The Times once ran a story: “What you read is what you are” with a picture of a slovenly dressed man drinking a beer and reading The Sun and a well-dressed man reading the Financial Times. There is a lot of truth to this, because the media help to inform us and thus influence our views.
A perfect example of the latter is advertising which definitely is a part of the media and impossible to avoid. Particularly advertising aimed at the younger consumer groups creates a picture of the good life—carefree, active, popular youth—and links a product to it. Coca Cola and Pepsi are prime examples. They suggest all of the above and even power.
However, the main function of the media goes way beyond that of pushing products. The media have been called the fourth branch of government, the first three being the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judiciary. Being the fourth branch is extremely important in a democracy. Media provide information for people to make informed political decisions including voting. They raise political issues, often issues that politicians themselves are reluctant to raise such as the need for economic reform and environmental questions. Finally, media are a watchdog of governments uncovering unethical or even corrupt behavior. The classic example is Wikileaks which has uncovered numerous questionable dealings and decisions from torture to government intrigues. Time Magazine described its importance: “It could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act." If we are to be democratic we have to know what our politicians are doing, and without a free and critical press this will not be possible.
Information or Entertainment
One of the executives in BBC once said, “BBC should provide the public what they should want to watch.” By that he meant news, documentaries, politics and culture. His aim was to maintain a high level of awareness among his viewers. However, to a large degree there has been a shift in the direction of entertainment, governed by the idea that the media should provide what their audience “wants to have.” Popular demand should replace a top-down concept of what people “should want to watch .” The question remains: Who is determining what the audience wants or should want to watch? Is it advertisers or is it a cultural elite or is it something in between.
In the United States in spite of excellent TV and radio provided by PBS and NPR respectively the balance is so weighted in favor of entertainment, that Robert Kennedy Jr. once stated that ”We are the most entertained and the least informed people on the earth. A democracy cannot function very long in this way.” Some decades later the acclaimed system critic Neil Postman published his book "We amuse ourselves to death," conveying the same concern as Kennedy.
An important factor in providing a balanced view of events is a variety of those providing the information. Unfortunately, U.S. television is concentrated in the hands of a few providers and their focus is more on entertainment than information. Of the five main providers, only one, CNN, has a primary focus on news and information. Two of the other channels, CBS and ABC, are owned by Disney and Viacom whose focus is on entertainment. NBC is owned by General Electric, known more for household items such washing machines. Finally, FOX is owned by the arch conservative, Rupert Murdoch, who is a prime example of media concentration by his ownership of the following:
- FOX TV
- 20th Century Fox (film production)
- The Wall Street Journal
- The Times
- The Sun
- News of the World
Fortunately for diversity of views, Britain has a number of quality TV channels including BBC 1-4 and ITV 1-4.
Each individual is responsible for his/her own diversity of choice. Most young people choose the entertainment channels and watch Friends reruns, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, True Blood, Gossip Girl (for teeny boppers), Grey’s Anatomy, House, Everyone Loves Raymond, CSI, NCIS,etc. Good entertainment one might say, but as a permanent diet???
Another choice is to get information on the Internet, which is a fantastic source. The only problem is how accurate is the source. When you read The Times or The Washington Post you know the source and you know what you are getting. With internet sources this is not so easy. So with the tendency toward entertainment and the Internet as a source of information, one has to be aware of how the media shape our views. Happy viewing!
Topics for Discussion
- Explain the statement that “What you read is what you are”? Do you agree?
- What does it mean that media are the fourth branch of government?
- How can advertising aimed at younger consumer groups suggest power?
- Can you come up with examples of information presented as entertainment? (Also called “infotainment”)
- In many countries, particularly the USA, information channels are owned by commercial companies and are financed largely by advertising. Discuss the possible consequences of such a concept.
- Can you come up with examples of unreliable information that comes via internet sources? (Why is for example Wikipedia by many considered an unreliable source of information?)
- The article states that young people in general prefer to be entertained rather than being informed. Find out if this is true by doing some research in your class / at your school. Pick some recent news topics or headlines and find out if your peers know what they are about, and if they do, where they got the information.
- Search the Internet for some of the news channels mentioned in the article. See if you can find the same piece of information presented in different channels and compare the presentations.
Match the rhyming words in the two columns:
course - horse, aim - blame; sane - pain; bury - merry; through - new; ache - fake; rage - gauge; water - slaughter; sew - know; free - key; yacht - plot; worse - curse;
The word information appears in the article. What does this word gramatically have in common with words like knowledge, furniture, advice, and evidence?
These words are called "uncountables" because they do not appear in ordinary singular or plural form. They must have determines like a word of advice, a piece of evidence, some furniture etc
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