Mainstream Media Introduction

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

Someone once said that a person’s perception of reality is a result of their beliefs. In today’s age, a lot of those beliefs are in some ways formed via the mainstream media. It is therefore worth looking at what the media presents, how it does so, and what factors affect the way it is done. This section of the web site introduces some of those aspects.

On this page:

  1. Diverse Media as a Critical Part of a Functioning Democracy
  2. Press Freedom Around the World
  3. Media and Globalization
    1. Media, Globalization and India
  4. Media in Industrialized Countries
    1. Even British Media, Often regarded as Good, Does Poorly on International Coverage

Diverse Media as a Critical Part of a Functioning Democracy

A critical aspect of a functioning democracy is to be well informed in order to participate effectively in that democracy. One of the most important ways that many people are informed is through their mainstream media. Yet the world over, we know that the media is far from perfect.

Many countries have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but freedom of opinion, expression and information (Article 19) has hardly been a reality.

Some journalists in certain developing counties are subject to torture, incarceration, beatings, or even death, just for reporting something that those with power want suppressed.

Even in the developed and freer nations, news and information is subject to partiality and unbalanced coverage or just plain omissions of the major issues.

While September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States had increased some world news reporting for a while, in general, for many years coverage of international news has been declining. In November 1998, U.N. Secretary General, Koffi Annan also highlighted this decline. (And in some countries, as mentioned below, just a few months after the tragedy of September 11 saw international coverage increase, it began to decline again.)

Even in the US, international news coverage has declined again. As noted by the Media Channel and Huffington Post, According to the Pew Research Center’s recent study of American journalism, coverage of international events is declining more than any other subject. In the study of 2007, 64% of participating newspaper editors said their papers had reduced the space for international news. In a strict sense, the American media did not in 2007 cover the world, says the Pew report. Beyond Iraq, only two countries received notable coverage last year — Iran and Pakistan.

Accurate media representation of world issues is crucial. Whenever media reports are censored or biased, the people’s basic rights are systematically undermined. In these situations, violations and unaccountability often go unnoticed and suppressed viewpoints become commonplace.

Most people get their view of the world from mainstream media. It is, therefore, important that mainstream media be objective and present accurate and diverse representations of what goes on around the world.

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Press Freedom Around the World

In January 2012, Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders or RSF) published their 2011 worldwide press freedom index. The results were interesting:

  • On the whole, it showed that democracies ranked best, as expected. (The top position was jointly held by North European nations: Finland and Norway. Estonia, Netherlands and Austria made up the top 5.)
  • Totalitarian and communist regimes ranked worst because there was next to no press freedom as in almost all such cases, the media is government controlled. (The worst 5 were Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. China was the 6th worst.)
  • But there were a few findings that may surprise some:
    • Canada and Germany where the highest ranking G8 rich countries, but only ranked 10th and 16th, respectively
    • UK ranked just 28th;
    • France ranked just 38th;
    • The US ranked just 48th;
    • Italy (61st), Japan (22nd), and Russia (142nd) make up the rest of the G8 nations.
  • Cape Verde (9th), Canada (10th), New Zealand (13th), Jamaica (16th) and Costa Rica (19th) were the only non-European nations in the top 20.

Some have commented in the past that various freedoms and democratic principles etc come after a nation has been able to increase its prosperity. But, as Reporters Sans Frontiers has shown each year, poor countries can be respective of press freedoms.

You can find more information from their web site which also includes information and details of all country rankings.

Of course, press freedom is just one amongst many, many variables that would indicate a healthy democracy, but it is one of a number of variables to indicate a healthy and diverse media, which itself is an integral component to a functioning democracy.

But even with a fairly free press, problems of political and other influences can still be a big factor in the quality of the media. And this impacts the media in industrialized countries, as well as in poorer countries. For example, Reporters Sans Frontiers also reports that after the September 11 atrocity, the media in the U.S. was torn by the pull of patriotism and self-censorship such that the diversity of media coverage was affected and therefore cast [a] doubt on the objectivity of the American press.

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Media and Globalization

In a world of increasing globalization, the media has many potentials. It has the possibility of spreading information to places where in the past it has been difficult to get diverse views. It has the potential to contribute to democratic processes and influences especially on countries and regimes that are not democratic. On the negative side though, it also has the ability to push the ideas and cultures of more dominant interest.

The phenomenon of cultural imperialism raises concerns in many countries where people fear that their culture gets diluted or given a back seat to the demands of large media and corporate interests in the name of globalization, where products and imagery, mainly from the west, make it into the televisions and homes of people. The fear of many people is that if people around the world are molded into model consumers, following a western standard, then it is easier for large companies to sell their products and know their buyer’s habits etc, while eroding local cultures and traditions. There is often extensive debate as to how likely this will be, whether local cultures and traditions will exert their influence on local forms of globalization, or if there will be more extremist backlash. In different parts of the world, many of these and other reactions are already seen.

Media, Globalization and India

A documentary by the Open University in UK, aired on the BBC2 channel, October 29, 2003. The documentary, titled Images over India looked at the positive and negative consequences that globalization of media had in India on various parts of society. Amongst many things, the documentary noted the following:

  • India is one of the world’s largest markets for satellite tv, with some 300 million viewers.
  • The Indian economy opened up in the 1990s after decades of being closed. (Pressure came from western and international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, etc.)
    • This led to an explosion in global consumer goods
    • There was also an explosion in Indian television

While globalization of television has been going on since the 1980s (with the likes of CNN, MTV, Sky, Star TV, etc), in India, demand from urban middle classes came around 1991 for the likes of CNN for coverage of international events such as the first Gulf War.

  • Star TV (a Hong Kong based company, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and present in many, many Asian countries) found it easy to penetrate in India. This was because of many reasons, including that
    • The existing broadcast was based on an old system
    • The existing broadcast was state-owned primarily a vehicle for news, education, and social issues, such as how to deal with various health issues, etc. Entertainment was usually films of religious stories.
    • While such things were very useful for the rural poor, the growing urban middle class wanted more entertainment, western soaps, etc.
    • While televisions used to be rare, they were now becoming widespread.
  • Initially Star TV only catered to the small minority of people that spoke English, showing western soaps, serials, Hollywood movies. Hindi’s first commercial channel, Zee TV introduced programs in the natural language, Hindi. Zee TV’s launch heralded private television. Zee was and is primarily focused on entertainment.

Just 5 years after the launch of Star TV, there are a dozen satellites broadcasting over 50 channels, in English, Hindi, and some 16 regional languages. Furthermore:

  • India is the second largest tv market in the world, after the United States.
  • These new networks offer many programs. However, India has seen a number of trends including:
    • An increase in programming and hours, especially more music, films, talk shows, game shows, soaps, etc.
    • But there has also been an increase in the number of repeats, of music channels, etc, which has made the changes appear shallow, according to an Indian media activist interviewed on the documentary.
  • The film industry, known as Bollywood, is the largest feature film producer in the world, larger than Hollywood, with some 300 feature films a year.
  • While there has been a long tradition of cinema movies in India, satellite TV has meant more foreign films being broadcast. Local industries have seen the effects too, for example, by being forced to innovate, to improve effects of their own films, or increase violence, etc. Those television channels that have localized the most are succeeding in the tough competition.

Advertisers are also seeing a large audience as potential consumers of their products:

  • The audience targeted by cable and satellite companies are the same as those desired by multinational companies at the forefront of globalization:
    • Large middle class segment (some 700 million people—one of the largest middle class segments in the world)
    • Imagery generally is geared towards them
  • A positive impact of companies such as Zee TV was that it allowed advertisers in India to advertise their products, thus helping India’s industries and the country’s economy as it began to liberalize. It also created competition for the state-owned broadcaster potentially contributing to a better situation for consumers.
  • One thing Star TV has able to deliver to advertisers is highly focused programs, reaching targeted groups of people. Delivering a mass market is key for advertisers.

However, with all the advertising and so forth, some wastage is inevitable.

  • There is an increase in flamboyant corruption that didn’t used to be there before in the same way. This has been attributed to some of the new imagery seen in the media.
  • It seemed as though the message was now about how to show or flaunt your money, which was opposite to what it was in the past.
  • Yet, the documentary noted, many in India do not see the wealth of many people there as being legitimate.
    • A lot is seen as coming through corruption and criminal connections
    • Such conspicuous consumption was not looked at so well by such people
  • For women too, the results have included a loss of what little security they may have had in their lives. This has been because
    • There has been an increase in violence on them by their husbands
    • Their little savings for say their daughter’s education is now being used by husbands to buy things they see on tv.
  • Furthermore, a lot of programming doesn’t relate for many Indian audiences
    • Fragile lives and more sensitive issues are not really portrayed
    • Only a small minority would relate to the characters on soaps and films, yet these are the dominant representations found on television.
    • While satellite and cable are reaching far out in India, including rural communities, rural people are finding no space for their concerns in these commercial media, or even the new government channels.
  • While more people are being exposed for the first time to messages from different cultures, the concern raised was that it might be happening so quickly as to introduce social problems including those mentioned above.

From the economic sense, the documentary also showed an interesting observation.

  • That is, the notion of the average Indian person was getting more real.
  • In the past, the average Indian person didn’t exist, because of the immense diversity of cultures and customs.
  • Now, with the introduction and dominance of a few large companies there is a significant proportion of Indians who fall into this category, close to this average.

While this is good for globalization companies, who do better from conformity than diversity, the overall picture for Indians is a mixed one to say the least.

(The media’s impact in India is just one example of many others which will be added here over time.)

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Media in Industrialized Countries

We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know about and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.

Katharine Graham, Washington Post owner, speaking at CIA’s Langley, Virginia headquarters in 1988, as reported in Regardie’s Magazine, January, 1990. Quoted from David McGowan, Derailing Democracy, (Common Courage Press, 2000), p.109.

It has often been said that journalism’s role is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Sadly, too many media owners—many of whom have great power—see the role of the media differently: they believe the role of the media is to comfort the comfortable and ignore the afflicted. In World Bank circles our immediate concern may be to find fault with the media of developing countries, but we also need to look at the growing ailments of our own media here in the United States.

Frank Vogl, Journalism And Power: Why Ownership Matters,, May 9, 2001

The mainstream media of the developed and freer, nations pose an often unmentioned or poorly analyzed problem: the lack of objective reporting that is not influenced and, to a growing degree, controlled by elites to advance their interests.

Former journalist and World Bank Director of Information and Public Affairs from 1981 to 1990, Frank Vogl, cited above, adds in that same article that we have more TV channels than ever before, but they do little to bring us the fair, objective, tough reporting that we need to strengthen our society.

There is a growing awareness or realization of a problem that can be best summed up as a narrow range of discourse. That is, within presupposed views, there is much debate, but outside that range, there is less. As a result, it is often possible that many diverse views can be denied a public voice. This is highlighted well by the following from political commentator, Noam Chomsky:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

Noam Chomsky, The Common Good, Odonian Press, 1998

Why is there such a narrow range of discourse? Chomsky suggests that there are various institutional barriers, one of them being a kind of schooling in the right types of thoughts, and is quoted here at length:

If you’ve read George Orwell’s Animal Farm which he wrote in the mid-1940s, it was a satire on the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state. It was a big hit. Everybody loved it. Turns out he wrote an introduction to Animal Farm which was suppressed. It only appeared 30 years later. Someone had found it in his papers. The introduction to Animal Farm was about Literary Censorship in England and what it says is that obviously this book is ridiculing the Soviet Union and its totalitarian structure. But he said England is not all that different. We don’t have the KGB on our neck, but the end result comes out pretty much the same. People who have independent ideas or who think the wrong kind of thoughts are cut out.

He talks a little, only two sentences, about the institutional structure. He asks, why does this happen? Well, one, because the press is owned by wealthy people who only want certain things to reach the public. The other thing he says is that when you go through the elite education system, when you go through the proper schools in Oxford, you learn that there are certain things it’s not proper to say and there are certain thoughts that are not proper to have. That is the socialization role of elite institutions and if you don’t adapt to that, you’re usually out. Those two sentences more or less tell the story.

When you critique the media and you say, look, here is what Anthony Lewis or somebody else is writing, they get very angry. They say, quite correctly, nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I’m never under any pressure. Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing. If they had started off at the Metro desk, or something, and had pursued the wrong kind of stories, they never would have made it to the positions where they can now say anything they like. The same is mostly true of university faculty in the more ideological disciplines. They have been through the socialization system.

Noam Chomsky, Studying the Media: What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream, From a talk at Z Media Institute, June 1997

As an example of this narrow range of discourse, consider a range of studies by the Scotland-based Glasgow University Media Group undertaken with other NGO’s such as Save the Children, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and the Department For International Development. Their study shows how the limited nature of media coverage of the developing world and the focus on disaster and conflict produces negative attitudes and a very partial understanding amongst audiences of the wider world. As the report mentions, There is also a strong current in contemporary research which suggests that media are engaged in the mass production of social ignorance. This is well expressed in the title of Danny Schechter’s The More You Watch The Less You Know (1998). Their report also found the following:

  1. That the decision made by broadcasters (on commercial criteria) about what viewers would desire to watch have in the long run produced very negative responses in TV audiences towards the developing world.
  2. That audiences are misinformed about the developing world because of the low level of explanations and context which is given in television reporting and because some explanations which are present are partial and informed by what might be termed post-colonial beliefs.
  3. That a change in the quality of explanation which is given can radically alter both attitudes to the developing world and the level of audience interest in the subject.
Media coverage of the developing world: audience understanding and interest, Glasgow Media Group, May 2001

Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group commented on the above-mentioned study, as well as others in an article that appeared in a UNESCO (United Nationas Education, Science and Culture Organization) news article. In discussing the lack of background context to reports about issues around the world he described how:

One [journalist] commented to us that news reporters were effectively told not to focus on explanation, but to go for eye-catching events like fighting, shooting or riots. As he put it, they had been stopped from doing explainers - now it was all bang, bang stuff.

Professor Greg Philo, An unseen world: how the media portrays the poor, The Courier, UNESCO, November 2001

A commentary from Sandy Landau also agrees with the above, saying that the mainstream media often provides world news in the form of shotgun pellets. That is, there are quick bursts of world news, but often only on certain types of issues such as dramatic disasters, and often without context making it incomplete.

Even British Media, Often regarded as Good, Does Poorly on International Coverage

British media has long been regarded as having good and wide coverage of international affairs, compared to other comparatively developed nations. However, this picture is changing, as with most nations.

A number of organizations in Britain have formed a research organization called Third World & Environment Broadcasting Project (3WE). Amongst other things, it produces reports on the state of the media, monitoring the quantity of international programming on the UK’s mainstream TV channels.

3WE’s report for 2001, called Losing Reality, suggested that The international documentary is virtually dead in Britain. It has found a trend of declining coverage of international issues and an increase in entertainment and dumbing down. For example,

  • Instead of international documentaries, it found that programme categories - such as politics, history, development, environment and human rights - were replaced by entertainment genres—reality TV, travel challenges, and holiday programmes.
  • In addition, when foreign places were covered, British media often showed British people experience foreign locations, as in Reality TV, travel challenges, holiday magazine programmes and docu-soaps;
  • They noted that in an era of globalization it is even more important to understand the wider world as we affect it, and it affects us. (In Britain for example, the percentage of people that get their information about the developing world from the mainstream is some 85 percent.)
  • The tragic events of September 11, 2001, were thought to lead to an increase in world issues coverage, but 3WE found that this was hardly the case. And even while some of the mainstream channels were providing quality documentaries, there weren’t many of them, and such programming was actually decreasing.

For some additional information, see also the following as a small example:

In their 2004 report, The World on the Box, 3WE examined how the nature and pattern of international factual programming in 2003 (which was their most recent data) compared with the previous 14 years. They found that:

  • The amount of factual international programming on the four largest terrestrial channels was 40% lower in 2003 than in 1989-90. With the inclusion of Five the reduction was 25%.
  • The type of coverage offered to viewers has changed. Increasingly prominent within factual international programming are genres that reveal little about the realities of life for non-British people living outside this country: travel programs; series following British adventurers; documentaries about Brits abroad and reality game-shows in exotic locations. These programs foreground British subjects, albeit in foreign locations.
  • Factual programming about developing countries fell even more markedly. In 2003 it was 49% lower than in 1989-90 on all terrestrial TV, lower than at any other time recorded since 1989-90. (Two of the main channels, BBC1, and ITV1 both provided less than 20 hours total of such output. At peak time, ITV only provided 3.6 hours of programming.)
  • While one or two years prior to 2003 there were some increases, a long view revealed an underlying trend of continued decline in both factual international programs and developing country factual programs.

These low numbers would be even worse if it had not included coverage of the Iraq crisis.

For more information, see also the following:

(While even the highly regarded British media is criticized in this way, other nations also suffer similar problems. Later in this section on media on this web site, we also look at the media in the most powerful country in the world, the United States, and how media portrayal and presentation affects perceptions and opinions of America citizens on people and issues around the world.)

And with some of the recent political protests such as that of the WTO in Seattle, in November 1999, of the IMF and World Bank in April 2000, etc, and the increased media coverage, some independent journalists have been finding that censorship is taking a more violent form even in Britain and the US.

However, while there are immense problems with the western mainstream media, as the following quote suggests, concerned people are beginning to realize:

This media war has yet to produce an effective opposition, an antiwar movement or cultural resistance that can challenge its trajectory and impact. Such a movement, however, is bubbling up from below, with parents calling for a more informative way of rating TV shows to safeguard their children, teachers promoting media literacy, activists asking for corporate accountability, consumers demanding enforcement of antitrust laws, media watchers critiquing news coverage, critics seeking more meaningful program content, producers creating alternative work and independent producers like me agitating for better and fairer journalism.

Danny Schechter, Chapter 2, Peace Journalism and Media War: the Fight to Reform Journalism, What Are Journalists For?, presented on the Conflict and Peace Forums, January 1999

Almost 7 years on from the above statement, Schechter notes the rise in blogs or web logs as a kind of citizen journalism, partially resulting from dissatisfaction at the mainstream media:

The response to this continued erosion of any commitment to public service in the form of the emergence of a media and democracy movement was not in the news much. The only good news seems to be that critics and activists challenging this media decline are quietly replacing the mainstream mudstream with a more credible media of their own. Millions of blogs and scores of independent documentaries are trying to meet the demand for more diversity in a media system dominated by just seven media giants.

Danny Schechter, News About News, Buzzflash Guest Editorial, December 26, 2005

But, as Amnesty International notes, governments—with the help of some of the biggest IT companies in the world—are cracking down on freedom of expression.

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So why does the mainstream media often provide partial coverage?

  • Why are some stories newsworthy while others are not?
  • What factors influences what is important and what is not?
  • How does this affect our ability to make informed decisions and opinions?

The rest of this section hopes to introduce some of these issues and provide links and resources to further information.

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

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Document revision history

Updated the World Press Freedom index to reflect 2011 data from Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders).
Very short note added on declining international news coverage in the US
Updated the World Press Freedom index to reflect 2007 data from Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders).
Updated the World Press Freedom index to reflect 2006 data from Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders).
Updated the World Press Freedom index to reflect 2005 data from Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders). The same overall pattern was seen as per the previous year, though some western democracies slipped down the rankings. Also added a very small note about the rise of blogs as a kind of citizen journalism.
Added some additional details about the declining British media coverage of international issues
Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) issues a world wide press freedom index for 2004. Democracies rank the best, whilst totalitarian regimes are at the bottom. As with their previous index, major countries like USA and UK ranked quite low.

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