Media Analysis Essay, Research Paper
In Debating Democracy’s “The Media: Vast Wasteland or New Frontier?” Jarol Manheim and Douglas Rushkoff present opposing views of the media. Both authors raise the questions of what the media represents and what messages the media tries to send to the public. Is the media’s coverage of events just for entertainment value or do the reports have political content and value? Are the viewers capable of distinguishing between the media’s glitz and the real facts? Do different sources of the media system actually portray different views and stories? A key question is how typical objective reporting is. If the knowledge can easily be obtained elsewhere, it is possible to conclude with pluralists that citizens have the tools to govern themselves more or less democratically. If, on the other hand, there are serious shortcomings, one might agree with the power elite camp that the people, because they have insufficient meaningful information, wield less power than they could and should.
Manheim claims that the media is not as diverse as it claims to be. He states,
Though for competitive purposes they might have us believe otherwise, most American news organizations have a great deal in common with one another . . . they define news itself in essentially the same terms. (Manheim, 1991)
He argues that the media entertains the viewers rather than giving them information that is relevant and socially important. Manheim’s view about what the mass media system actually does to the news is similar to what W. Lance Bennett lists as the four main media biases: fragmentation, normalization, personalization and dramatization (Bennett, 1996). These biases are described by Manheim as the media system “[rendering] the content of the news less burdensome by packaging it more attractively” (Manheim, 1991).
Contrary to Manheim’s views, Rushkoff looks at how the viewers are able to use and understand the media’s messages. Rather than viewing the media as a mass system composed of the elite who view the public as a commodity, Rushkoff believes that the people strive to shape and understand the world through the messages the media portrays. Furthermore, he claims that the media is merely a reflection of the society that the viewers themselves have created. The viewers have the ability to choose which medium of media they will use (Internet, network, newspaper, etc.). Rushkoff says that the news has now become “interactive” and the people (particularly those under forty) have come to understand the media’s symbols better (Rushkoff, 1994). Moreover, the “GenX-ers” that Rushkoff refers to, has absorbed the media into their own cultural evolution, reiterating and reanalyzing all the points the media system has raised them on.
I found evidence that supports Manheim’s, Rushkoff’s and Bennett’s views in my observation of Internet news. Nearly all of my findings are directly related to Manheim’s views of the media, however I did find support for Rushkoff’s idea that the media’s creation is actually a reactionary creation by society. The Internet’s portrayal of the news did show all four of Bennett’s biases. Dramatization, normalization and fragmentation heavily dominated stories with a few references to personalization.
In much of the political coverage regarding non-controversial topics the elite was given preference however, the public view was often brought in when the subject matter became more contestable. Such was the case with the coverage of the presidential nominees’ campaign funds versus the coverage of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura’s controversial interview with Playboy magazine. Coverage of the campaign finances seemed to contain more of an elite slant and did not take into account the public’s views about the candidates’ actual platforms. Conversely, the public’s views and reactions heavily dominated coverage of the Ventura interview. This evidence relates to Manheim and Bennett’s views of the media’s portrayal of the news. The campaign finance stories contain a lot of dramatization, in the fact that finances are made out to be the most important aspects of the campaign, and in fragmentation, because the other aspects of the campaigns simply are not mentioned.
Manheim states that “[T]hough many Americans . . . might need to feel informed . . . they preferred to be entertained more than they preferred to be informed” (Manheim, 1991). When I shared my surface findings with friends, they were interested and felt as if they should know more, but when I did go further in my findings (explaining different political platforms) they merely yawned and walked away. These personal findings refute Rushkoff’s idea that GenXers understand the media’s portrayal and are not easily swayed by the entertainment value. In a closer examination of the media, I found that while stories will grab one’s attention, they lack much of the underlying political and institutional factors that contributed to the existence of the story. In an article regarding the treaty that would approve a global ban on nuclear testing, reasons why the treaty might fail were only lightly touched upon. More focus was placed on how much the treaty would hurt President Clinton’s popularity polls right now.
The articles presented by the Internet showed evidence of Manheim’s idea that the “natural language of the news is a language of cynicism” (1991). If one were to base opinions solely regarding the news that the Internet showed, it would only be logical to believe that the world was about to come to a grinding halt due to the “bad” judgement calls made by politicians regarding both our society and their personal lives. Moreover, it is not far fetched to believe that if viewers believe everything they read that the elite will take care of everything. This idea of normalization as proposed by Bennett is evident in articles concerning natural disasters and “crisis” situations (note, many of these crises have also been created by the media). In this respect, Rushkoff’s idea that the media is a creation by society is very valid. One can argue that society wants conflict resolved and the media thus presents the public with the opportunity for resolution gratification. (Rushkoff, 1994)
Additionally, many long-term trends and historical patterns are often missing in the news coverage. In order to get the full story, draw knowledgeable conclusions, and deduce logical possibilities for solutions, one must uncover the truth behind the stories presented (Manheim, 1991). Even in looking at additional links to information on the Internet, the media sets up a system that keeps the reader in a cycle of regurgitated information presented in a different format. In an article regarding the Social Security trust fund, viewers are only told that Congress and the White House are arguing over who is planning on taking money from the fund. The actual figure that is in the trust fund, as well as the figures of money borrowed by both the House and Congress, are not mentioned in detail, nor are reasons why the trust fund has been repeatedly plundered. Furthermore, the viewers are not told what the effects of such borrowing are.
In conclusion, the media has caused the public to believe that the political system, as well as other institutions systems, work when in actuality, it is the mass media system that is working. The media system works well in giving a distorted view of events to the public without giving background or underlying institutional causes thus making the public ill equipped in making accurate political judgements. The media partakes in false objectivity. News coverage, whether by television, radio, the Internet, or newspapers, must inevitably be selective, selective not simply in which stories it reports but in how it presents them as well. The media is incapable of providing a rundown of everything that has transpired in a day. Therefore, editors, reporters, etc. decide what will go into the reports. Equally important, reporters are still human beings who, in spite of their good intentions, occasionally succumb to anger, jealousy, anxiety, impatience, ambition, and other emotions that cloud their objectivity. They belong to large, complex organizations that have their own diverse, often conflicting, goals and needs. Presenting the news to the public is not merely a matter of “telling it like it is.” It is very much a human activity. Reporters do not willfully distort their stories, but the way they describe issues and events nevertheless affects the public’s understanding of them. This is harmful to the idea of popular democracy in the fact that the public does not receive a complete picture of events, thus preventing them from making informed decisions and leaving the elite in a position of power. To quote Cass R. Sunstein,
A democracy is badly served when newspapers and television focus so intensely on the personal joys and tragedies of famous people. This kind of “news” crowds out more serious issues, and there is an important difference-as the Constitution’s framer well knew, and as many people today appear to have forgotten-between the public interest and what interests the public. (1997)
Bennett, Lance W. News: The Politics of Illusion. University of Washington. Longman Publishers, 1996.
Manheim, Jarol B. All of the People, All the Time: Strategic Communication and American Politics. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1991.
Rushkoff, Douglas. “Media: It’s the Real Thing.” New Perspectives Quarterly. Summer, 1994: pp. 4-15.
Sunstein, Cass R. “Reinforce the Walls of Privacy.” New York Times. 6 Sept. 1997.