Monday, March 31, 2008

Is Mass-News Media Healthy?

There is no doubt in my mind that the maturity and progress of democracy of a country can be singularly and easily measured by the objectivity, quality and independence of its News Media. It is for that very reason and the performance of its media, U.S. has long been considered by many around the world the beacon of democracy. Yet with the divisive elections and last 8 years of Bush government’s persistently poor judgment and what we know now, one can’t stop wondering how well has the news-media done their jobs (and for the matter what should we expect from them)? This becomes more acute as one feels the fatigue and overload after being bombarded for months by extensive coverage of Democratic Party presidential primaries. One must ponder how much and what have been imprinted in our heads are substance and insights, as opposed to mere perceptions created by each outlet and political camp. At the same time, as the media sometimes argue that they just report and reflect what the mass consider important or think, what and how did each of us contribute in influencing media’s choice of coverage? Did these coupling re-enforces each other and offer opportunities to some to influence and manipulate the outcomes? Did we from time to time make the mistake about which Barack Obama's March speech on Race & Politics warned "... to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality"?

I do have good reasons to worry about all these. In 1972, Professors Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introduced the Agenda-setting theory with their ground-breaking study of 1968 presidential election. They showed scientifically that mass media can set the public agenda priority or in another word, what people should think about (the theory has been validated numerous times since and applied to fields like Marketing and Advertising). They also hypothesized that people would attend only to news and views that didn't threaten their established beliefs. More alarmingly it appears that the effects may be more powerful than stated originally: the mass media may also tell people how to think about an agenda through framing, aggregation, and “connecting the dots”. That is not that far from suggesting what the conclusions ought to be.

There are many ways News-media set the agenda for the mass. The revered 156+ years old New York Times has the frequently-quoted motto: “All The News are more fit than others or more “newsworthy” given the fixed space of the paper (or fixed amount of time in the case of TV broadcasters)? More seriously, who checks the authenticity and accuracy of the reports and the overall balance and how well is it done? The recent documentary Bush's War by PBS includes a story of VP Dick Cheney’s intensive lobbying of the invasion of Iraq through many TV interviews back in 2002. In those interviews, Cheney repeatedly cited the NY Times reporter Judith Miller’s front page article that reported Iraq was seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Only later we learned that Miller’s source was none but Cheney’s Chief of Staff! Isn’t that scary?

The most recent State of the News Media 2008 report on American Journalism by the Project for Excellence in Journalism contains extensive and objective reviews of the landscape, supported with detailed statistics and analysis. It is interesting to know some trivia such as that each night, in average, there are about 30 millions people watch Network and Cable TV News (note there are about 100+millions households in U.S.). One also learns or finds confirmation from the report that, for instance, commercial Network News (ABC, NBC and CBS) are still far more broad in its coverage compared to Cable News (MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN and CNN Headline News). One also finds that, perhaps not surprisingly, more Democrats tuned into CNN and MSNBC while more Republicans tuned into Fox News (that was by design). Obviously one tends to get more doses of news and commentaries that confirm to their inclinations and beliefs by tuning into their favorite stations! When and where would one get the alternate views then? Is this a subtle form of brain washing? I found it terrifying when I turned into a program and got disgusted by the speakers before they opened their mouth!

The report also noted that format of news programs does matter: correspondent packages made up 82% of the time on the nightly Network News, compared to 30% in Cable News that “… appears to be more on creating the impression that things are being reported as they happen. Producing programs in a live, unedited and essentially extemporaneous model is also cheaper…” The legit concern is the higher likelihood of misrepresentations and bias due to lack of due diligence such as reviews/editing and fact checks in the midst of such “reality shows” (in some, that has actually being recognized as a new “opportunity” and turned into a new segment). Worse yet, in-depth expositions requiring much harder and time-consuming efforts and skills are few that does not help correcting our problems of decreasing attention span.

Economics matters too, just like any business. Of course no media, especially the commercial ones, can survive without a decent balance sheet. The question one needs to ask is thus how is the news coverage influenced by the ownership and financial considerations (recall Fox News was created to present a “balanced” view to otherwise the “liberal left”?) This is particularly disconcerting when a large portions of the media are owned by few large corporations (ABC is owned by Walt Disney, NBC and MSNBC by General Electric, Fox News by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and CNN by Time Warner, to name a few). One famous example of the influence by financial consideration can be seen in the hit Hollywood movie The Insider which depicts how and why CBS blocked the airing of a 60 minutes episode in 1994 on tobacco industry’s efforts in increasing nicotine addiction and public lies.

Fortunately there are other viable business models and entities of News Media as well. In U.S., PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and NPR (National Public Radio) are successful and highly respected private nonprofit organizations where 40-47% of its funding comes from federal, state and local governments with the rest from private donations. In U.K., there is BBC, the largest broadcasting corporation on earth, which is a state-owned public corporation and quasi-autonomous with a clear mission of "to inform, educate and entertain". But the most exciting recent development has to be those enabled by the Internet inclusive of the social networking. With the rise of N-GEN (Net Generation), one can expect further shift and fundamental change of behavior and interactions of the mass and the media. The so-called Participatory or Citizen Journalism through e.g. blogs are breaking the monopoly and elitism. Commercially, the pioneering OhmyNews of South Korea, founded in 2000 by few young entrepreneurs, has a motto “every citizen is a reporter” and accepts subjective reporting inclusive of opinions from the mass (of course, editors of the paper do decide which articles to use and how prominent the space or position it would have. Further, there are still needs for regular full-time staffs that dedicated to establishing access and reporting significant higher level government or business events that normal people would not have access to!).

Such nuance of journalism and use of Internet technologies indeed offered us the great hope that freedom of speech and the press would never be muffled by few and we can all play an active role in insuring its health. Of course, worst to the worst, when everything fails, we still got Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report!

Talk to you soon!

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