The cliché goes ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. This mantra is fanatically adhered to by the mainstream media. Crime, blood, and terror sells. So headlines such as ‘Al Qaeda battle rages in Pakistan’, ‘The ‘gates of hell’ are open’, and – my personal favourite – ‘Al Qaeda’s NZ mission’ adorn the pages, screaming at people to cast their eyes over the stories and the adverts alongside.
I have noticed that as much as these bleeding stories permeate the pages, the news media fail to thoroughly analyse why such events occur. This, it suddenly came to mind, is like describing babies without mentioning conception.
Part of the role of the news media in so-called democracies is to help citizens make informed decisions about their society. Without comprehensive analysis of the events that shape society, just how well does the news media fulfil this educative role? In my opinion, not very well at all. I guess that the wider question here is this: why do the media fail to analyse the roots of the problems that they so eagerly report? There is no absolute answer to this of course. There are many factors which influence the product that we call news. I can merely stipulate a few elements which I consider contribute to the lack of investigation.
I believe that this lack of analysis is primarily shaped by the news media’s tendency to present simple, black-and-white stories to its readers. Analysis involves complex research and ambiguous concepts. It is much easier for journalists to report just the ‘facts’, as it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to research the causes of events. It is also much easier for readers to digest a purely ‘factual’ story than to consider complicated investigation; information that is unlikely to be reducible to a sound-bite. For example, it involves less effort to process that twenty civilians were injured in a suicide attack than to think about the years of oppression and aggression that have led to the attack.
The news media report on an event-by-event basis. What constitutes an ‘event’ though? It seems that the news media define an event as an occurrence that breaks the regular consistency of a society, something which is ‘out of the ordinary’. This explains why a car crash is more likely to be considered an event – and consequently to feature in the news – than the ongoing plight of people starving in Sudan.
Galtung and Ruge point out that the more similar the timing of an event is to the timing of the news medium, the more probable it is that that event will be a news item. This is another reason that the car crash, which occurs quickly and is able to be meaningful to audiences in a short space of time, is much more likely to be included in the news than an analysis of the development process of Sudan, which is slow and complex.
This institutional focus on ‘events’ rather than their causes helps to create what is termed a ‘culture of fear.’ This is a society of people who believe that their world is more dangerous than what it actually is. Barry Glassner states that this culture is the result of the media’s eagerness to cover crime without examining its origin. This is exacerbated by the media’s sensationalization of negative events to increase sales. Last week’s front page of the Sunday Star Times is a classic example of this. Readers awoke on Sunday to be winded of their idyllic notions of safety, jilted into quivering Kiwis suspicious of their Arabic-looking neighbours thanks to the headline – almost as big as the masthead – ‘Al Qaeda’s NZ mission’. This was accompanied by a photo of the Kiwi-familiar man himself with the world’s biggest criminal Osama bin Laden!! It was quickly revealed that “Osama bin Laden’s strategist visited [NZ] twice to set up a safe haven for terrorists.” This scare-mongering was based entirely on a secondary source, a biography written by journalist Hamid Mir. Apart from Mir, there were no other sources confirming that Ayman al-Zawahri had indeed visited our fine shores. Then, in case readers were not already phased, the Sunday Star Times went on to state that al-Zawahri was a “key planner” of the September 11 attacks; second on the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list; and the “key planner” of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The message was clear: he’s scary!! Be afraid! However, no proof was offered to support the claims of al-Zawahri’s involvement in these terrible events.
Richard Nixon once said, “People react to fear, not love.” I believe that fear sells papers, not analysis. We may never know whether or not Ayman “Osama’s right-hand man” al-Zawahri did come to New Zealand, but the goal has been accomplished – the newspapers were sold.
Glassner states that “[o]ne of the paradoxes of a culture of fear is that serious problems remain widely ignored even though they give rise to precisely the dangers that the populace most abhor.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the US coverage of September 11. I remember watching astounded as ABC, CNN, the Washington Post etc failed to thoroughly examine the answers to that question, ‘Why did the attacks occur?’ Instead they came up with such glossy answers as ‘because our security was not tight enough’, and ‘because they hate us’. Thousands died. Yet where was the in-depth analysis? It was relegated to academic journals and cyberspace in favour of fear. This correlated with the way that terrorism has historically been represented. Paletz (1985) found that less than 6% of newspaper coverage was devoted to explicit explanations, and that more than 75% of the coverage ignored discussion of causes altogether. Atwater (1987) found that on television news, less than 3% was dedicated to explanations.
The mainstream news media offer no real analysis of negative events because true analysis would perhaps lead to many of the events that are deemed ‘news’ ceasing to occur. For example, could you imagine what would happen if the American media thoroughly analysed the causes of Sept 11, and, in implicating their own state’s foreign policies, persuaded public opinion to the extent that the US stopped their state sponsored oppression? Terrorism, the media’s favourite subject, would be drastically reduced!
As well as this, with poverty, greed, hunger, repression, and war being the main causes of the events which litter the mainstream media, analysis of these would involve questioning the very system that keeps the media alive – capitalism. And we all know that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, right?