Co-authored by Matt Semino, Esq.
The misuse of words can harm. Consider rousing speeches of dictators, nations' call to arms, the hysteria of the lynch mob, ancient crusades, and modern hate speech against minorities. Words can also influence, demand, protect and heal. When people have a voice the culture advances. That's power to the people.
The fundamental right to be heard is not conferred on everyone. Some, historically bullied into silence, have organized recent revolutions against oppression gaining footholds through social media like Facebook and Twitter, forever changing the face of the Mediterranean and North Africa. Democratic societies confer the legal right to speak and to be heard; in America the first constitutional amendment guarantees a free press and free speech.
"Voice" is value and valued. The field of communications, media in particular, with its current longer reach, raises more than a few questions, and one burning one: when one has a bully pulpit or platform, does it come with inherent responsibilities and if so, what are they? Other questions that beg consideration are about ethics, their governance, and where and how do consumers of information make their voices heard.
Collective outrage ruled social media as people bristled at the Murdoch story and hacking of private information from a murdered girl's phone. The outcry against such impropriety and abuse of power was swift and fierce. The damage from certain media practices may be far more collateral than we first thought; words used irresponsibly harm, bully and even threaten life.
Sensationalized and framed so as to herd people's thoughts to a particular destination or conclusion, words assembled can constitute propaganda. Propaganda seeks to indoctrinate and prejudice in an attempt to herd your mind to the place where someone else thinks it should live. That's not your conclusion; it's their conclusion.
Does the media have responsibilities? When people are in positions of power or influence over others, is there an inherent obligation to tell the truth? If the backlash against Murdoch taught anything, it's this: People do not like underhanded tactics used by a media considered out-of-control and behaving irresponsibly.
We don't yell "fire" in a theater because it's against the law and someone could get hurt. For the same reason we don't yell "Off with their heads!" Or at least we shouldn't. A recent storm of scorn was aimed at television programs and pundits who do exactly that by targeting crime stories or trials while vilifying parties before they ever set foot in a courtroom, and who call for the heads of jurors deemed "misguided" in their verdicts.
The justice system deliberately does not try someone in the court of public opinion because historically, that hasn't worked so well -- in mob lynchings, witch trials and ancient coliseums. Words used irresponsibly can inflict irreversible harm on the innocent. Prominent attorneys stepped up and on air recently to speak to the dangers of proclaiming guilt upon accusation alone, because people are falsely accused all the time. Many argued that preliminary judgment can obscure false accusations and make real justice impossible or even obstruct it. Other attorneys caution about jurors being allowed to give interviews or make book deals for money. They fear that when large sums of money changes hands justice can be thwarted.
Still others argue that when acquittals are ignored and the person found "not guilty" continues to be vilified or their charge repeated with each mention in the press, democratic principles, individuals, families and society itself are harmed. That harm can be irreversible: think Richard Jewell of Olympic Park bombing notoriety or Patsy Ramsey, mother of Jonbenet Ramsey.
Both Ramsey and Jewell were eventually exonerated, but their families would argue that media had something to do with the early graves of each. In recent weeks, a woman was run off the road because she resembled Casey Anthony. Can someone be chased and hounded into an early grave by tabloids, hysterical press and public opinion fueled by snarling hyperbole, and does that constitute media terrorism?
There are ethics that are supposed to govern journalism. Each media entity has its own guidelines, even Journalism and Writers' schools that teach ethics as a part of their programs. As we are learning from daily revelations, the tabloid or tabloid-infected culture seems to have thrown out any ethics altogether. Since the regular press must compete with tabloids for readers' discretionary cash, is all media now in danger from urban color or similar genres or "tabloidization?"
Debra Schaffer, Phd. Linguistics and Professor of English at Montana State University Billings, author of seminal works on the linguistics of tabloid journalism and the language of prejudice has a few cautions for consumers of media:
"The public needs to examine language, claims, arguments and evidence critically and objectively, since what propaganda and other forms of persuasive language try to do is to short circuit critical thinking and hit us right in the gut." The tactics of using emotionally charged words, nicknames or first names of those become famous or celebrities in order to establish a sense of familiarity and intimacy with them -- creates the illusion that the readers know them personally.
"The omniscient narrator in news writing or the pseudo-quote gives readers a sense that the writer has access to the mind and attitudes of the person quoted by leading with a pronoun, even though they are not direct quotes and the writer could not possibly be privy to that information nor the thoughts in someone's mind. We should be wary, especially when it is presented as truth."
Media consumers must first acknowledge and be aware that what they are frequently ingesting when it comes to "news" is yet another finely packaged entertainment product with content dictated almost overwhelmingly by market forces. Though, unlike what is shown on the silver screen, it is real human beings and events that serve simultaneously as both the actors and backdrop for ever-changing story lines. Consumers must decide what they will swallow.
Ideally, the "news" can be used to shed light on pressing social problems and spur positive public policy changes and many times, it helps us accomplish these lofty goals. Other times, its messages and means of delivery can have a damaging effect on individual lives and society. We have recently observed this phenomenon with the Murdoch scandal and in the past with other high-profile news subjects. Ultimately, media consumers need to take heed that what they are purchasing is a product without labels and warning signs. Loosely regulated, it is product that must always be viewed with a highly critical and educated eye.
"News" is increasingly an opinion and editorially driven enterprise and no longer just the reporting of facts. It's created to arouse emotion in its audience, as opposed to simply just inform. Those with the power in the media to influence public opinion do have a social responsibility to be ethical and truthful in the presentation of their subject matter even while opinion is at the core of any democracy and such liberties should be protected.
Now, more than ever, the viewer must work harder to separate objective truth from subjective presentation, particularly around legal justice stories where it is very easy to paint the picture of guilt or innocence. There is no doubt that this parsing process is difficult to do, but it is entirely possible. With even more information at our fingertips, the viewing public has the power to challenge the media and pundits if they believe that a story or news subject is not being reported accurately or in an ethical manner.
Even with all of the background noise and competing points of view of, for example, high-profile trials like the Casey Anthony case and the upcoming Conrad Murray trial, the legal analysis and opinions of the media and their commentators outside the courtroom should not be taken as gospel. Instead, viewers should be empowered to critique the message with their own, well researched and informed perspective. Always with their guard up, media consumers will be able to hold the "news" accountable for its messages as opposed to feeling overwhelmed and victimized.
So it seems that readers and viewers may no longer rely on getting strictly "just the facts, please." The days of passive media consumption and assumed accuracy are over. Readers and viewers share in the responsibility of and for -- truth. And that carries an obligation -- first to question, and then to understand that at the other end of that remote is a product that's not without flaws.
Like any other product brought into the home that doesn't perform to standards, it's up to the consumer to make their feelings known by taking the providers to task when they're wrong or offensive, or stop buying the product altogether while letting the producers and even sponsors, know you're not swallowing it, and why. "Power to the people" is an empowering philosophy. For it to have power, the people must first claim it; then use it.