05/24/2012 03:08 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

The Media's Limitations and Manipulations

What Freedom Are We Calling For? Part 3/5

All social, political and economic policies and debates are communicated through our media. Therefore, the breadth of our democratic experience is largely defined by the structure of the media and its content. This may not be an immediate cause for panic in itself, but consider this alongside the centralisation of corporate media ownership and the picture becomes a lot more worrying. If a handful of companies control the vast majority of what we constantly see, hear, and read about 24hrs a day, then the breadth of our information and democratic experience becomes considerably concentrated and narrowed.

News does not come down to us raw and unadulterated. Rather, it is 'processed' and structured in terms of what topics are selected; how information is filtered; what is emphasised and what is ignored; how an issue is framed; and how a debate is bounded. Such tailoring gives Western news a specific 'character' to which we have all become innately accustomed.

As author of The Press and Foreign Policy (1993) Bernard Cohen points out, it's not so much that the media tells you what to think, it's that they tell you what to think about. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, for example, holds in excess of 130 newspapers worldwide, including the most widely circulated English newspaper in the world, The Sun. Now seeing as companies such as News Corporation are in competition with the likes of AOL , Murdoch's company will decide to turn many of these newspapers into profitable sensationalist journalism, focusing on the three themes of sex, crime, and sport (Herman and McChesney 1997).

Criteria for much news in general is about what can shock and rouse our emotions as opposed to what is actually informative and useful to society. Crime, sex/money scandals, bizarre/extremist opinions or behaviour, and anything to do with celebrities, occupies a large space within our mass media. Such attention-grabbing topics are also framed in ways that restrict our thinking even further. Violent crime reports, for example, take the form of concise horror stories, creating endless villains and victims out of our citizens rather than discussing the social problems that lead to such incidents. It's as if unemployment, inequality, poor education, and lack of moral sensitivity in society has nothing to do with such crimes. Our universities are, of course, filled with experts in such social sciences, but media professionals are largely uninterested in using their knowledge to create an intellectual platform to suggest ways in which we can minimise such offences in the future. Instead, politicians give simple solutions to appease the masses, while disregarding the opinions of experts. Moreover, there have been many studies which show that certain social problems, such as terror, violent and sexual crimes, have been exaggerated way out of proportion, while other studies show that more serious issues - many to do with the environment - are not emphasized enough or are completely ignored. Unsurprisingly, research shows that people who engage most with the mass media are more frightened of the outside world and have less trust for other people.

International Politics

The media also has a strong influence on people's political opinions due to the majority of sources coming from government and other establishment interests. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky extensively argue that in their book Manufacturing Consent (2002) that the modes of handling material by the mass media serve political ends and maintain existing political and corporate power structures. War is a typical concern for such thinkers. Political scientist Michael Parenti, for example, points out that "whenever the White House proposes an increase in military spending, press discussion is limited to how much more spending is needed... are we doing enough or need we do still more? No media exposure is given to those who hotly contest the already gargantuan arms budget in its totality". Typically, two choices are presented to the public but a third option that challenges the status quo is not.

There have been many studies that have analysed the political biases in the mass media, which are relevant to today's political climate. In a research-based publication, Bad News from Israel (2004) by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, the two-year study showed that the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was biased towards Israel, which had significant effect on the attitudes and beliefs of Western audiences. The study showed, for example, that Israelis were interviewed or reported on more than twice as much as Palestinians, and Israeli casualties were strongly emphasised relative to Palestinians despite Palestinian casualties being greater in number. Even the language of news reports was used in such a way that favoured Israel. Words like 'hit-back' and 'retaliate' were used for Israeli action, while words like 'murder' and 'cold blood' was used for Palestinian action. There was also a lack of coverage on the context of the situation. That is, the forced mass evacuation of Palestinians from their homes, and a history of ethnic occupation, which, when not mentioned, makes the Palestinians look like they are initiating attacks for no reason.

Contextual details are typically neglected in such reports because essential root causes are seen as far less interesting than more shocking superficial symptoms. French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu captures this point well when he describes news as "a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution - Zaire today, Bosnia yesterday, the Congo tomorrow." Importantly, such social and political simplification or manipulation works contrary to the democratic goal of educating people.

Biased narratives in the film industry are far less subtle. In his book and documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2004), Jack Shaheen shows that Hollywood has vilified and portrayed Arabs as sub-human, militant, and barbaric to the masses since the beginning of film. In his research of over 1000 films that involved Arab characters or references, he found that around 90% were negative, 1% were positive, and the rest were neutral. For Shaheen, such 'stereotyping has become so wide-spread that it has become invisible.' Similarly, Social Psychologist Sam Keen, creator of Faces of the Enemy claims, "you can hit an Arab free; they are free enemies, free villains - where you couldn't do it to a Jew or you can't do it to a black anymore." Such social scientists never fail to mention the clear political manipulation, which, throughout history, has been used by a variety of political regimes to construct vile, ferocious representations of their enemies to justify invasion, occupation, killing, torture, and social exclusion. The phenomenon of Islamophobia is a current case in point.

We may not be physically forced to comply with state interests as in a dictatorship, though the result is not dissimilar. The corporate race for mass media consumption is a phenomenon that we as citizens pay the price for, both financially, and psychologically, producing news that is generally negative, superficial, and punchy; hardly ever constructive, beneficial, or thought provoking. Of course, not every item within the media is necessarily shaped by such interests, and good, honest journalism does exist. But the relentless prevalence of social and political misrepresentations on our TVs, news papers, on-line, and on the big screen, is certainly enough for us to question the integrity of our cognitive freedom and the soundness of our democratic experience.