Can the media ever tell the truth?

Author: Stephanie Heng
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2019
Grade: N.A.

On May 8, 2019, a fake news bill was passed in Singapore to combat the proliferation of online falsehoods. While this controversial bill spurred public debates regarding the potential (ab)use of law to restrict freedom of expression and entrench political power, it is indicative of an underlying concern regarding the truthfulness of both social and mass media. Media in its varied forms has ostensibly infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives and plays an undeniably influential role in shaping the mindsets and perceptions of individuals. Media indubitably involves a selective relation, curation, and representation of information to achieve certain purposes, and this has given rise to the view that the media of today is utterly devoid of truth. Nonetheless, while the media has shown itself to lacking credibility and objectivity, it would be overly myopic to declare that the media does not ever tell the truth. Rather, the instances where the media has become a tool of empowerment in its representation of often disregarded, ignored, or public denied truths demonstrates the potential of the media to be a truthful and essential organ of society.

Certain critics have put forth the view that due to the inherent nature of the media, it lacks objectivity in its representation and communication of information. This is due to a variety of reasons. First, the media as a medium is merely a conduit for the communication of inevitably interpreted information. Media reportage is not just the representation of bare facts but necessarily requires analysis, such as the reportage of the motivations behind policies or the synthesis of information. The choice of what to report or omit within the limitations of space is also affected by human bias. Media is therefore imbued with an inherent subjectivity that lacks objectiveness and accuracy. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s economic policies in Germany, represented as a sensible protection of taxpayers’ interests, is given vastly different treatment in Greece, where it is represented as a dictatorial attempt to control sovereign policy. The fact of the matter remains the same, what differs is its analysis.

Information in the media can also be purposefully represented and twisted to achieve political motives. It is well-known that various newspapers have the propensity to be aligned with the predominant views of a select party, whether it be government-controlled state newspapers, or private ones with established political views. Certain newspapers are known to embody certain political leanings, where the New York Times is largely democratic, while the Fox News is mainly Republican. Government controlled censorship in China has given rise to state media that veers towards the territory of state propaganda. To a lesser extent, legal restrictions are imposed on national newspapers in countries such as Singapore. As such, information in the media can be purposefully (mis)represented to fulfil political aims.

Media is also a heavily commercialised industry, and information is often selected and represented towards a view of profit maximisation. This is most evident within the advertising industry, where the selective omission and representation of information misleads consumers into buying a product that is portrayed as better than it actually is. In 2009, an Olay advertisement for its Definity eye cream showed former model Twiggy looking wrinkle-free and younger than her years; however, the advertisements were retouched. This reflects the gross misrepresentation of products.

Nonetheless, I would question the statement that the media never tells the truth. There is still a grain of truth within each piece of information portrayed. Even biased analysis is based to some degree on real-world facts which are available for the reader to peruse. Readers and consumers are not empty vessels blindly absorbing media-based information; rather, they possess faculties of reasoning and rationality that acts as a check against the proliferation of fake news or misrepresented information. Lies are immediately discovered; when Sarkozy attempted to claim that he had participated in the demolition of the Berlin Wall, but journalists and bloggers quickly discovered that he had been in Paris at the time, prompting a rash of mockery. Investigative journalism in particular has the power to expose lies and falsehoods to great effect.

In the past, the domination of a few mainstream news outlets made it easier for a few biased viewpoints to dominate, reducing objectivity. However, the rise of new media makes the gathering, analysing and verifying of information far easier, faster, and objective. The nature of the online community as composed of members from all over the word indicates access to a variety of sources of information available for readers and consumers to evaluate against one another. Now, the introduction of the Internet and new media has enabled the representation of a great variety of perspectives, such as small news sites and blogs to serve niche areas of interest or political beliefs. New media can serve as a useful check on the established viewpoints or dominant biases that would otherwise dominate the media, for example, in Italy where 41% trust online news versus 24% for television news. The rapid dissemination of information on new media forces traditional or mainstream media to reflect more accurate and objective information, as any untruths can be quickly uncovered by the public through verification with the numerous alternative sources available.

While social media is notorious for propagating gross untruths and prejudices, it also has the potential to be a liberating source of truth and empowerment, especially for marginalised communities and groups. The #MeToo movement demonstrates its potential to expose inherent biases and injustices within society. The use of social media in the Egyptian revolution also exemplifies this. By allowing people to express dissatisfaction and turmoil within the country through Facebook, which is a direct expression of truth, media can be a rousing tool to mobilise large groups of people towards liberation and uncover previously unseen realities. As such, the evolution of new media has allowed the flourishing of hidden truths crucial towards the empowerment of disenfranchised and marginalised groups.

To conclude, the media have never been a perfect source of information; its various biases and shortcomings have detracted from its ability to portray reality in an accurate and objective manner. However, these flaws have never been able to completely eradicate the grain of truth present within the media. In particular, the introduction of new media has contributed to ensuring both the accuracy of all information reported and the objectivity of the reporting, vastly increasing the truthfulness and reliability of the media today, as well as strengthening its potential to uncover greater hidden truths and empower consumers and readers with genuine knowledge. Therefore, it cannot be said that the media never tells the truth. 

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