A major subject in the news in recent months has been that of the media and its role and influence in our post-modern society. However, very few people understand the magnitude of this issue with regards to the media as a core tenet of any liberal democracy and how it has failed and succeeded in its obligation to keep the people informed.
In the early 20th century, people consumed their news entirely through print media, in the form of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, etc. and journalists at the time were subjected to consistent, factual and unbiased reporting with daily deadlines. A story that was being read in today’s newspaper was written the day before or even earlier. This was because of the restrictions with regards to the printing and distributing of newspapers. Of course, when it came to cases of breaking news, a publication would “stop the presses” and hastily add in a story of great significance. However, this limitation also meant that any article that went to print would be subject to intense scrutiny from not only the journalist, but his subeditors and editors. Then, via television and radio, the distribution of news became easier and news consumers were able to get their news faster and in a more user-friendly format. A 1000-word article could be condensed into a five-minute broadcast, with the added dynamic of primary sources, like sound clips and video, as opposed to photographs.
Now, in the 21st century and in the age of the internet and digital media, these facets of journalism have taken on an entirely new dynamic. News is easily distributed through online platforms almost immediately. News stories are augmented with multimedia story-telling devices, like videos, sound-clips and a number of other forms of visual stimulus, which are easily accessible through smart phones and the power of the internet. Add to this, the influence of social media and an event can be covered in real time or almost immediately after the event. Time restrictions and deadlines are ad hoc and journalists are subjected to far more stringent deadlines, which eliminates the fact-checking and scrutiny that would usually be carried out by an editor. This hasn’t been fully eliminated, but when Donald Trump won the US presidential election or when Britain voted to leave the European Union and other such urgent stories broke, such stories were subjected to less scrutiny due to the principle of “get it first, get it right” in the media. We get our stories first from publication X, but the “get it right” part has fallen somewhat by the wayside. As soon as a journalist finds a story, he or she tweets it and there are no subeditors for personal Twitter accounts. However, those accounts are still supposed to be guided by basic media ethics.
So, to put it briefly, while we receive our news faster and in a more user friendly packaging than ever before, the credibility of our news has been lost in many ways.
This is not to say that there aren’t any publications or journalists out there that practice ethical journalism, but rather that, in the scope of the vast number of articles being published every minute, they are very few and far between. Through ‘citizen journalism’, i.e. stories published via social media and blogs, it is possible for literally anybody to distribute news, which is subjected to no scrutiny whatsoever. A person off the street that writes blog posts on whatever he or she wants (ironically, myself included) is not accountable to the press code, an ombudsman or any other regulative body. They can write a story about how the sky is not blue, gravity is a false concept or anything that is factually flawed, biased or that amounts to hate speech and, as long as their readers are naïve enough, it can be considered as factual evidence. As a result, the pursuit of the truth, a concept which, in itself, is entirely subjective (as has been discussed by the likes of British social critic, Bertrand Russell), is no longer a priority.
As with anything in this world, ethical reporting has been corrupted by financial interests. While it may cost you R30 to buy a newspaper today, it would only cost you a few megabytes of data to read the same news story online, and, of course, the financial reward of an online article is dictated by the number of ‘clicks’ that it gets – which leads to clickbait.
At the same time, thanks to tabloids, the mass consumers of news are more interested in trivial news, such as Kim Kardashian’s new hairstyle, rather than important news events such as bombings in the middle East or Trump’s decision to deploy hundreds of US marines in northern Syria last week. So, as the ordinary people’s minds are numbed by celebrity culture and whatever is happening on MTV, the world around us is crumbling and we couldn’t care less.
What’s more is that, whatever important news we do receive, is almost entirely subjective due to the channels through which it is currently distributed. The number one news source for most people is their personal Facebook news feeds. What’s wrong with that? You are receiving your news via pages that you ‘like’ or the posts that your friends share. So, if you are conservative, you’re reading right-wing news sources and its more than likely that your friends will share conservative articles of their own. As an ordinary citizen, you’re either too lazy or too ignorant to check the facts or trust your news sources to have done so for you. And, furthermore, you aren’t being exposed to the leftist news stories – eliminating your ability to form an objective opinion of your own. Your biased opinion reflects in the way you vote and plays right into the hands of the people who give you the news, the same people who are likely in cahoots with the politicians for whom you are voting.
And then we come to the politicians. Donald Trump is the embodiment of how the media’s influence has devastating consequences. Take a look at the US President’s opinions on the media. He openly admits that his top news sources consist of the likes of Breitbart News, Fox News, The Blaze and other notoriously conservative publications that have the likes of the incredibly beautiful, yet wholly uninformed and completely biased, Tomi Lahren, reporting on their behalf. Any publication, such as the Economist or Wall Street Journal are considered conspirators and use “alternative facts” to cloud the consumers’ judgement. Of course, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, New York Times and other such publications have glowing reputations and are amongst the finest publications in the world, but Paul Krugman, David J. Herzig and the likes are nowhere near as pretty as Tomi Lahren. So the mass news consumer trusts Tomi Lahren’s opinion rather than Paul Krugman’s because she’s easy on the eye and Donald wins another vote. This is where we come back to that celebrity culture.
Then, the real trustworthy news sources come in the form of the alternative media, whose interests lie entirely in bringing you the truth and, by definition, are not financially driven. But these publications simply don’t have the financial means to distribute to wider audiences.
And, even here in South Africa, where the political climate is very different to that of the United States, it is publications such as the Daily Sun that are outperforming, for example, the Mail and Guardian, Business Day or Financial Times. Why? Because the South African masses are more inclined to read about sex scandals than the Spy Tapes or state corruption. Furthermore, there comes the Protection of State Information Bill, which will eventually be signed into law, no matter how much of an outcry it causes. The media will be stripped of its powers to hold our leaders to account and reporting on Nkandla or any other breaches of our constitution will be considered criminal acts, paving the way for the death of our democracy.
In the past, under the Apartheid regime, the media was subjected to a similar state of censorship, where the only permitted reporting came via the state mouthpieces, such as the SABC. Nelson Mandela may have been the champion of ‘the struggle’, but it was journalists such as Govan Mbeki and Donald Woods that exposed the evils of the National Party and the legislative segregation to the world and that kept a poorly educated, non-white population informed. If not for pamphlets and independent distributors that catered for communications during a time where free speech and freedom of the press was nonexistent, mobilising the disenfranchised and an international boycott would have been all but impossible and Mr Mandela may have seen out his years in that tiny prison cell in Robben Island. Nobody would have known about the Sharpeville Massacre or the Soweto Uprisings – in fact, they may not have happened at all…
So, what’s the end game here? There is little to no doubt that the uneducated, misinformed populations of countries around the world, which will be considered democratic and even those which are considered to have a free press, will become putty in the hands of politicians and corporate powers. Winning votes will become trivial and only a very small elite that is capable of seeing through the media’s bullshit will be able to discern between a functional, ethical status quo and a global dictatorship – the mass media dictatorship.