Saturday, June 16, 2007


Media's Relentless Negativity bad for Democracy

One of the regular tricks I use with students when teaching the role of the media is to ask them to identify the values underlying news story selection in the media. They soon identify things like: revelations, disasters, scandals and personality/celebrity news. They also soon conclude that these values are insufficient for the proper working of a mature democracy where some reasonable familiarity with policy issues is required to cast one's vote as the system intends and requires. Not a good situation we usually gloomily conclude at the end of the session. But maybe it's much worse than that...? According to Polly Toynbee, there is, these days a more detailed and more cynical set of requirements for items to make it onto the page or into the news broadcast. She contends that:

'The newspaper agenda, slavishly followed by the BBC, reflects a profoundly dystopic image of a society where nothing works, everything gets worse, public officials are inept, public services fail, tax is wasted, lethal dangers proliferate, and everyone conspires to lie about it. News editors spike stories that do not fit that simple template.

She goes o to suggest that even when subject specialists file stories editors look to 'exaggerate some minor failing or setback' as a peg on which to hang the story, 'leaving the bulk of an essentially favourable report as an afterthought'.

Good crime, health or education figures are distorted by reporting of the one indicator that has turned downwards. Charities now add to the clamour, all vying for this same news space, knowing only shock-horror reports will rattle their tins...unless there's a crisis, it won't make the cut'.

But does all this matter? 'Millions travel safely to work today' is not news by any accepted yardstick. Things going wrong should maybe receive more prominence than things not going wrong. But only up to a point Lord Copper. Toynbee believes that an 'overwhelming right-wing bias' adds a malign element:

It explains the strange divergence between people's real life experience and what they imagine to be the facts: 65% think their local NHS is good but only 25% think "the NHS" as seen on television is in a good state. There is the same gap in attitudes to crime and education. Bad anecdotes in the media trump the evidence of people's own eyes. That is seriously damaging to the national psyche and it makes anger the default emotion.

So what can be done about it? Polly thinks it's connected to the ownership structure, especially the influence of Murdoch which has dragged British media heavily in the down market direction. She criticizes Blair for toadying to Rupert and does not think Gordon will be much different; yet one has only to read her article to know her analysis is truthfully observed. Blair was lambasted-me included- for his attack on the media because he has been such an inveterate media manipulator himself. But Toynbee's article has convinced me that, despite his poor qualifications for making it, Blair's attack on the media was well directed and justified.

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