Do you agree that we cannot trust the media?

Author: Chirin Soh
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2020
Grade: A

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind”. This quote by Jim Morrisson shows how news agencies, the government, or large corporations who have control over the media are able to influence people’s thoughts and opinions on certain topics. The mass media is inescapable, an all-pervasive presence in modern living. People are exposed to it through traditional forms such as television, newspapers, radio, books, as well as digital electronic forms of blogs, social media sites, and videos. Allowing one to access and acquire information, society can be educated and stay up to date on the happenings of the world. However, the media cannot always be relied upon to provide accurate, unbiased truths, and to uphold social responsibility. People need to be able to discern information wisely because media is inherently drive by profits, centrally controlled by powerful governments and subject to manipulation by ill-intentioned organisations and individuals.

The profit-driven nature of media makes it unreliable in upholding social responsibility and providing truthful information as they tend to sensationalise headlines and news stories. The vested interests of the media make them increasingly driven by ratings and profits. In a bid to generate hype, news outlets tend to practice sensationalism and cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. There is increasing voyeurism and it tends to toe the line of what is acceptable. For instance, The Times published a photograph of a woman, Katherine Ward, in mid-fall to her death from a London hotel window ledge. Horrendous images of bombings by Al-Qaeda also appeared on Spanish television. This promotion of violence and sexuality can lead to a desensitisation to such issues. Depicting sex and violence as glamorous also increases the crime rates in society. Media outlets also tend to only publish what they believe their audience wants to see. The Danish newspaper commissioned and printed cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammed in a bad light. They did not care about the social implications of their actions, resulting in growing hostility between Denmark’s immigrants and locals. This pushed anti-immigrant policies and sparked protests and riots, causing social unrest. The media also uses click-baits or tweaks information in news articles to make it more appealing. An analysis of 32 news articles by research John McManus found over half of news articles were misleading to increase the story’s appeal, or oversimplified a story so it could be told in two minutes. Therefore, the media cannot be trusted to provide truthful information.

The media also cannot be trusted because it is used by governments through the covering up of information and propaganda to fuel their political agenda. Through various forms like national television and newspapers, extreme propaganda has been used throughout the course of modern history to gently alter people’s perceptions of others and themselves. In World war 2, Hitler gained control of Germany by using media to turn the country against Jews. His propaganda on national TV broadcasted his aim to create the “super race” of Germans- “Aryans”. PAP also controls Singapore media like Straits Times and uses it to cover up their mistakes or downplay any problems faced. The Great Firewall of China bans any information that challenges or expresses discontent with the regime in power. This prevents citizens from questioning the existing status quo. Information sharing sites such as Facebook and Twitter that promote free speech and allow spreading of ideas are banned in China to prevent threats to the country’s system. Searching about politically sensitive topics such as Tiananmen Square on Chinese search engine throws up vastly different image and texts from searching on the International google. This stops citizens from learning about historical events that can cause them to turn against their government. Such instances of governments manipulating the media to serve their needs can be seen in even more countries such as the censorship of media in Japan to create generations of Japanese who grew up unaware of the obscenities of Japan’s war past. North Korean journalists undergo ideological training every week where they are being updated on the latest ‘news’ they are allowed to publish to establish North Korea’s superiority and unquestionable authority of their leader. Since the media is often used as a tool for governments to shape the minds of citizens, it cannot always be trusted.

Media cannot be trusted because it alters reality and twists the truth to intentionally deceive and manipulate actions of consumers. Advertisements account for 60% of newspaper and magazine profits and 100% for that of electronic media production. They have distorted the idea of beauty and aesthetics.Slimming advertisements use before and after photos where the before photo looks especially unattractive, with the photographed wearing unsuitable clothes or having poor body posture. However, the after photos were taken with makeup and nicer clothes to create a more stark contrast. The use of Photoshop to create flawless skin and reduced sizes has led to unrealistic beauty standards for women and created the culture of self-hatred. This is exploiting people’s vulnerabilities to create false and materialistic demands. People end up buying and spending more than they need because they equate personal worth to material possessions. In the consumeristic society, people compete to get bigger and better cars, houses, electronic gadgets. Media also glamorises unhealthy lifestyles such as the portrayal of smoking and drinking as glamorous or desirable. It also downplays healthy diets such as the Slim 10 diet pills, advertised to be safe and effective. However, they turned out to have adverse effects on consumers’ health and many died of liver failure.

Nevertheless, some may argue that the media can be trusted because it is still produced and distributed by responsible people, as well as subject to checks and balances by new media. Most jouralists are ethical and still want to give the truth. There are also many news agencies out there so no one agency can deliberately engage in unethical reporting because they risk being uncovered and losing viewership. New technologies of blogs and forums also provide alternatives to stop mainstream airing of political views. In the Wikileaks incident, Julian Assange released over 76k secret documents exposing US intelligent operatives and 100 Afghan informants. Hacktivist group Anonymous hacked various government websites and major security corporations. These new forms of media shone light on the lies kept from the public and thus can be trusted to provide truth to the people. In addition, during the cruel crackdown of the military junta in Myanmar, the Myanmar representative told UN that they were trying to protect political stability by stamping out violent instigators. However, images taken by a 3G video phone proved that the “violent instigators” were in fact monks in saffron ropes holding a peaceful demonstration. What the Myanmar government was insisting on fake and new media prevented them from propagating falsehoods. The conspiracy of Monsanto about using a harmful growth hormone was also uncovered by reporters of Fox News, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. They were sacked to prevent the story from leaking but their story eventually found circulation through independently produced documentaries like Corporation, websites and alternative radio stations. Hence, even if mainstream news outlets are not truthful, there are still journalists with integrity and independent companies that wish to provide truthful and trustworthy information to people.

However, the rise of new media has made it even easier for one to propagate lies, making media even less reliable. A small town in Balkans called Veles has been accused of peddling fictitious stories, with the creators of such fake news, namely youths earning up to £1,500 a month. In the Pizzagate incident in 2016, an enraged middle aged men stormed a pizzeria and opened shots, injuring a few in the process. He was informed by a dubious alt-right news group that allegedly claimed that the Pizzeria was a guise for Hillary Clinton’s covert sex ring that was trafficking young and innocent children. Such a lie may seem absurd but is in fact believable to some people, posing a threat to society. Another incident in Germany where news of an immigrant raping a girl (Lisa F) sparked widespread protest and flash points as the far-right used it to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment. While the event was later discovered to be fabricated, the ramifications had already caused widespread panic and even hatred between communities. In July 2011, FoxNews apparently became a victim of hacking, with its politics Twitter feed repeatedly announcing President Barack Obama had been shot dead. The twitter account @foxnewspolitics began tweeting the info to its 33000 followers, with the posts rapidly being shared around the internet. Such fake news have great power to cause panic and social disharmony in society. With the ease of such fake news being created, the media cannot be trusted.

The ubiquitous presence of mass media in our everyday lives makes it an undeniable and ineluctable influence on values. It has infiltrated every nook and cranny of our lives, subtly exerting its power and moulding our values. It cannot be trusted because its primary interests does not lie with the welfare of society. There is thus a need to be vigilant to maintain the standards and values of society. With increasing globalisation and rise of new media, this is all the more necessary.