Mass communications is one of the most popular college majors in the country, which perhaps reflects a belief in the importance of communications systems in society. The communications system, consisting of radio, television, film, newspapers and magazines, effects how we think, how we feel, and how we live. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, “Is media ‘mere entertainment,’ or are there serious side effects of the national preoccupation with the media?”
Long-term exposure to the media has a tendency to influence the way we think about the world around us, but how? Since the printing of the first newspaper to the introduction of the Information Superhighway, society has been able to view itself objectively. The men and women who present media to us: radio personalities, news anchors, and actors included, are given the responsibility of showing us society as it is. Sometimes, it is argued, this task is not done adequately. And so, arises an issue: can objectivity and subjectivity in the media affect how we approach issues? And, more importantly, can the information presented affect the value system of a society?
The media is so pervasive it is hard to believe they do not have important effects on society. Yet, many people do not believe that the media have personally influenced them or have harmed them. However, to attempt to understand how the media may shape the attitudes of individuals, and how they may shape culture itself, requires that we stand back from our personal experiences in order to analyze the arguments presented on each side of the debate.
For example, some believe that it is very important to report serious, society-threatening news with total objectivity. If it is not reported in such a manner, an indirect inciting of the more radical audience can occur.
In the September 1996 issue of the “American Journalism Review,” Sherry Ricchiardi responded to powerful reporting by Christian Amanpour on Serb atrocities in Bosnia. Some observers questioned the decency of the reporter’s approach of support in coverage of these war-torn regions. Ricchiardi explained that correspondents must walk a fine line between subjectivity and objectivity in the quest to depict situations as neutrally, yet as meaningfully, as possible.
Another example of subjectivity in the media and its effect on society is easily viewed in a recent incident in Rochester, New York. When a controversial biographer visited the University of Rochester to discuss his book on Mother Teresa and present his negative views on her compassionate legacy, a local newspaper responded with counteracting religious reactions and by “furnishing nothing of substance to an inevitably hostile audience.” This, in turn, created a community outrage that might not have, otherwise, occurred. In an article entitled Journalists or Defenders of Faith? John H. Summers argued that the newspaper’s biased approach to the speaker’s visit was not representative of a healthy democracy which “demands journalistic integrity and intellegence.”
Some may argue that the newspaper’s behavior was, in effect, a perpetration of libel. The Sullivan Rule, decided upon by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), protects common man from libel and slander. The court held that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malevolence.
As mentioned above, the First Amendment is the support system of the media. It simply states that “congress shall pass no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Equally important is its statement concerning freedom of the press, stating that “the liberty of the press . . . consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published.”
However, these statements cannot prevent the media from allowing entertainment to take precedence over “vital” news information. Choices such as these are said to have an effect on society’s view of the world and its events.
For instance, tabloids work hard to convince society that celebrity lifestyles, private information, and outrageous tales are important in today’s culture. Because headlines such as “Monica’s Own Story – Affair started after I flashed my sexy underwear,” have boosted sales, more traditional newspapers have turned their attention to similar events. Many believe that it is ethically wrong to ignore real news in favor of celebrity gossip. It can be detrimental to the intelligence of the public to “dumb down” the news for the sake of ratings. And it seems, day by day, that ratings take total precedence in the media. Television programming is a significant example of rating precedence.
Much of the population believes that violence is a reoccurring theme in television programs, and that this violence may provoke violent tendencies in those who watch it. Because of this notion, a device called the v-chip was invented which allowed parents to prevent their children from watching “harmful” shows. Political figures such as Senator Ernest F. Hollings supports a v-chip on the grounds that this damaging view of society will only become what is considered a “public health hazard.” Those who oppose the v-chip do so on the grounds of the First Amendment.
Is it fathomable that media can affect a society so much that we must shield ourselves from exposure to it? We don’t know. But it is a fact that we live in a media-rich environment where almost everybody has access to some form of media. Over time, individuals have improved their ability to unravel the complex set of interactions that ties the media and society together, but they need to continue the delivery of information from the media in a fashion that will best serve their selves and their community.