The Myth of “The Media”

August 15, 2014

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There has been much discussion about the media in recent weeks, in terms of what the media is showing, not showing, and why.

For example, as a Time magazine piece noted, “The streets of Ferguson, Mo. erupted in protest this weekend following the fatal police shooting of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown on Saturday. But an organized form of protest quickly emerged on social media as well, aiming to address a rhetorical question that resonates among some in the African American community: “If they gunned me down,” what picture would the media use to represent me? The viral #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag was a response to how Brown was initially portrayed in the media. Rather than using photographs of the 18-year-old, reportedly known to his friends as a “gentle giant”, in a graduation picture or in a sports team, many outlets used [an unflattering photo].”

This led to many people tweeting their own paired contrasting photos of their achievements and of less-flattering informal photos. The issue they raise is a legitimate one, of news media portrayals. Which photos end up being widely seen can help (intentionally or unintentionally) frame the story: A photo of a slain man in a menacing pose may suggest he was a hoodlum, while a photo of him cleaning up the streets in volunteer work may paint a very different picture. (In reality, which photo a news editor chooses to accompany a story depends on many factors, such as whether family members provided a photo to reporters, or which photo is most accessible, such as one currently used as the subject’s profile image on Facebook. The context of the incident being illustrated may also influence which image among several is used-for example in a school shooting, a school photo is likely to be used, while if a hiker goes missing, he or she is more likely to be seen in an image hiking or camping instead of, say, graduating from college or swimming.)

However one important aspect was virtually ignored in the discussion: The question “‘If they gunned me down,’ what picture would the media use to represent me?” is based on a straw man premise, for there is no such monolithic, homogenous entity as “the media.” The word is a plural noun encompassing a wide variety of mediums, from CNN to local bloggers-not all of whom report the same material and use the same photographs.

The Mythical Media

As a longtime media and science literacy educator (as well as author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I regularly see “the media” blamed (and rarely praised) for any number of ills, some justified but many not. The phrase “the media” appears regularly and continually in public discourse-often as the subject of blame or derision: “the media” is said to incite violence, to inflame racial hatred, to manipulate consumers through advertising, and so on. “The media” is said to push an impossible beauty ideal on American women leading to an epidemic of eating disorders; violence in entertainment media such as video games is blamed for real-life violence, and so on. This is nothing new; blaming “the media” is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was blamed for inspiring the serial murders.

To see why blaming “the media” is problematic, let’s define our terms, which is always a good starting point for any analysis. Most people use the phrase “the media” without clearly defining what they mean by it. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (which is about as authoritative as they come), defines “media” as “mass media” or “members of the mass media.” This is helpful, as far as it goes, and more or less reflects the common usage: mass media, which itself is defined as “a medium of communication (as newspapers, radio, or television) that is designed to reach the mass of people.”

Lest you think I’m being precious with my definitions, Bryant University’s Stanley J. Baran, in his Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture (4th Ed., McGraw-Hill) explains that “the mass media we use regularly include radio, television, books, magazines, newspapers, movies, sound recordings, and computer networks” (p. 6). Thus “the media” includes Harry Potter books, Beatles albums, Miley Cyrus videos, The Book of Mormon (both the play and the book), Breaking Bad, Sesame Street, Spider-Man, Pac-Man, Assassin’s Creed, NPR’s All Things Considered, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Ann Coulter, David Sedaris, Fox News, Woman’s Day, Playboy, The Nation, New York Times, Cat Fancy, my new book Mysterious New Mexico, and millions of other diverse examples. Any statement claiming that “the media…” cannot possibly apply to everything in this list.

Note that not all media are mass media; fine art oil paintings, for example-even famous ones like the Mona Lisa-are not considered mass media (though they might enter the mass media via artists such as Warhol or Banksy). Nor are personal diaries or sketches, though personal blogs are clearly part of the mass media, and other works (such as personal photos, for example) may become part of the mass media if they’re seen and shared on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The important point here is that though “the media” actually encompasses a wide variety of forms and formats, that’s not how many people use the phrase. Thus we see where the discrepancy lies, where the public’s use of the phrase “the media” gets it wrong and confuses the issue. When “the media” is used in discussions, blogs, articles, and elsewhere, it is often in reference to only one specific subset of mass media: the news media. So for clarity people should refer to “the news media” when they mean the news media. But while this is slightly more useful and accurate, that still doesn’t solve the problem because there’s really no such thing as “the news media.”

“The news media” still encompasses an impossibly large and diverse group of news outlets, and it’s just as vague and useless as blaming “the reporters” or “the journalists” for not doing their jobs, or slanting the news, or providing biased coverage. In fact because the news media is so diverse, any statement characterizing “the media” (or even “the news media”) is by definition false, since it is an overgeneralization. If you say “the media is too” violent/ conservative / liberal/ take your pick, you are wrong, and an informed critic will take you to task for it: Are you really saying that Sesame Street is too violent, that The Nation is too conservative, and Fox News is too liberal? Probably not.

Fighting Phantoms

This is not an issue of pedantics or sematics; the explicit reason for the discussion and the hashtag activism is to hold “the media” accountable for their editorial decisions and influence. In other words, blaming “the media” for some real or imagined problem is akin to blaming “the people”; it is meaningless because it is impossibly broad and inclusive. If “the media” is blamed by someone or some social justice movement for doing something wrong, individual members of the news media can evade responsibility since they weren’t taken to task. Psychologists and sociologists call this “diffusion of responsibility”-if everyone is responsible then effectively no one is responsible.

The solution is simple: Specify who or what you are talking about when you complain about “the media.” Instead of saying “The media is [better yet, are] ignoring the riots in Ferguson, Missouri,” say which specific outlets you believe are not covering the event. Instead of blogging that “the media” is intentionally choosing unflattering photos to represent slain Black youth, find and highlight clear and specific examples where reporters and news
agencies did that. Better yet, find examples of members of the news media who are doing the right thing, and publicly praise them.

I used this technique earlier this week, in fact. On Monday August 11, I posted this update on Facebook: “Thank you, ABC News, for the live aerial coverage of Robin Williams’s front yard. Your in-depth coverage truly helped me better understand this situation.” I posted a screen capture of the “Live Video” banner on ABC News.com, and I also sent out the same message on Twitter.

The next day, ABC News issued an apology for streaming the video of Williams’s home, saying it was taken down “When we realized there was no news value to the live stream.” I don’t claim or suggest that it was my Facebook post or Tweet specifically that caused ABC News to rethink its policy, and I’m sure other people commented as well. But it’s unlikely that a general message of dissatisfaction aimed at “the media” about the coverage would have had the same effect.

Blaming “the media” is not only vague writing and lazy thinking, but it is also ineffective. Calling the news media to task is an important thing to do; I’ve done it for years myself, and I have nothing but respect for those gadflies who perform a public service, keeping journalists honest. Effective activism, like effective writing, requires clear thinking and accurate use of language.