Every moment of every day, an avalanche of information is dispersed through countless media sources in a myriad of forms and this without respite, 24/7. This may be one of the most significant changes in our daily lives since, well, forever. It is not that information was not available before of course, but nothing comparable to the sheer quantity and accessibility of ‘news’ we encounter throughout a single day. However, it would be quite easy to trawl the internet for current affairs items, spend the whole day on this and end up more confused and misinformed than when we started. The simple reason is that the news media of course do not just report the news but they also shape it. TOK’s job is to try and highlight the ways in which this happens and why it is so important to be aware of it. The more consciously we identify biases, assumptions and prejudices behind the information we receive and consume, the easier it is to step back and to try and gain our own perspective on events.
Why does this happen in the first place? Human nature being what it is, everything is experienced, seen, understood and presented from a specific perspective. The news media are also of course in the business of being businesses and therefore maximising sales and ‘hits’ is of course high on their list of priorities. In a world where public opinion, informed or misinformed, matters enormously since it will form the basis of their political, social and economic preferences and therefore of their choices and their behaviour, it is essential to know how best to grab their attention and feed their information-needs. Many media companies have allegiances to political parties, interest groups or lobbies, some have an explicitly consumerist approach seeking to encourage the consumption of particular types of products, some are dedicated to titillate or primarily entertain their readers rather than inform them. In order to achieve their goals, news media agencies have to find ever more creative ways of appealing to their target audience in order to manipulate the information effectively. This is after all a hugely competitive market and reaching and keeping your target audience is no small feat. How therefore do they do it?
One of the most effective way of grabbing attention, in an age when we do not spend more than a few seconds considering what is presented to us on our computer screens, is of course the ‘killer headline.’ Headlines are the necessary means to hook your readers/listeners etc… in order to persuade them to follow that link or read that article and turn the next page… There was a time when, particularly in newspapers, headlines where primarily sober and informative rather than declamatory and sensational but this is changing very fast indeed. The need to catch the eye of the potential consumer of news requires that the headline be promising some significant, scandalous or world shattering piece of news; whilst this was the preserve of a particular type of newspapers dismissed as representing the ‘gutter press’, I have noticed a worrying expansion of this trend even in traditionally conservative and serious-minded newspapers especially since many/most of them now have an online version of their hard copy. The pressure to gain ‘hits’ is forcing even the most highly regarded instruments of traditional journalism to ‘sex up’ their coverage.
But the headline is of course just the start. Within any news article you will find that the basic facts, in as much as they can be ascertained, have been selected, presented and interpreted for you. It seems increasingly difficult to make one’s own mind up about anything given the countless ways in which information is changed to suit the agenda of those who pay for this service. Yes, it is amazing that we can know so much about what is going on in the world at the touch of a button, and that wherever and whenever we want; the price to pay it seems though is that those we rely on the most for providing the information we want or need, may in the end be the least reliable sources of all. The sad result is that public discourse is all the poorer for it, as it seems that our ability to make informed decisions is in the hands of those who own and shape the news – the democratization of access to information which the internet seemed to promise, appears to have achieved the opposite.