MEDIA POWER AND THE DANGERS OF MASS INFORMATION
By Michael J. O’Neill
Television nowadays is not just another page in media history. It is an utterly unique phenomenon that is profoundly influencing everything we do: how we act, how we think, how we see the world, how we govern. Television alters and distorts our perceptions of reality, not only expanding knowledge overwhelmingly but also changing its very nature, resulting in enormous consequences. But how does television change our knowledge? How are our perceptions and our thinking processes being affected?
First, television alters the way we see the world. Distant events are brought into our personal horizon, influencing our feelings beyond what we might have experienced before, from football World Cup to great human disasters in India or Ethiopia. Real-time experiences are delivered into our living rooms, in a sensational manner, so that we can share the daily triumphs and tragedies of the human race. The result is a new kind of knowledge.
Second, television influences the very process of thinking and deciding in written communication, the worlds stand passive and still on the page, never moving. Our imagination must work to convert them into our versions of reality, and then our mind has to take over and reason its way toward conclusions and action. The progression is from words to reason, to conviction, to action. In the case of television, on the other hand, movement, sound and color rush actual experiences directly to the senses, forcing us to produce instant emotional reactions. The process moves from image to impression, to emotional reactions, and then to action. The reflection and reasoning, which is a part of verbal communication, are bypassed.
A third point about television’s effect is that it sometimes needs to distort knowledge because it always focuses on visual events or actions that can be photographed and issues that can be dramatized or simplified. It cannot deal with subtle, complex and abstract subjects that lie beyond the camera’s beady eye. An event can only become interesting when it comes with pictures that provoke emotions. Oftentimes, an important event is neglected because it cannot produce a moving picture while a ridiculous one becomes important since it comes complete with pictures.
The fourth note about television’s effect on our thinking is that it depends our knowledge. Its sheer volume of information overwhelms our brain’s capacity for absorption, selection and interpretation. There are always news shows, headlines, and dialogs or talks. But at the same time they create problems. Everything is chopped into tiny pieces of information and presented repeatedly, making it difficult to digest, analyze, and judge.
These changes in the nature and uses of knowledge have enormous consequences, not only for public wisdom but also for the way democracy works. Television and mass media have altered the basic relationship between the people and their government. For instance, voters can get instant access to the same information received by their elected representatives. And because television produces instant mass emotions, instant mass opinions, and then mass pressures, policymakers are forced to at without prior thought and against their best judgment. The national media are no longer just observers and messengers but lead actors in government by creating, shaping, and often distorting information. television and mass media do it by magnifying as well as reporting the conflicts of power, supporting, nagging and harassing but at the same time also explaining. This power also makes the mass media the targets of manipulation by every party and the victims of conflicting pressures, knowing and unknowing participants in the management of crisis and in the formation of policy. The mass media have become both the collaborators and adversaries of government.
The ability of the press to mold public opinion is now so great that issues and events are often shaped to serve their needs. Newsmakers modify their behavior, creating controversy, looking for more effect by refusing to have a rational debate and petition in favor of staging loud protest and demonstration. False issues and facts are created in abundance. They do not reflect reality, often displacing truth, just so it can achieve the greatest media impact and public favor.
What can be done about all this? One solution is to come up with a new kind of journalism, “preventive journalism”. It should present news in a very different way from what it is now. Instead of only describing the sensation of an event, preventive journalism should search in advance to try to identify the underlying causes of crises before they happen, rather than after they explode. This kind of journalism might give an alerted society time to protect itself from the sudden exposure to the event. It is not enough for the media to provide the videotapes of war; they should also beware of causes that might lead to war in order to prevent it. This would require a different mindset and new techniques. It would mean looking deeply into societal trends on a sustained, long-term basis, so that the public can see and hear the process that might lead into a crisis.
Michael J. O’Neill, former President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, gave the above annual Carlos McClatchy Memorial Lecture, sponsored by Stanford University’s Department of Communication. Mr. O’Neill was Editor of the New York Daily News from 1975 to 1982; he has been a journalist for 30 years.
Adapted from: http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reporsts/99-4_00-1NR/O’Neill_Media_Power.html