August 01, 2006

The Media - Friend, Foe, or Impartial Watchdog?

Yesterday, in response to my various articles that have analyzed, dissected, and attacked news reports and opinion columns in the media, a friend asked me, "Why do you care what words the media uses? Why do you pick on certain phrases?"

A good question deserves a good answer.

Never, ever forget that, with the exception of the rare individual who makes unpopular decisions because they're the right thing to do, most politicians allow public opinion to guide their policies. This is truer today than ever before in the history of our Canadian governments, federal and provincial. The masters of this are, without a doubt, the members of the government of Ontario. Putting aside the dog issue for the moment, it seems that their entire reign of micromanagement and interference has been guided by what they perceived to be public opinion at the time.

The following quotations echo this sentiment:

In government offices which are sensitive to the vehemence and passion of mass sentiment public men have no sure tenure. They are in effect perpetual office seekers, always on trial for their political lives, always required to court their restless constituents.
-- Walter Lippmann, U.S. journalist, The Public Philosophy, ch. 2, sct. 4 (1955)

Government is being founded on opinion, the opinion of the public, even when it is wrong, ought to be respected to a certain degree.
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter, February 9, 1791, to Nicholas Lewis

Englishmen never will be slaves: they are free to do whatever the Government and public opinion allow them to do.
-- George Bernard Shaw, The Devil, in Man and Superman, act 3 (1903)

Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.
-- Abraham Lincoln, speech at a Republican banquet, Chicago, Illinois, Dec. 10, 1856
So, if our political leaders are making decisions based on public opinion, then fiascos like the committee hearings on Bill 132 in Ontario become less puzzling. It was clear, at the end of those hearings, when the clause-by-clause voting began, that the government never had any intention of changing their position, regardless of the facts or expertise presented. In the end, their entire membership voted the party line.

If this is truly the case, if our leaders are leading based on public sentiment, then what the populace believes becomes of paramount importance. This comes back to Abraham Lincoln's statement that "whoever can change public opinion can change the government".

How does the average member of the public learn about current events? By virtue of the fact that the events are current, the only immediate source of information is the mainstream media. History can be rewritten, revised, and updated as more is learned. Historical texts, journals, and documentation can be combined over time to produce a more rounded, truthful, and clear picture of reality, although even the accuracy of history is subject to the historians. Current news is much more susceptible to the whims and biases of journalists, their editors, and the media corporations.

"If it bleeds, it leads." As an editor of a newspaper or TV newsroom, when picking and choosing from hundreds of possible leads and stories, why would you not choose the exciting, the violent, the titillating, the attractive? You can tell the truth through the media in a dozen different ways. Why not pick the "truths" that will sell the best? They're still true. You can't be accused of falsifying anything. You just picked certain stories and ran with them. Nothing wrong with that!

Or is there?

In a conversation prior to the Ontario ban, a local Toronto television personality told me that there is a news ticker in their newsroom that constantly displays tiny fragments, headlines, of news stories from around the world. This person said that this ticker regularly lists dog bites or attacks on its screen. The only way these stories make it to the news hour is if someone almost dies OR if it says "pit bull".

Now, keep in mind, what they are telling us during that news hour is the TRUTH. Yes, a "pit bull" (or at least a dog that fits the government's general description) did bite this person or that dog. The media organization and its editors cannot be accused of not telling us the truth. They don't even really have to sensationalize anything with inflammatory words. The phrase "pit bull" and recycled video of humane society dogs lunging at the kennel bars are good enough.

So, where's the problem? Aren't they telling us the truth? Don't they have a responsibility to inform the public? The public has a right to know.

Absolutely one hundred percent right. The public has a right to know. But, the public should have a right to know the WHOLE truth, not just the one-sided or myopic view of a single journalist or editor. A media organization that wants to properly inform the public should include not only the "pit bull" incident, but also the other three or four dog bites that happened in the same community on the same day, and they should receive the same coverage appropriate to their severity. This happens very rarely and, when it does, it's usually because there is one person in that media organization that pushes for those additional stories to be told.

In Western civilization, media is power. In fact, in almost any country throughout the world, especially since the advent of television and even more so since the explosion of the Internet, significant change to government policy and to governments themselves has come about as a result of public attention and pressure. This public interest, and indeed even the public's opinion, can be created and changed by a constant barrage of media coverage. The media does not even have to verbalize an opinion. All they have to do is keep feeding (without satisfying) that public desire for titillation. The constant images, catch phrases, and repetition do the rest.

If these stories consistently and frequently present only a fragment of reality, a snippet of the whole picture, then public opinion is formed based on fallacy, on fantasy, not on reality. And remember, according to Abraham Lincoln, public opinion is what will eventually change the government (or at least their policies).

But, you say, we have multiple news organizations available to view and read. Surely, with all that competition and various versions of the "truth", we can receive the real picture, the whole story. Maybe, but not likely. Pick any given day and look at the news stories being presented on the major selection of TV stations or newspapers. They're often the same. The only major difference between one organization and the next is their in-depth features, their investigative reports, their "columns". The news stories are almost identical, usually differing only in accuracy and length.

A perfect example of this is the media coverage of the Bill 132 committee hearings in Ontario. There were four days of hearings, two of them in Toronto. During that time, there was an incredible amount of information, statistics, passion, and suggestions given to the committee members. None of it was covered by the mainstream media. But, when it was time for Michael Bryant, the Attorney General of Ontario, to speak, every station was there. The lights were blazing. The microphones were stacked in front of him. He, by the very nature of his position in government, had the advantage, the public eye. It didn't matter that most of what he said was misinformed, incorrect, scientifically disproved, and statistically invalid. He was the one who ended up on the evening news and he was the person that the public saw and believed.

So, what are the questions that self-respecting consumers of mainstream journalism must ask themselves?

What is being reported?
Am I getting the whole story?
How is it being reported?
What words is the reporter using?
Am I being unconsciously influenced by those words?

And how do people who know the truth ensure that the rest of the public gets to hear, see, or read it?

First, we must have our facts straight. We must find out what really happened in the incidents that are in the news and we must be aware of the stories that are not being reported. We must not present half-truths on our side. We must be blameless.

Second, we must ensure that the media organizations are constantly aware of the truth. This can be accomplished through personal contacts, through letters to the editor, and through incident reporting to the newsrooms. If the media believes that there is strong enough public interest in these additional stories, they will cover them. They can become our friend, as Eric Sparling reminds us in his advice on how to write a letter to a newspaper editor. Remember his mantra: "The media is my friend. The media is my friend."

Third, we must hold the media accountable. When they use inflammatory language, we must complain. When they fail to run comparable stories to maintain fair and balanced coverage, we must insist that they do so. This must be done respectfully, but firmly and consistently. Each major organization has an ombudsman, an internal critic, to which anyone can send a letter. Beyond that, Ontario has a press council that will review the conduct of newspapers. Canada has a broadcast standards council to oversee television and radio stations. In addition, the CRTC regulates broadcasting services and, in that capacity, can suspend or revoke a station's licence and can obtain court orders to force a station to cease certain activities. Included in those activities is any comment that is likely to expose an individual or group to hatred or contempt or any comment that is considered false or misleading news.

Finally, the Internet is a powerful tool. Blogs have reached the stage where news organizations will read them for information and comment. Web pages, when promoted correctly and presented rationally and logically, can become sources of truth. It is, however, important to remember that most people in this country do not get their news and editorial information from the Internet and, even among those who do, the major media corporations are still the primary source of information.

Be aware of what you read or see and how it is being presented. Understand how small changes in wording can have a huge impact on what the reader believes about the story. Be careful of words that can be widely interpreted, such as "vicious", "lunged", "ripped", etc. Become critical of how words can be used to marginalize and dehumanize dog owners.

Dog Politics ran an article comparing the Eight Stages of Genocide (courtesy of Genocide Watch) to the stages of breed bans. The intention of that article was never to equate human genocide with killing dogs, but rather to do a reasoned analysis of the methods used to promote and implement these types of discriminatory laws. The similarities are astounding.

I don't intend to repeat the same analysis here, but I will list the eight stages and a brief comment about each. For each stage, I will note HOW this is accomplished through the media or, in some cases, by the media's willingness to remain blind and ignorant.
  1. Classification: Categorize the targeted group into us vs. them. This is accomplished by public statements highlighting the differences. In our case, "pit bulls" are different, dangerous, unpredictable, whereas as "regular dogs" are not. In addition, "pit bull" owners can be classified as gang members, drug dealers, thugs, dogfighters, etc. The media is required for this.

  2. Symbolization: Give the targeted group a name or symbol. With "pit bulls", this is accomplished through the use of the phrase "pit bull", even though there is no such breed, and through the use of carefully selected violent images. The media is required for this.

  3. Dehumanization: By dehumanizing the targeted group and equating them with "wild beasts", the protagonists are able to remove any public compassion towards the group. This extends from the dogs, which are "decaninized" (i.e., different from other dogs, possibly less doggy and more like wild animals), to their owners, who become different from other people. This encourages and validates vigilantism and hatred. The media is required for this.

  4. Organization: The state creates an organized public campaign against the targeted group. The media can be involved in this campaign, even unwittingly, by blindly reporting the state's propaganda. The media does not have to consider whether the public statements are even true. All they have to do is cover the story.

  5. Polarization: Extremists drive the groups apart. On the one side, the state uses extreme examples and inflammatory stories, even though they are no more frequent or horrific than many other incidents not involving the targeted group. On the other side, the targeted group reacts strongly, sometimes violently, often giving the state even more ammunition with which to sway public opinion. An example of this is Peter Worthington's publication of excerpts from letters to the editor. At first glance, it appears that he was doing the right thing, giving both sides equal space. But, when you know what was originally written, you realize that he took quotes out of context and picked and chose specific sentences from the original letters in order to make the writers appear extremist or less knowledgeable. So, instead of logic and reason allowing each side to consider the other's viewpoints and perhaps bringing them closer together, Worthington's meddling caused further polarization and classification, furthering the "us and them" agenda. Clearly, the media is involved in this step.

  6. Preparation: This involves identification (special pit bull licences, insurance, muzzling, microchipping) and separation (not allowed in public parks, not allowed outside of home without a muzzle, etc). Members of targeted groups are forced to wear identifying symbols (special tags, muzzles, property signs). It is at this point that the "round up" occurs. This is also where one neighbour will inform on another. It is at this point that the media backs off. The damage has been done. Order has been restored. No need to rock the boat now. Let the government get on with their job of protecting us and we'll sit in the background and wait for the next attack, the next story.

  7. Extermination: The terminology of "extermination" (rather than murder) is validated by the previous classification, dehumanization, and polarization. They are different and must be eradicated. In canine terms, the politicians consistently and deliberately use the word "euthanasia" (soft death) and present mass killing as a "kind alternative" to abuse, starvation, fighting, or shelter life. Because of the prior efforts to differentiate these dogs from others, these owners from others, this mass killing is not only tolerated by the public, but is seen as a "necessary evil for the greater good", ultimately even a good thing. As in the denial that follows, the media must be willing to ignore these mass killings in order for them to continue unchallenged.

  8. Denial: Much of the killing of dogs is done behind closed doors. Articles such as Kelley Benham's Kennel Trash, showing the reality of mass destruction of dogs, are rare. I believe that the only reason this journalist was allowed in to that facility was because everyone, from the Sheriff on down, didn't believe in breed-specific legislation and didn't believe that all of those dogs should have been killed. In a normal scenario, jobs are threatened, mouths and doors are closed, documents are vague or non-existent, and, unless the owner challenges the city or province in court, the dogs die quickly, quietly, and facelessly. Often, dogs of a certain look are quickly labelled by shelter managers as aggressive or sick, when their behaviour and health is no worse than other dogs in the same shelter. When they are killed, the documentation shows that they were killed because they were aggressive or sick, when the reality is they were killed because of what they were. Obtaining proof after the fact, finding accurate historical records, sometimes even finding records by breed or at all, can be difficult or impossible. So the politicians go back in front of the cameras and tell everyone how great things are going, how the public is now safe and protected when, in reality, there is no proof. The media must be complicit in this cover-up. They must be willing to turn a blind eye, close their ears, and ignore.

Remember, all of this starts with classification, symbolization, and dehumanization. None of these require any money, any organization, any effort. All that is required is words. The right words, at the right time, spoken by the right person, and repeated over and over again, become a mantra that average news consumers start believing simply because it's in their face, all the time. Do it often enough and dramatically enough and they'll start repeating it to themselves and then to their friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, until it becomes "fact".

-- END --


The opinions expressed on this page and on this website are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of any organization for which the author may work or volunteer.
Permission to duplicate, forward, or crosspost text from this page is granted only if the duplicated, forwarded, or crossposted text credits this blog and includes a link to the original article (the URL at the bottom of each article).
© Copyright 2007 Steve Barker