Peter Steven on the news and why it matters

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The News: A Groundwork Guide
The real truth(iness) about the news

Editor's Note: In this excerpt from his latest book Peter Steven provides a primer on the media and its influence. Click here to listen in to an interview with Steven.

On May 25, you can hear more about Peter's new book at the rabble sponsored event in Toronto. Visit our events listing for more info.

How would you feel if your neighbour told you that SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) had broken out in the east end of the city, but you had no access to news media -- no radio or TV, no newspapers, no Internet? You might get some information from a nearby hospital or from the police. But health workers and the police have their own jobs to do and can't be relied on to provide a well-balanced overview. Governments, schools, the military, religions, corporations and the courts all play a big role in shaping how we live our lives. But more than any of them the media have become the most powerful institutions in many societies today. Our information on almost everything comes through the media. Even if we ourselves become newsmakers or take part in significant events, we rely on the news media to report that to others. And it's not just about information. The media strongly influence the issues we think about, how we judge events, how we assess the past and how we act toward others.

From the media we not only receive information and ideas on big issues such as wars, politics and the economy, we also take in messages about other people and other cultures. We absorb ideas about how to behave or about what is acceptable or unacceptable in our culture. Sometimes we become aware of these media influences. Frequently we do not. This obviously affects children as well -- a crucial consideration in assessing images of war from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

News people often tell us that a free medium provides the oxygen for a healthy democracy. Reliable news helps us maintain our civil rights -- to speak openly, to gather with others in public, to vote and run for office. But a free medium also helps maintain our basic human rights -- to food, safety and health. Without the ability to receive and distribute basic news information we live in fear and danger -- a long way from democracy. These principles have been agreed upon by most countries in the world through the United Nations treaties on human rights. Not only must citizens have the right to speak, write and express their views, they must also have the right to receive news and information from a wide variety of sources.

In addition, the news matters because the organizations that gather and distribute news have become a major economic force in themselves. The news media employ millions of people, gobble up tremendous resources and receive countless benefits from governments. And through this economic power they attain political might as well. Some media owners stay in the business, even when they are losing money, precisely to maintain that political leverage.

Following the global crisis of capitalism in 2008, some news media organizations have gone out of business. In response, many commentators, especially in the U.S., from traditionalists to radicals such as Michael Moore, have worried that all newspapers are doomed. It is still unclear whether or not the news business as a whole has entered a major crisis. But the current situation has underlined quite starkly the importance of high-quality news to democracy.

Many people believe that they are immune to the bad influences of the media. "I grew up with it," they say. "I know when I'm hearing a biased report. I know the difference between the real world and the media world; I'm not affected." And yet, companies with billions of dollars to spend in psychological research and advertising disagree. They feel confident that the media can affect people in all sorts of ways, sometimes subtly and without our knowledge. That doesn't mean we're all dupes and zombies, brainwashed to behave uniformly and believe everything we see and hear. However, it does mean that we need defenses. We need tools to understand how the news media work. We also need the humility to recognize that we can be influenced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Most of us don't want to live as hermits. Though many people spend their lives in a decidedly anti-social manner, most feel a need to be hip or at least up-to-date and reasonably well informed. We recognize that knowledge about the world brings us status, or at least prevents us from looking ignorant. The only way to acquire this knowledge is to "keep up with the news." But in this process of keeping up -- by reading, watching, listening -- we also get drawn into all sorts of social and cultural ideas and feelings. We don't simply scan the information, we are influenced and affected by it. Whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not, we enter into a relationship with the news.

Most people don't have time to give the news media their undivided attention. In fact, most of us can absorb the news while carrying on another activity. Many listen to the radio at work or in their cars; others often catch the evening TV news while preparing dinner. Many only have time to skim their newspaper while gulping breakfast or wedged into a subway car. And millions of people share a newspaper at schools, libraries or work.

The news presents us with many different types of information. And because it always comes packaged in some form of narrative or story, it always involves some elements of entertainment. Information and entertainment go hand-in-hand. You can't have one without the other. In fact, we could say that the news is never just news. It also participates in representing people and groups. It presents an image of us, or people like us (i.e., in our social class, ethnic group or region). When many people read or watch or listen to the news they also wonder if a picture or story about someone like themselves will have an effect on them personally. Does the news validate me/us? Does the news denigrate me/us? Does the news ignore me/us?

Excerpt from The News: A Groundwork Guide by Peter Steven published by Groundwood Books. Reprinted with permission.

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