often described as the founding theorist of modern public relations. He had no doubts about the objectives of those with the money and power to influence the media:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
While what he says is true (that it is important in a democracy) because the populace must be informed, when the information flow is abused by commercial interests, democracy suffers because the truth suffers. I suspect that the quantity of PR in the news would have worried even Edward Bernays - although, given the material that Naom Chomsky digs, I am not sure. Chomsky is an incredibly articulate and intelligent opponent of the way democracy works in practice, and much of that centres on the ability of those with money to manipulate those without:
“The leading figure in the public relations industry, Edward Bernays [...] went on to develop what he called the "engineering of consent," which he described as "the essence of democracy." The people who are able to engineer consent are the ones who have the resources and the power to do it - the business community.”
"Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda" by Naom Chomsky (2002)47
UK popular newspapers are infamous for their daft stories, political bias, poor fact-checking and skewed reporting, combined with a concentration on celebrities and entertainment-value news. By comparing all newspapers to common criteria, including academic judgements of their quality and the number of complaints raised against them, it is possible to score each one of them. As a result of their low quality, only 7% of the population rate printed news as the best source of "accurate and reliable" information48. But it is also clear that this problem is self-imposed - the four most popular papers in the UK are all at the bottom of the list of quality. All four of the most trustworthy papers are under the top 10 in terms of popularity. The main cause of trashy news is economics: far fewer people buy newspapers that are accurate and non-sensationalist. The overall effect troubles British culture, creating a cycle of misinformation and there have been many calls for the UK government to regulate the industry using similar methods to those used in most of the rest of Europe. For now the only control is a self-regulation body (IPSO) which is staffed by the papers themselves and is widely considered dysfunctional.
For the full results, see:
Between 1990 and 2002 newspaper sales decreased by 20%. The three worst-quality tabloids were the only papers in this period to increase their sales: The Daily Star, the Daily Express and The Sun32. There is overall talk of the failure of the newspaper business model, as advertisers that used to pick newspapers find that the online world is more appropriate for their types of adverts. The Economist ran an article on this in mid 2009:
“Most industries are suffering at present, but few are doing as badly as the news business. Things are worst in America, where many papers used to enjoy comfortable local monopolies, but in Britain around 70 local papers have shut down since the beginning of 2008. [...] This crisis is most advanced in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but it is happening all over the rich world: the impact of the internet, exacerbated by the advertising slump, is killing the daily newspaper.”
The Internet is hurting newspapers and to some extent, other sources of mass media output. No-one who wants to know something waits until a programme appears about it on TV. And few people who want to find a service, local or distant, turn to their newspaper. Advertising has moved online along with information-seeking customers. Whereas newspapers and TV provide tidbits, any specific needs are best met through internet searching. Sports fans go to sports news services, current-event enthusiasts go to online news portals. The newspaper has become a default purchase for those who either do not want anything in particular - hardly a sturdy model to keep an industry going. Only the most catchy, the most trashy, and the most sensationalist popular papers are increasing their sales. Other specialist papers (like the Financial Times) have a chance as they, like the internet, can provide particular information so they have a captive audience. The rest of the printed press needs to change, but it is not clear how.
“The only certainty about the future of news is that it will be different from the past. It will no longer be dominated by a few big titles whose front pages determine the story of the day. Public opinion will, rather, be shaped by thousands of different voices, with as many different focuses and points of view.”
This predicted future sounds familiar. Before the commercialisation of news in the 1980s there used to be thousands of local news agencies, local investigators, and many specialist (small) journalism firms: all investigating stories and writing on them. The Economist writes about the future of news on the Internet as if it is a new concept. Actually, what we are seeing is the demise of the commercial-news model, and the resurgence of the multitude-of-voices model.
The declining viability of the commercial newspaper industry in the hands of the internet is hailed by some as a good sign for global democracy. Dr Indrajit Banerjee, a political theorist, argues that as critical reporting moves online and citizen investigators can publish their findings for all to see, it puts pressure on public-sector propaganda departments of governments around the world. This pressure serves to make distortion and spin look ridiculous, forcing governments (and national news outlets) to be more realistic with their own press releases and media departments, otherwise, no-one in their own country will look to them for information.49
Always question what you see, and question why you think the things you do. Spend more time thinking about the plausibility of what you read. Only accept sources of information carefully50.
Education and selectiveness. Michael J. Mazaar, after analysing many of the studies on the media's effect on mass belief, highlights the fact that greater education pushes people towards more educated papers. For example, those who read downmarket titles have skewed views on the economy and crime, but those who read the quality papers have beliefs about society that are closer to the statistical truth. So, educate yourself, and read proper news! By exercising consumer-power and avoiding buying low quality news, you help the industry fix itself.
Stronger international laws against the public spreading of disinformation. Broadcasters should be placed under extra legal obligation to check facts. Many journalists avoid legal trouble by claiming that they don't know what stories are true or not. So, if it is scandalous and it will sell, then, they publish it without checking (or admitting) their sources. There needs to be an international body that specifically deals with mass-media outlets, proscribing to them a greater responsibility to check their facts, with the ability to suspend printing or publication once a certain amount of abuse has built up.
Journalists should be required to be a member of a journalist association, which they get kicked out of if they produce very low quality information. Many developed countries already have such associations. It should especially be the case in wire agencies, from which most other news outlets get their news.
Some methods of curbing the press's abuses are good-hearted, but occasionally dysfunctional:
"In 2008 the Slovak parliament introduced one to guarantee the subject of a story the right to reply, of the same length and prominence as the original"51 - this sounds good, because the idea is that the press will have to print criticisms of itself in its own papers with such frequency that they will be compelled only to publish accurate information. There is however a very unfortunate second part to that law - the right to reply stands even if the facts were correct51. This would seem to me to lead to a barrage of responses from politicians and lawyers that abuse the right-to-reply principal, in effect, ending the ability of the press to be critical. In a healthy democracy, the press must free to be critical of governments and institutions.
In Poland, an old law gives sources the authority to withdraw or edit quotations right up until the point of publication51. So when a paper tries to quote someone out of context, as they are often eager to do, the subject can withdraw their quote. Unfortunately, it seems like it can again be abused by officials to ruin newspaper stories in order to hide truth.
In short, it appears to be very difficult to concoct laws that allow individuals to protect themselves against ridiculous press stories, but where institutions and democracies are still subject to critical journalism without fear of recriminations. What would be an ideal is a world where consumers, as pointed out above, avoid the more outlandish papers, and where editors and journalists only try to produce responsible pieces. Unfortunately, neither is likely to happen.
The mass media that pervades the UK and other countries is holding back human cultural evolution. Most news is unchecked, and most of it derives from commercial public-relations departments, even in quality newspapers. Entire social panics and worries have been founded on nothing more than newspaper exaggeration. Politics and democracy itself is endangered by the mass delusion fostered by some papers, as politicians are pressurized into taking measures that don't make sense, because the populace has been misled by popular tabloids. Popular television and trashy tabloids have been shown up in studies highlighting their negative effects on intelligence and their correlation with violent behaviour. The popular mass media promotes the lowest standards and least moral behaviours. The surest course of action to improve the behaviour of youth is to occult from them TV and trashy mass media products. This improves intelligence and reduces aggression. Another course of action is to separate the market-driven way in which the masses tend to buy into degrading and shallow content, leading to the further production of that material. The appearance of the internet and of digital media has done away with the ability of governments to legislate by means of contents certificate (18, 15, U, etc). What is needed is counter-education during which schoolchildren are educated about critical ways of thinking about media. Tabloids, broadsheets and TV programs need a system that rates their typical accuracy, in a simple-to-understand way. A highly inaccurate media product gets one red star, medium ones get 3 orange stars, and accurate ones get a green star. General broadcasters should only be allowed to reach a certain ratio of violence to educational material (or otherwise be labelled as an advertising or adult channel). Such new measures are required to aid in general human advancement, and resist trash culture's annexing of the mainstream media. Mass media is presently the bane of human cultural evolution.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
The Guardian. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
Anderson, M S
(1985) The Ascendancy of Europe 1815-1914. Second edition. Published by Pearson Education Limited, Essex, UK. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International History in the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Carroll, Robert Todd. Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Kindle edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Chapter 6 of this book, Reliable Sources of Confusion, Collusion, and Spam reports and details a large number of cases were public-relations material and other fake news is fed into popular news outlets.
(2002) Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda. 2nd edition. Seven Stories Press, New York USA. First published 1991.
(2008) Flat Earth News. Hardback. Published by Chatto & Windus, Random House, London, UK.
Furedi, Frank. Professor of sociology at the University of Kent, UK.
(2002) Paranoid Parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child. Chicago Review Press, Chicago, USA. This edition is "substantially different" from the 2001 UK version.
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. 1993 paperback edition published by The Free Press, NY, USA.
(1996) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour. 3rd edition. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London UK.
Gunter, B. & McAleer, J.L.
(1990) Children and television - the one-eyed monster? London: Routledge. Via Gross (1996).
Huesmannm L.R. & Eron, L.D.
(1984). Cognitive processes and the persistence of aggressive behaviour. Aggressive Behaviour, 10, 243-51. Via Gross (1996).
(2004, Ed.) Politics UK. 5th edition. With Dennish Kavanagh, Michael Moran and Phillip Norton. First published 1991. Pearson Education Ltd.
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK.
Mazarr, Michael J
Global Trends 2005. Palgrave Books softback.
(1999) Social Psychology. 6th 'international' edition. First edition 1983. Published by McGraw Hill.
(1994) Video violence: And the protection of children. Psychology Review, 1 (2), 2-5. Via Gross (1996).
(1971) The Occult. First published Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London, 1971. Quotes from 1976 edition, Granada Publishing Limited.