Archive for August, 2010

Media Narrative

August 22, 2010 Leave a comment

We often hear people talk and complain about media bias. What I would like to suggest to you today is that the notion of “media bias” is far too soft to capture what the real problem with the media is. I believe that the problem with the media is not merely bias. It is invention. No, I am not accusing the media of inventing facts. Rather, I believe that the media invents broad social narratives that would not exist–or would be substantially less significant–without its action and influence. I think that it is true that the political bias of a particular news source will inevitably determine, to some extent, the content and direction of those narratives. But that bias is not the really deep problem. The really deep problem is a fundamental dishonesty on the part of the media as to its own nature and intentions, as to what it is and what it is trying to accomplish.

The media presents itself as objective, as reporting the facts, as giving us the information and letting us form our own opinions. And it is true, the media is required, presumably, to report on things that have actually happened. But what is not acknowledged in this is the obvious and fundamental importance of content selection itself. I believe that what is chosen to be talked about at all by the media is by far the most important factor in the narrative that gets constructed as a result. This is where the real story is written–this is where political bias becomes largely irrelevant, where FOX News and MSNBC are essentially working together, simply presenting two different aspects of the same collective narrative.

The first rule of any creative writing class is this: show rather than tell. If you want to convey that the girl was beautiful, you don’t say “the girl was beautiful.” Rather, you describe her so that her beauty becomes apparent. You work indirectly: the main idea you are getting across is never actually stated. Instead, the content that you do state impresses that idea on the imagination of the reader. It is the same with the media. The chief difference is that, for a news writer or producer, the content that he has to work with comes, not from his imagination, but rather from they myriad of actual day to day happenings on the planet earth. He gets to chose from these.

What I want to convey is this: not even taking into account how he choose to describe things, this content source alone allows for an incredible creative freedom, on par with that of a fiction writer. The media can choose to talk about, at most, a few dozen of the billions of things that happened in a given day. And this is choosing not to talk about the rest. Now, I know very little about the inner workings of how this choice eventually takes place, about how some things eventually make the cut, whereas others are ignored. Surely it is complicated; surely there are competing motivations and ideas warring against each other: rating, personal ambition, desire to advance a certain viewpoint, etc (though I probably ought to acknowledge the good motivations that journalists sometimes have as well). In fact, this is probably one of the reasons that the final narrative presented by the media is so horrendous. It is a story collectively written by thousands of different people with competing interests.

But we need not trouble ourselves with this. It is actually refreshing to realize that the true story of what is happening in the world is far too big, and far too…real, to ever be captured by the collective imagination of something like the media community. What we hear on the news is not reality; it is a distortion. We will surely never get the real story, the story of humanity, from the news. Only God knows it in full.  Nor can we even get a truly random sampling of daily events. Whatever the news is, it is clearly not this. You will come far closer to achieving this if you simply walk around in a big city for a few hours, watching and listening. So, whatever cut takes place in news offices around the world, narratives are constructed, and these narratives come to control the future content and direction of the news. This is an inevitable social phenomena.

Though the process is complicated, the narratives that emerge are actually pretty simple–usually they play into previous narratives. The ground zero Mosque. The overturning of Proposition 8. The Kansas creation museum. Think about the larger narratives that each of these “stories” plays into. And think about the narratives themselves, the stories that the media is telling, in general: watch out for them; think about them as you watch the news, filter what you are seeing through that. View your local news broadcasters primarily as storytellers, rather than reporters. It is a lot more fun and, I believe, a lot more honest, than viewing them as objective messengers of fact.

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