What have you experienced first hand and what have you just heard of through media coverage? Do journalists in your opinion hold a lot of power in defining the world?
Use the dictionary to check the meaning of the difficult words.
impartial, misrepresent, complain, at stake, perceive, gory, scary, explicit, brothel, slaughter, unbiased, revulsion, nuance, deny, contradict, famine, drought, angling, blurred, complicate, distort
The media is often criticized for not allowing for an impartial coverage of issues. Politicians claim to be misrepresented as to what they actually say, organizations complain about getting too little attention and terrorists claim to be freedom fighters. Even the man in the street often fails to recognize what he actually said in the interviews with the local newspaper. Actually, it would be rather difficult to find news coverage that satisfies everyone. There’s a big audience, a lot at stake and complex issues to cover.
Journalists are ordinary people like you and me. We are all deeply rooted in our own culture. The values and views of this culture affect how we perceive things. Two individuals growing up in different cultures may experience news and events very differently. The same goes for people growing up in different times. Just think of the reaction we would get if we exposed people from 1899 to all the gory violence of scary movies and explicit sexuality on the Internet. It would be a shock to them, and they would probably not be able to understand how “their” society could degenerate into that! During the Victorian age in England, it was not allowed to show women’s legs in public. They had 600 brothels in London, though - but they were kept out of sight.
We always carry a cultural backpack. Journalists who grew up in Los Angeles, where seals get specialist treatment in animal hospitals if they are injured, would find it hard to cover the Inuits’ traditional slaughter of seals or the Chinese practice of eating dogs in an unbiased way. They would find it hard to prevent their revulsion from affecting their coverage of these issues. The same thing happens when Western journalists criticize the lack of democracy and individual freedom in Afghanistan, failing to understand the nuances of local culture and tradition. It also happens when Arab journalists cover the Western world in terms of it being degenerated and without values. In these cases, where cross-cultural understanding is so badly needed, we tend to simplify and generalize so what we perceive fits our “pre-coded”, understanding of the world.
Some media researchers suggest that it is impossible to be impartial. Your own culture colors your vision and makes you blind to qualities in societies and cultures different from your own. This will invariably affect who journalists decide to talk to, which questions they ask, and what they decide to focus on in the title.
In undemocratic countries, journalists face the problem of governments denying them the right to speak the truth. Though few countries openly practice censorship, there are other ways of controlling the media. In Russia, several critics of the current regime – journalists and lawyers - have been killed. In many Muslim countries, journalists have to avoid a lot of topics and issues that contradict the religious teachings or offend Muslims in other ways. These may be issues regarding women, sexuality, individual liberty and democracy. Journalists and women’s rights spokespersons have found themselves physically attacked for raising issues that we in the Western world take for granted. Many Arab countries have still not accepted the UN Human Rights Resolution.
There is yet another potentially harmful aspect of journalism: Journalists have to sell what they write to the public. If few people read a text or watch your TV coverage, you may find yourself out of work. Therefore, most journalists have an underlying agenda: What do my readers want to read about? This affects what they decide to cover and how. Usually celebrity, sex and violence sell well, while topics that deal with developing countries come last. Events that are rare also get more attention than regular events. Thus famine and drought in Ethiopia get less attention than the lips of a Hollywood diva.
If journalists are concerned with writing popular stories and angling them in a way that attracts readers, he or she actually fails to give an unbiased version of events. But even worse – “junk food news” takes up space where other, more important news should have been covered.
When journalists in general do this, the image of our society relayed to viewers and readers becomes blurred and out of proportion. Instead of providing information, journalists complicate and distort events. As mentioned above, It is a well known fact that stories involving celebrities, sex and violence get attention.
The murder of Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007 had all these qualities and made headlines well into 2009. 21 year-old Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend stood trial in Italy for the sexual assault and stabbing of Meredith Kercher. Foxy Knoxy even got some fans out there. Other killings got no attention in the media. An Internet search for ‘Foxy Knoxy’, resulting in about 80 000 returns, reveals all the strange effects a media-made frenzy can create.
Tasks and Activities
- Try and put a heading on each paragraph which indicates the main point of the information in that paragraph. The heading should be short and concise, e.g. the heading in paragraph 1 could be "Quality of Media Coverage".
- Write a short summary of the main points of the article.
- How correct a picture do you think we receive of events a) at home b) in other parts of the world?
- What can we do to ensure that our understanding of events is as close to the truth as possible?
- Can you think of other examples of popular stories which have dominated the news media at the expense of more serious issues?
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