Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Media: Director or Reflector of Public Opinion

Like a great number of people in the First World I sat glued to my television screen in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

As I sat watching the same footage repeatedly shown, I noticed a worm move under the pictures which read that bombs had detonated in Iraq. I furthered realised that many more people were killed and injured there than in Boston.

It occurred to me that we're used to bombs going off over in the Middle East but when it happens in a First World country we sit up and take notice. At least I hope that's the reason because I would hate to think that we believe that First World lives are worth more than Third World ones simply because of an accident of birth.

I decided that the media was at fault for showing so much footage from Boston and none from Iraq. I immediately knew that the media would counter that argument with the justification that it was just meeting the public demand.

That begs the question: is the media the director or reflector of public opinion? Does it shape the way we think and feel about issues by what it shows or does it show what we want to see?

Either answer makes me feel somewhat hopeless. If the media shape the way we think and feel about things then we are living in the very society George Orwell wrote about in his futuristic novel 1984 and can no longer think for ourselves. Scary stuff.

If, on the other hand, the media really is just showing what we want to see, what kind of a society have we become when we place a higher value on someone's life just because of who they are and where they live?

Footprints is about trying to live as ethically as possible. To sit and blindly accept the images being shown without questioning the fairness of the coverage would go against the way we try to live. To blindly accept what we - as a society - have become or, at least, what the media think we've become would also go against it.

Fortunately, in the same week, I've witnessed a magnificent and heartening example of consumer power at its best. That, however, is for another post.



  1. Excellent post Rachel. I've thought about this for sometime myself. I believe that the media is the director and NOT the reflector of public opinion.

    There is a lot of power that rests in a very little number of heads. The people high up realise this.

    The Boston Bombings is an interesting one. I wonder if you might have a similar opinion if the bombings had have happened in, say, Melbourne. When this happens, it becomes more personal, and loved one's could be involved and it is, in my opinion, understandable that Australian journalism would want to cover it at a much greater level.

    If the media didn't cover it, I'm sure the public would speak out, or find other sources for the information.

    Bombings in Baghdad, or the current disaster in Syria, don't strike as close to home, and so the general public aren't as concerned with having immediate coverage. If they so feel inclined to follow, they can do so through more specialist forms of coverage (on the internet, for example).

    So I can somewhat understand the US media covering the Boston bombings closely. The Australian media, and indeed here in France it has been covered excessively too, I can not understand as much.

    So while I think that the media is a director of public opinion, I think if they decided to cover the middle east's atrocities for the entirety of their content (you could make the argument that what is happening there is far more important than anything covered on a standard nightly news feed), their ratings would drop massively, albeit with a significant (but not as great) increase in public opinion on the middle east.

  2. A factor of scale? You probably see news footage of traffic accidents in Adelaide, but would be challenged to find coverage of a larger one in Brisbane. I can see where, given two similar catastrophes, American media would concentrate on the one in America. Of course, you're watching from Australia. Makes you think...

  3. Thanks, Chris and Jack. I hadn't thought about the proximity argument and it is a really good one. I suppose that in Australia we can relate more strongly and closely to what happens in the U.S. than in the MIddle East. I like that explanation - it makes me feel more optimistic.