Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Are media scapegoats or Real Problems to the society?

1. Scapegoats and society’s ills
There is no doubt that the influence of media is increasing everyday. They have become so much pervasive that none can deny or ignore their presence and impact in our daily life. Especially, Television and New Media are boosting this influence. Media are thought to have persuading power and scholars opine that persuasion is one of the major functions of Mass media. However, this function and power of media has sometimes been misused by the owners or the states. The horrifying use of radio by Nazis for propaganda during the World War II is one of the worst and most explicit examples of such misuse.

After the expansion and increasing impact of television since 1960s and Internet or new media in 1990s, the debate is growing stronger. Many social scientists and media scholars have been blaming media for portrayals of crime, sex and violence. They opine that media are responsible for promoting many other evils in the society including violence, crime, pornography, cultural imperialism, and stereotyping and even degradation of democracy in the third world countries.

There have been conflicting ideas in how much the media is responsible on promoting such anti-social behaviors: there are two distinct schools of thought. One says that more than media there are many elements in the society and deny media’s any role on promoting such ills. These scholars say that media, hence, have many times blamed for what exactly it is not responsible for- scapegoat. According to Gunter (2000: 236) Media have been accused of ‘engendering violence at the individual and group, encouraging already aggressive individuals to become more so, demonstrating different forms or techniques of aggression and promulgating civil unrest’. Gunter also seems to be supporting the idea of media as scapegoat:
Even among the empiricist-oriented social scientists, there has been growing recognition that behavioral effects, if they occur, are not knee-jerk response to media messages. Instead, audiences process media content in a cognitively active way and place their own interpretations on the meaning that content may convey. (p. 237)

The other school tries to show clear nexus between these social evils and media use. These scholars think that media is the real problem and root of many evils. There has been almost unanimity that television and feature films have been promoting violence. New Media has largely been criticized for promoting pornography. There have been instances that Internet has been occasionally used by the international terrorist organizations and groups to plot and carry on terror and cross border crime.

However, more than scapegoating, the thought that media are real problem seems to be overcoming with some empirical evidences. Smith (1995: 157) also believes that large number of analysts accept the position that the media do have substantial and significant social and individual effects.

With advancement in media technology and rise of New Media, the impact of media is growing. So the possibilities for media’s impact be it positive or negative are increasing. According to McQuail (2005:53), the negative impact of mass media cross the aforementioned horizon:
However, new ills have also been found to lay on the door of the media, especially such phenomena as violent political protest and demonstration, xenophobia, and even the supposed degradation of democracy and rise of political apathy and cynicism. Individual harms now include references to depression, obesity and lack of confidence. The most recent object of such waves of alarm has been the Internet, suspected of encouraging paedophilia, violence and hate as well as aiding the terrorist organizations and international crime. Paradoxically or not, it has usually been the media themselves that have highlighted and amplified many of these alarmist views, perhaps because they seem to confirm the power of the media, but more likely because they are already popularly believed and help to ‘sell newspapers.’

In this write-up, I try to trace the relationship between the media and these social ills. The idea is seen from different perspectives. I have tried to analyze perceived negative effects of media and tried to analyze how much the media are responsible for these evils. Each topic is supported by the existing research outcomes and/or examples. Social evils that media have generally been linked with and criticized for are:

a. Media, crime and Violence
b. Media, sex and pornography
c. Stereotyping and the ‘othering’
c. Violent Political Protest, demonstration and xenophobia
d. Media, war and propaganda
e. Internet, pedophilia, violence and hatred
f. Aiding international terrorist organizations and international crime
g. Media and Cultural Imperialism
h. Media and degradation of democratic values in third world countries

2. Media and the Social evils

a. Media and Violence
By the end of twentieth century, debates about media effects have largely focused on the potential of media to encourage crime, violence, and aggressive, antisocial and even criminal behaviors (McQuail, 2005: 482). There is almost unanimity that media have significant role in increasing violent behaviors on the audiences. McQuail says the primary reason for such perception is ‘the repeated demonstration of the high level of portrayal of crime and violence in popular media of all kinds’. Without asserting true or false, McQuail also gives another reason for such perception that social evils mentioned grew step by step with the rise of the mass media during the twentieth century.

There is unanimity that media encourage such activities. One of the major causes for such behaviors, the social scientists suggest, is exposure to violent activities decreases sensitivity on the audiences. This is also likely to strengthen the violent instinct on them. Wartella et. al. (2002: 399) have become assertive that more than 40 years of research does indicate a relationship between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. Their assertion have also been supported by a number of other researchers including Anderson et. al. (2003). They say research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts.

The topic can be further divided into four subtopics and discussed as below:
• Television Violence
• Films and Violence
• New Media and Violence

i. Television Violence
Especially, Television and feature films are blamed for the increased cases of violence, especially in American societies. Wartella et. al. (2002: 399) say Alarming statistics reveal changes in the US society as the result of increased violence. It is not that media are responsible for all the violence however, ‘to ignore television violence would be a grave oversight’. They assert how television promotes violence:
Violence tears across the television screen through many types of programs from music videos and entertainment shows to reality programming and the evening news.
According to Hustin et al (as quoted in Wartella et. al., 2002: 399), ‘By the time the average American child graduates from elementary school, he or she will have seen over 8000 murders and more than 100,000 murders’.

Generally, these media have been portraying violence as just and fair. Besides news, television channels have been carrying some of the programs, which contain violent activities portrayed in positive way, which guides the audience to act in the same way in more or less similar situations.

According to Wimmer and Dominick (2003: 394), researches have proved the nexus between anti-social behaviors on the audience and portrayal of violence in television. They add that the 1960s Eisonhower Commission study concluded that television violence taught the viewer how to engage in violence and included series of recommendations about reducing this violence.

According to Lowery and Defleur (as quoted in McQuail, 2005: 482), the program of research carried out for the US Surgeon General at the end of 1960s resulted in three main conclusions:
o Television content is heavily saturated with violence
o Children are spending more and more time exposed to violent content
o Overall, the evidence supports the hypothesis that the viewing of violent entertainment increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior.

McQuail asserts that these conclusions still stand after thirty years. Especially, Television programs outdo news-based programs on portraying violence as just and logical means to achieve the goal. They are also blamed for teaching especially the youngsters the ways to commit crimes. However, news based programs are also blamed for exposing audiences to a lot of violence which reduces sensitivity making the audiences more vulnerable towards committing criminal activities.

ii. Film and violence
Another Mass media that highly uses violent content is film. The content of most of the Feature films and even documentaries and Soap Operas is violence. They portray violence as logical means to achieve goals and in rewarding context. These contents also can have both the effects on the audience: encouraging violent activities by showing logical use of it and reducing sensitivity by continuously exposing to violent activities.

Violent and horror contents arouse fear and emotional disturbance. Fear induced by media can often be intense and endure for longer period. TV series and feature films have the frightening elements which are supposed to have induced fright in the audience:
Adults as well as children often seek out fright-inducing content for thrills and entertainment. But there are also unintended negative consequences for some individuals. (MCQuail, 2005: 485)

iii. New Media and violence
By New Media, we mean Internet that is continually gaining popularity since the 1990s. It has also widely been used as the means for almost all types of communication. Kshetri (2007) suggests that Internet has been used for different levels of communication as following (P. 135):
o Interpersonal - emails and mailboxes,
o Group - Mailing lists, groups, social networks and blogs,
o Organization - Websites
o Mass Communication - World Wide Webs and Online news portals.

There has been increasing criticism about the New Media that they have been aiding international criminal organizations and promoting cross-border crimes. More recently, both the Internet and popular music have been linked to random acts of violence perpetrated by young people on particular (McQuail, 2005: 482).

Internet is a new Medium and the governments and law enforcing agencies across the world are toiling hard to regulate this new means of communication. ‘Each new popular Medium has given rise to a new wave of alarms about its possible effects’ (McQuail, 2005: 482). More than new media as a means of communication, other forms like emails and blogs are found used for such activities. And the Internet as a whole has been blamed.

b. Media and crime
Another social evil that the media has generally been linked with is crime. They are supposed as potential cause of real crimes. It is also closely related with portrayal of violence and aggression. However, McQuail (2005: 485) says research has uncovered no such casual connection. According to him, ‘the reasons for treating media as a suspect are largely circumstantial. The theoretical arguments include the possibility that media glamorize the criminal lifestyle, show the rewards of crime and teach techniques.’ And such portrayal can encourage the audiences in depressed or similar situations to use it. McQuail adds ‘the possible link between media portrayal and actual violence has been highlighted by some cases of apparently motiveless killing, where an association of the perpetrators with certain media can be established as with the 1999 Columbine School massacre and the similar event in Erfurt, Germany in 2002.’

There is also underlying another school of thought, which downplays the allegations saying media don’t portray crime as rewarding job and which indeed discourages people to use it. McQuail’s assertion has been criticized by himself saying that none of a number of court cases in the USA alleging media stimuli as a cause of violence have succeeded. Many believe that media has been used as scapegoat for increasing criminal activities and incidents of international crime. The apparent failure of the security agencies to curb crimes is blamed on the media. They say, not because of mass media but because of the advancement on other communication technologies have contributed to the increasing criminal activities.

c. Media, sex and pornography:
Mass Media, especially television, films and New Media have largely been blamed for availing pornographic contents. Especially, New Media has been widely attacked for availing such content which is almost unregulated and almost everybody can access it. Many people believe that exposure to pornographic contents is giving rise to the incidents of rape, domestic violence and sexual abuses.

The apparent victims of media’s portrayal of pornographic materials have become children. More people including children are accessing such materials. According to McQuail (2005: 486), among many undesirable effects of media on children, premature sexual knowledge and experience is one. Also Perse (as quoted in McQuail, 2005: 485-486) found that sexually explicit materials encourages the acceptance of violence against women and desensitizes those exposed to it. The scholar has found association of exposure to pornography with harmful consequences. Such contents are likely to invite social disorder and contribute for the incidents of rape and domestic violence.

This has become really big evil mostly associated with Internet but not to spare television and films. The increasing trend is because of the way Internet avails the pornographic contents, its access to almost everybody and the characteristic it can bypass regulation. Regulating Internet is being really a big challenge to all the governments and law-enforcing agencies across the world. Though there are reports of frequent raids and intervention in some countries including China, the trend seems to be taking new heights.

Films and television channels are also carrying contents, which are pornographic to many of the cultures across the world. The impact of such materials in children is devastating. They are prematurely exposed to sex and sexual experience which are also likely to increase in the trends of premature sexual intercourse and pregnancy. It is also the part of cultural imperialism discussed below.

d. Media and Civil Disorder: Violent Political Protest, demonstrations and riots
Another negative effect for which media is blamed for is provoking riots. Scholars have tried to find the nexus between the media and civil disorders or riots (McQuail, 2005: 489). McQuail suggests that media ‘can variously provoke a riot, create a culture of rioting, provide lessons on how to riot and spread a disturbance from place to place’. Stronger opinion is that media can support riots by giving information about the place and way of riot while information about new ways of riots can eventually spark similar protests.

In this regard, the debate still persists whether media is scapegoat or the real problem. But those assuming media as scapegoat also believe that it can have some impact on rioting behaviors or prompt such behaviors. McQuail adds there is some evidence that the media can contribute by simply signaling the occurrence and location of rioting. Equipped with information from media, the rioters can assemble in the assigned location and even learn to employ new methods of riots. These riots may be politically motivated or not. If they are political protests, they are likely to persist longer and be less violent in magnitude while non-political or mob violences are less likely to persist longer but can be more violent. In both the situations, media play significant role.

e. Media and Cultural Imperialism
Another important media effect that comes with global concentration of ownership and globalized media content is cultural imperialism. For easy comprehension, cultural imperialism is imposing dominant and powerful culture into local and indigenous cultures. Media are blamed for expanding and imposing western culture in many parts of the world. Media are supposed to promote such world order where the dominant culture is imposed in less powerful and indigenous cultures across the world.

The western culture seems to be overtaking the world which is known as popular culture and many of the indigenous cultures are already extinct or in the verge of extinction. According to Geraghty (2000:363), ‘the involvement of mass audiences in the representations proposed by popular culture has been one of the main areas of debate in work on the mass media.’

Media’s this effect has been criticized from many aspects. Some think that media have been promoting the global expansion of capitalism. Others think that media are creating their own empires and feeding the culture from the powerful nations, especially from USA. The extinction or decline of local culture, the degradation of cultural life and cultural production is also blamed on media. Besides, promoting violent culture as mentioned above, stereotyping and the othering to be discussed below are supposed to be the cultural effect of media.

Many aspects like large-scale migration for work in the post industrial revolution society, people’s movement for tourism and other purposes, development of advanced and fast transport systems, and global expansion of capitalism seem equally responsible for the rise of the situation. The western culture that many country people in the Asia and Africa learnt is also the result of the colonial era and not essentially result of the media. While solely blaming on media for cultural imperialism, equal attention should be given to other aspects as well.

f. Stereotyping and the othering:
Closely associated with cultural imperialism, global media giants have been positing certain image to the people around the world. They are portraying English speaking white people as superior while the non-English-speaking and African and Asian people as villains or roots of all evils. When media treat all people in the laundry list of behaviors, the individuals of the particular race, caste or ethnicity are deprived of their real identity.

Media are also blamed for creating a hierarchy among the human beings based on race or ethnicity. In many cases, media are found negatively portraying black, Hispanic or Indian people, giving supremacy to the American or European Whites. When Media portray certain section of the people as the cause or root of all evils, certainly the situation won’t be favorable towards such communities. In this regard also feature films and television outdo other media.

The process of showing a community as superior to others is known as the process of othering. The western media have been consistently portraying some communities as more favorable and the others as villains. The beginning days were of ethnic division in which blacks were portrayed as villains. However, the paradigm shifted over time. After the Second World War and during cold war period, people from Communist nations were seen as ‘others’. After the end of cold war, the othering has shifted towards Muslim countries and people. They have been shown mostly responsible for carrying out terrorist activities across the world. The trend is gaining new heights especially after the 9/11 attack in New York Twin Towers and US led war on terror. As the new communities have been othered the previous others are also still recovering from that image for their dignity and self.

Another sharp criticism media have invited is gender stereotyping. Stewart et al. (2003: 158) believe that both men and women have been stereotyped in all areas of the media. They assert that ‘stereotypes allows members of a cultural group to understand some textual aspects of cultural artifacts in the same way, whether the stereotypes themselves are positive or negative, true or false. Nevertheless, stereotypes tend to reduce real individual differences to generalizations about a group on ways that are potentially damaging to members of that group and their ability to communicate with others.’

Despite global feminist movement and media’s seeming solidarity towards it, media have been promoting the traditional role of women. The television serials, advertisements and feature films are largely responsible for portraying such images- numb and dumb housewives. The feminist scholars are vociferously attacking the advertisements, soap operas and films for commodifying women and also promoting the stereotypes.

According to McQuail (2005: 121) the feminist criticism now includes many aspects including ‘under-representation of women in the media and the stereotyping and sex-role socialization which was and still is a feature of much media content. Current concerns also go beyond issues of pornographic media content which matter to feminists (and others) not only because they are offfensive and symbolically degrading but because they might be a stimulus to rape and violence.’

Among all media contents, advertisements and soap-operas have become the center of criticism. Some writers have argued that soap opera as a genre is intrinsically ‘gendered’ as female narrative, by way of its characterizations, settings and dialogue and the positioning of male and female roles (McQuail, 2005: 390). The news media are also criticized for lesser participation of women in news content and also presentation.

g. Media, Propaganda and War
As mentioned in the introduction of this write-up, media has many times been used as propaganda tool. Especially, the powerful states and the autocrats have been using media for propaganda. The Nazis during the Second World War exhibited the worst use of media for propaganda. It was radio that the Nazis used blatantly to garner public support for the German government and to boost the moral of the army in the battle. Nazi’s these attempts have largely been criticized. However, the effort to use media as propaganda tool is still persistent. Successful or unsuccessful examples of media propaganda include Vietnam war, Falkland Isalnds expedition, 1991 Persian Gulf war, the Arab-Israel conflict, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the recently Iraq War (See McQuail, 2005: 530).

There is close nexus between the media, propaganda and war. According to McQuail (2005:530), ‘the mass media are now regarded as essential to successful war propaganda, since they are the only channels guaranteed to reach the whole public and have the advantage (in open societies) of being regarded as trustworthy. War is also very much in the interest of the media, since it fits news values and news requirements for ongoing action.’ Hence, while covering the news based on accepted news values, media are in this or that way promoting the war. McQuail also asserts that ‘The record also shows that free and independent media can almost as easily be vehicles for well-managed propaganda as the media in the hands of autocratic states’ (p. 531).

Besides, as war makes significant content for the media, there are instances that media are forming consensus about wars, if not instigating. Media, especially global 24/7 news channels are still blamed for garnering support towards US invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq (See CNN effect, McQuail, 2005: 528) and many more precedent wars. US media were found continuously advocating that Iraq has the weapons of mass destruction and US needed to intervene. This garnered support to president Bush’ ‘war on terror’. Though this support seems to be waning, we can still realize that global media giants are still portraying Iran’s nuclear program is sufficient cause for international intervention. Too dearly to overlook its consequences, ‘Since Vietnam (war), the military has made a greater effort to control the news media as a way of winning the war for people’s mind’ (Hiebert, 1998: 315).

h. Media and degradation of democratic values in third world countries:
Media are generally supposed to uphold freedom of speech and expression. The traditional notion of ‘Free Press’ can’t live in the non-democratic countries. So, it is widely believed that even for their own existence, media support democracy. As the tool practicing people’s right to information and freedom of speech and expression, media is highly regarded in the society and assumed the fourth estate. States and international organizations across the globe also highly regard media.

However, along with increasing tendency of global concentration of ownership and globalization, there is increased perception that media haven’t been supporting or upholding democracy. In times, they are found acting as per the powerful states’ and people’s will. It has resulted into the degradation of democratic values in third world countries. According to McQuail (2005: 150), dominance of channels by a few voices, the predominance of a vertical flow and the heightened commercialism of the media market has led to neglect of democratic communication roles.

Besides, global media have also been criticized for advocating the western model of Democracy, which many think may not be suitable for all countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Their outright negation to communist and intolerance to socialist models of government is also criticized by political scholars. They think that while advocating western model of democracy, the media are also advocating and supporting the global capitalism. With the ongoing global financial crisis, it has been proved that capitalism is not the panacea and socialism may give the alternative to it.

Besides, despite showing solidarity towards democracy, media are blamed that they are found not to be sufficiently supporting the cause of democracy in many of the countries. There are sufficient allegations that global media shut their eyes in the violation of democratic norms and human rights abuses in some of the countries which are close to the western nations, especially the US allies.

3. Conclusion:
Based on the discussion above, we can conclude that media, at many times, are related with the social ills. By various ways, they are encouraging or promoting these evils if not being involved themselves. Basically, television followed by New Media or Internet is found more of such nature and are related with almost all evils that we discussed above. It’s just been five decades since the television began showing its impact. However, the arguments for and against television are outdoing other media i.e. newspaper, films and radio which were long existing before the television came in. The Internet is again outdoing even television in both good and bad impacts.

The nexus between the violence and media, especially television has been established and somehow empirically proved. The films and Internet are also playing significant role in promoting violent cultures in the society. Media is not solely responsible for the rise of violent culture and activities but they are surely encouraging. At times, they are also showing the ways to commit violence and crime. Besides, continuous exposure to violence also increases the potential for involvement in such activities.

Regarding crime, media are responsible to some extent like they portray the ways to commit crimes but are blamed more than they are really responsible for. However, the use of New Media by international terrorist organizations and criminal groups is an alarming signal to be serious about. Similarly, media are also blamed for political protests, demonstrations and riots which can many times turn into violent.

Media are also found responsible in promoting pornography, which can result into social disorder and some activities like rapes and domestic violence. New Media followed by television and films are being the biggest concern in this regard.

There are more important cultural aspects which are largely blamed for media. They are blamed for promoting western cultures, creating hegemony, undermining local and indigenous cultures.

Another important cultural aspect of media is stereotyping and the othering in addition to cultural imperialism. Media are responsible for cultural imperialism but they are not solely responsible. Other aspects are also equally responsible on creating the situation of cultural imperialism. Media are promoting stereotypes about black communities, Asians and Africans. More importantly, the gender portrayal by media is highly criticized where the media are found to be commodifying women while promoting gender stereotypes. The othering is the process of creating bad image to certain section of people which contributes in creating hierarchy among the world people. There are many societies in the world which are suffering because media are portraying them as villains. The trend of othering is shifting but the price is still dearly.

Media, war and propaganda and degradation of democratic values in third world countries are the political impacts of media. Instances show that especially global 24/7 news channels are used deliberately to influence opinions or form consensus about strategically important things. They are also found promoting war as it constitutes the large part of their content. While promoting western model of democracy, media are also overlooking the unique features of the countries around the world and are promoting homogeneity.

After the study, I would like to assert that while blaming media for any social evils, other social factors should also be equally taken into account. In many cases media are blamed for more than they actually are responsible for. This trend has contributed in portraying media as villain. No matter media have large role to play in all walks of social life but they should not be treated as the sole villains. The media also should look themselves into mirror and minimize these bad impressions.


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*This work was prepared as a partial fulfilment for the requirements of RMP 01 Theories and Methodologies in Journalism, Media and Communication, University of Dhaka, 2008.

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