The media is fond of insisting that its reporting reflects public opinion, what the people think and what they want. It rejects the notion that it creates public opinion, but might reluctantly concede it influences it. That it attempts to do so is undeniable. Its opinion pieces and commentary clearly express views that it hopes readers will back, and at election time it often endorses one side.
The thrust of this piece is that the media, particularly some sections of it, does set out to create public opinion, certainly to profoundly influence it, rather than simply reflect it as any proficient media outlet ought to do. Some do this in pursuit of a commercial agenda – to sell newspapers and attract viewers and listeners – but others have another deliberate agenda: to have their audiences embrace the same beliefs, attitudes and preferences that they have adopted. This might be relatively harmless in some spheres, but in political arenas it is tantamount to manipulation and indoctrination. We have seen, and are even more alarmingly seeing this in the political media in Australia where the agenda and intent of some outlets, notably the Murdoch stable and its flagship The Australian
, is now overt and the subject of much concerned comment in both the Fourth and the Fifth Estates.
The ‘reflect versus create opinion’ debate has been going on for eons. I can recall that in the days of the rabid scandal sheets – the Melbourne tabloid The Truth
was an example – those who asked why the paper offered such salacious material were told that this was what its readers wanted. Which of course was true; people bought the rag and kept it going for years. But the question that was never addressed by the paper was “How did the readers come to seek and enjoy the scandals and flesh the paper thrived upon?”
There is little doubt that many folk enjoy reading about scandals, especially among the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrities. It seems almost an innate desire in many people. But can it be argued that that desire demands feeding via the media? If the media decided to omit such material, would it go out of business? The survival for countless years of broadsheets such as The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald
and The Australian
, none of which rely on salacious material, suggests that it is not essential for survival. Yet we have Murdoch tabloids here that while not flagrantly using grossly scandalous material such as has the News of the World
, they do use a sensationalist approach to attract readers, which at the very same time must influence public thinking and attitudes.
A talkback caller to ABC 774 Melbourne radio, who said he had worked for the media for many years, insisted that the media was not in the game of transmitting information but ‘emotion’, as emotion is what sells newspapers. He went on to say that if newspapers transmitted information instead of emotion the papers would remain on the newsstand.
We all know emotion can influence public opinion more than can facts, which is why media outlets dress up their stories with it – scandal, outrage and protest, while relegating the facts to the background.
Since Christine Nixon’s newly-released book Fair Cop
is currently in the news, let’s look at Claire Harvey’s leading paragraphs in a piece in The Daily Telegraph
back in April 2010 titled: Christine Nixon: what the backlash is really all about
, which was about Nixon absenting herself from her office for 75 minutes to take a meal at a local pub with friends during the height of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, something she now freely admits was an error: “Shoving a piece of cake into her mouth. Talking about food. Walking uncomfortably along a corridor, looking big and ungainly. “These are all the images that have been presented of Christine Nixon this week, on television and in newspapers. Some of the images are months, or years, old. “They are being republished because Nixon, the NSW copper who became Victorian Police Commissioner, has admitted that on the night of Black Saturday, the devastating 2009 Victorian bushfires that killed 173 people, she spent an hour at a pub, dining with friends. “But there's another reason for the use of these old images, and it is the subtle theme beneath career-long coverage of Nixon, who is now chair of the Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority. “Christine Nixon is overweight. She is curvy, Rubenesque, substantial, big-boned. She is fat.” “In the eyes of the Australian commentariat, that is her defining quality. No matter what Nixon achieves in her life, she will never transcend her own shape. Her weight will always be remarked upon. She will always be the fat sheila - just like every other fat sheila in public life.”
Even just a few days ago Herald Sun
headlines included: Christine Nixon failed us all Nixon still on the hunt for excuses Christine Nixon’s claims under fire
Clearly, the emotion and outrage of these papers and their journalists are dominant. The facts are simply a vehicle for expressing outrage, and it is the outrage that influences public opinion. A headline that simply said: ‘Nixon works 20 hours straight during fires’ and as a byline: ‘Took a 75 minute evening meal break at a local restaurant’, would be accurate, but light on emotion. I can see readers smiling at the improbability of ever seeing such a headline.
So here are two Murdoch tabloids creating public opinion, or at the very least strongly reinforcing the view that Nixon should have not left her post. These papers would argue that people were upset at her actions, and that they were merely reflecting that, but who believes that the flagrant use of pejorative language and unflattering images did not inflame readers’ emotions? A more balanced and unemotional write-up could have defused public anger, but instead the papers chose to do the opposite – to kindle it and create even more anger.
The media does create public opinion, no matter how loudly it protests to the contrary.
Lindsay Tanner, in his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy
, starts chapter four, whimsically titled “Shattered Media Slammed in Scandal”
(by the way written well before the recent News International phone hacking scandal) with these words: “The distortion of reality in the media’s coverage of politics involves much more than misuse of content. Language and visual images are routinely manipulated to add excitement to stories. In the process, the content is further distorted, often to such a degree that the original material can barely be recognized. The tone and language of Australia’s media coverage of politics is invariably characterized by hyperbole.”
He quotes British journalist Peter Riddell: “The coverage of most papers lacks depth and context, as well as being squeezed in size. Personality differences are exaggerated, every dispute becomes a split, every small shift in position becomes a humiliating climb-down…There is little consistency in follow-up…”
Later on Tanner says: “Standard nouns used by political journalists include ‘fiasco’, ‘turmoil’, ‘scandal’, ‘crisis’, ‘chaos’, ‘outcry’, ‘row’, ‘disarray’, ‘backflip’, and ‘backdown’. Common adjectives include ’shattering’, ‘seething’ and ‘humiliating’. Verbs used regularly include ‘bickering’, ‘squabbling’, ‘lashing out’, and ‘slammed’. In the great majority of cases, the use of these rather extreme terms is not justified by the substance that lies beneath them – they create an extremely distorted image of the content being reported. In fact, I believe that the routine misuse of language in the media is one of the main reasons that the practice of politics has fallen into disrepute.”
I quote these parts of Tanner’s book to reinforce the thrust of this piece: that the media does profoundly influence public opinion; indeed it creates it.
In the August issue of The Monthly
, an article by Sally Neighbour titled: The United States of Chris Mitchell - The Power of Rupert Murdoch and The Australian’s Editor-In-Chief
says this, inter alia
: “The biggest story in politics at the moment is the relationship between News Limited and the government,” a veteran Canberra-watcher says. According to a News Limited insider, “Mitchell has inculcated a view [at the newspaper] that they are there not only to critique and oversee the government, [but also that] it is their role to dictate policy shifts, that they are the true Opposition.”
Can this be interpreted as anything other than unashamed political manipulation by the media?
Later in Neighbour’s piece: “Chris Mitchell once told a colleague, “You have to understand – this is a dictatorship and I am the dictator.”
And later still: “It is Chris’s newspaper,” agrees editor Clive Mathieson, who took the role in April when Paul Whittaker moved to the Daily Telegraph. “Chris quite clearly sets the direction of the paper. There’s very little ambiguity in what he expects. A suggestion from Chris is not really a suggestion, a suggestion from Chris is really an instruction.” “The view that it’s “Chris’s paper” is echoed by John Hartigan, chief executive of News Limited. “With good editors, the newspaper is almost a mirror on their own personality. It reflects their own values. You can form a very strong picture of them simply by reading the newspaper.” Talk to Mitchell’s colleagues and it’s clear he inspires an intense tribal loyalty among many of them.” “It’s a remarkable newsroom to work in under him because there’s so much energy about it,” says
[Deputy Editor Michelle] Gunn. “It’s having stories that the nation talks about – that’s how you measure your success, the number of stories you break and the influence those stories have. And that’s the mark of his success. It’s intoxicating.” “His critics enjoy saying the Australian is like a cult and Mitchell surrounds himself with yes-men. It’s truer to say he surrounds himself with talented, dedicated journalists who either share or are willing to reflect his vision for the paper and work their guts out for it, while the others leave, are ignored, frozen out or languish on the back pages. “If he likes you there’s no nicer place to be than at the Australian,” says one. “If he doesn’t like you it can be a very lonely place.”
So here we have one man, a newspaper editor, unelected, wielding enormous power, influencing and indeed creating public opinion that aligns with his own through his editorial pages and his columnists who slavishly offer him ‘tribal loyalty’. How can this be so? Ask Rupert Murdoch.
We have seen this power in action from the moment Mitchell decided to harass the Government. His paper relentlessly attacked the HIP, highlighting its administrative deficiencies and of course the ceiling fires and deaths, but never mentioning the value to householders and the environment of insulating a million ceilings; he set up a special section in The Australian
to publicize complaints about the BER, yet even when there was a positive ANAO Report and three Orgill Reports showed over 97% satisfaction, all his paper focused on was the 2.7% that had a complaint and the instances of ‘waste and mismanagement’. That was ‘the story’, not the employment of thousands of builders kept out of unemployment, the small businesses that avoided closure, and the thousands of school buildings that now grace our schools. Mitchell’s approach was unremittingly negative throughout. He has now turned his sights on the NBN, the carbon tax and the MRRT. Is it any wonder he and his paper are accused of promoting ‘regime change’, something he and John Hartigan implausibly deny? In fact Hartigan asserts that the reason for the assault by News Limited on the Government is that “it is unpopular and down in the polls”
, a state of affairs his papers have been prominent in creating.
Here’s another slant from Tanner’s book where he quotes media researcher John McManus who “…cites four basic rules of television news: prefer images, employ emotion above analysis, exaggerate, and avoid extensive news gathering.”
Can you believe that TV news and current affairs outlets ‘avoid extensive news gathering’? If we are not already aware of this, we had better get used to this grotesque notion.
Does any of this take you back to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four
Later Tanner quotes Robert MacNeil, a former executive editor and anchor man of a major US TV news show: “The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement … (assuming) that bite sized is best, complexity is to be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal presentation is an anachronism.”
Julia Gillard has been repeatedly criticized for not getting her message across, for not ‘cutting through’, yet what she is needing to transmit is the essence of complex matters – reforms such as a price on carbon, the MRRT, the NBN, health reform and so on, issues that cannot readily be reduced to images and a few snappy phrases, while Tony Abbott can spread his negative messages with just a few words and phrases – “No, No, No, toxic tax, ghost towns, industries wiped out, unemployment and ruin, all because of an incompetent wasteful government”.
What hope does she have of informing the electorate about her intentions when the media is geared to do just the opposite – not inform, avoid complexity, foster antagonism and anger, and promote conflict by quoting Abbott’s slogans over and again in a winners/losers contest that becomes the real story in the media?
Later in this chapter Tanner reports: “…a study of thousands of individual items in the British and American media that revealed that the overwhelming bulk of the portrayal of anonymous public opinion in the media is in fact a reflection of journalists’ opinions. Phrases like ‘some people say’ are usually code for the individual journalist’s friends or peer group. Typically, such groups are not representative of society at large.”
Tanner goes on to talk about content distortion being critically influenced by story selection, and that a common and important source of distortion is omission, which is much harder to detect than other forms of distortion. We see this over and again. He quotes Laura Tingle as saying that “...writing a news story doesn’t mean just listing a number of facts, but making judgements about the context in which readers should consider these facts”.
Again, how often are we given the context of a story?
Instead we are presented with the words journalists prefer to transmit their own and their peer group’s views, using a minimum of facts, little complexity, virtually no context and little reasoning, but lots of ‘he says, she says’, images, conflict and intrigue, all designed to create and manipulate our views so that they align with their own.
I could go on quoting supporting comments from Tanner’s perspicacious book, but instead will conclude by reference to the way opinion polls and focus group polling is used to create rather than reflect public opinion. Of course pollsters would protest to the contrary, insisting that they reflect public opinion accurately, within the limits of polling. For good pollsters that might be so, but the less careful ones can create opinion via their methodology, for example by asking for opinions on issues before voting intentions. By asking first: ‘Are you in favour of the proposed carbon tax’, subsequent questions are contaminated.
But even good pollsters seem reluctant to concede that one poll feeds into the next, especially now that there are polls of one sort or another almost every day, and much shrill publicity afforded to the major ones via every media outlet. People who do not spend their days analyzing and reflecting on political matters, like many who visit here do, are bound to be influenced by what they hear and see in the media about the latest poll results. On the days of major polls there is media saturation of the results from late the night before through the entire day until late. Along with the voting intentions are the ratings of the leaders and who is preferred as PM, even throwing in some names other than the leaders. Convince me that this does not influence how people will direct their opinions next time a pollster calls. And since landlines are the preferred technology, to what extent does that bias the result against the opinion of mobile-only users?
In my view, frequent polls bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the polls are loudly screaming one way, surely that must induce a similar response in subsequent polls. In other words one poll creates or predicts the result of the next. It follows that polling trends are like a large ship – the momentum takes a long while to reverse. Yet each poll is reported as if it carries a unique message – a further dip spells more pain for the victim, a small rise a glimmer of hope. Yet although statisticians warn about ‘margins of error’ that result from sample size, and the danger of reading too much into any one poll, and particularly small changes, the media sensationalizes every change, particularly if they reflect badly on the side that the media does not favour.
Polls create as well as reflect public opinion, as do the results of focus groups. Have you noticed how headlines in the Murdoch media adverse to the Government often precede the Tuesday Newspoll
? Then The Australian
uses the results to justify its persistent denigration of the Gillard Government on the grounds that the polls show that it is down and deeply unpopular. Talk about a circular argument!
This piece could be twice as long as there is abundant evidence and a plethora of studies, quotes and opinions that the media always has, but more than ever does create public opinion, rather than simply reflecting it. The more it creates opinion, the more individual journalists, editors and media proprietors call the tune, the further civilized societies slide towards rule by the powerful media barons, the more we are manipulated in Orwellian fashion towards conformity with the views, desires and malicious intent of the media dictators. This is serious.
We in the Fifth Estate have but a small voice, but if enough of us cry out often enough, persistently enough and fervently enough, we will be heard. It is not too late to reverse the pernicious influence of a malevolent media. Our survival as a democracy depends on persuading the media to return to its rightful role – informing the public with all the verifiable facts and well-reasoned conclusions and opinions based on them, rather than the pursuit of a pre-determined and too often individualistic agenda that seeks domination.
Does the media create opinion? Should it? What do you think?