the role of the media in society
October 19, 1993

The media occupies a unique position within our society. A collective term encompassing such things as newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, the media plays an integral part in the shaping of our culture, while being outside it; it exists as a cog in the system, and also as an observer outside the system. It encourages and criticises, reports and contorts, informs and influences.

Over time the media has changed in importance. There was a time when the media had little power and conveyed little meaning. Now, using relatively recent advances in technology, it is a global entity, its representatives are everywhere, and a seemingly inviolate shell has developed around newsgatherers. "Bad press" in the media can cause a run on share prices, discrimination and legal disputes; exposure by the media can lead to crises in government.

Power and Influence

Because we live in a society where reputation is important, and credibility is a sought-after attribute, the individual is forced to maintain an external image that is acceptable to those around them. In everyday life, people surrounding the individual are family, friends and colleagues from a place of employment or study. However, there are some individuals that are in the public eye; there are some in important positions; some making important decisions, and of course companies and corporations conducting business. For this set of entities, reputation and credibility assume far greater importance, as to let either slip may well result a loss of popularity, loss of position or power, or loss of market share, or some other financial loss.

This is where the media has obtained the power it now has. Publication and distribution of unfavourable information can erode reputation and credibility very, very quickly. The media, driven by free-market hunger for increased circulation, are always searching for the proverbial "scoop", and will be more than happy to expose an issue that is considered to be worthwhile. [That is, of course, if such exposure doesn't conflict in interest with the demands of their advertisers or shareholders, or the government of the day. - Ed]

It is the judgement that the media exercises that is the critical issue. In our Western-style society it is unusual to be free from material generated by the media. Whether it be watching television, reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, even reading electronic mail, one is subjected to an array of "input" from a variety of sources. The penetration into our lives by the media leaves most of us open to the influences and pressures that the media choose to exert. It is an unusual individual that can disassociate themselves and make a balanced decision free from media-based bias.

For this reason the media has a duty to society to behave in a "proper" manner. It would be convenient for all concerned to ask the media to "stick to the facts" but in a real-world situation often the facts are coated in many layers of misinformation. The media is forced to make moral decisions; where to send newsgatherers, how to word a paragraph, which headline to run, which pictures to show. By playing with any of these variables the service providing the information can give the information a particular slant, or bias. Stories that the service provider does not wish to be broadcast will not be broadcast, conversely, stories that are not really an issue can be made to look like issues. It is up to the news service that is broadcasting to decide what is, and what is not, an issue, which slant to use, and so on.

This is the power the media wields. It is up to the individual to protect themselves from the potential "mind-writing" that the media is capable of, perhaps by watching more than one TV news program or by varying the newspapers one reads.

The Global Village

The media is more than just a method of conveying information. Through the use of technology, the media is able to connect one side of the globe with the other, instantaneously. Viewers of a news program in Australia can see and hear - live - planes bombing Iraq, or watch onscreen the Women's 400m Freestyle in Barcelona, as it happens.

The implications of the use of such technology are far-reaching. The quality of the transmissions are excellent; events unfold as you watch, and the viewer is given the distinct impression that the situation on the television screen is occuring just around the corner. The technology brings everything closer to home, and combined with the emergence of a global economy and other developments such as a near-world-wide telephone network, seemingly reduces the physical distance barriers and makes the viewer more a citizen of the planet Earth rather than a citizen of Australia. World issues become local issues, as the viewer is provided with a picture of the world from a global perspective.

A Global Conscience?

The all-seeing eye of the media has exposed much: cover-ups in government; human rights violations, such as the Dili massacre in Indonesia or the Serbian/Croatian 'ethnic cleansing'; TV programs such as "Australia's Most Wanted" have in fact helped to catch criminals. The media has brought to the world's attention (and allowed criticism of) such things as the Tianamein Square massacre, or suppression of non-white people in South Africa, and so on. The media have made it much more difficult to deceive or cover up events which would otherwise have been hidden or censored. Such images as the sole individual standing defiantly in front of a line of Chinese tanks sent very clear messages to the rest of the world, and resulted in (apparently ineffectual) international pressure on the Chinese government for a softer and more humane approach.

The Vietnam War was an excellent example of the effects of the media on society. With television crews embarking upon their own independent forays into the war zone, pictures from the front lines showed the grim, inglorious face of war. The plight of the Somali people became an issue overnight as the television media gave substantial coverage of events, starting with images of war and famine, progressing to pictures of "rushes" on food distribution agencies, and now to almost daily reporting on the relief effort.

The media has become a "moral watchdog" for society. It has the power to influence the populace. It has the resources to collect vast amounts of information, discard what is deemed to be irrelevant, and distribute and broadcast the rest. With an ever-increasing percentage of the world's population under the "viewer" umbrella, the media is still growing in terms of power and influence. It is important that it as an industry is conscious of its position and acts responsibly in highlighting trouble spots, avoiding the persecution of a particular cause without good reason, while continuing to keep the audience well-informed, and presenting an objective view wherever possible. As a vehicle for the conveying of information and for entertainment purposes, the media rates second to none, and should be considered an important part of, and a valuable asset to, our society.