Mainstream Media Introduction
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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 globalissues.org web site introduces some of those aspects.
On this page:
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.
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.
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
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 corruptionthat 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
averageIndian person was getting more real.
- In the past, the
averageIndian 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.)
Media in Industrialized Countries
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:
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:
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:
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:
A commentary from Sandy Landau also agrees with the above, saying that the mainstream media often provides world news in the form of
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:
- 3WE Web site
- John Vidal, Britons sink into ignorance as TV turns to trivia in third world, Guardian, July 10, 2002)
- British TV
ignoresdeveloping world, BBC, July 10, 2002
- John Plunkett, Reality Bytes, Guardian, July 29, 2002
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 abroadand reality game-shows in
exoticlocations. 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:
- TV under fire over factual shows, BBC, July 4, 2004
- Silence is Green; The Green Movement And The Corporate Mass Media, Media Lens, February 3, 2005
(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:
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:
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.
So why does the mainstream media often provide partial coverage?
- Why are some stories
newsworthywhile 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.
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