Challenging the mirror metaphor

After participating today in a workshop at the Religion Communication Congress 2010 today, I feel the need to update a previous post I made, which discusses the metaphor of the news media as a “mirror of the world.”

Here is what I wrote before about what the mirror metaphor suggests:

that “media are the very part of social reality that we can see (the reflection in the mirror) …. media are not simply floating above or outside their communities. In fact, they are more than just shaped by society; shaping them is the very process of negotiating meaning of our social reality.”

This afternoon, Sarah Macharia made a wonderful presentation of a preliminary report on the findings of the Global Media Monitoring Project 2010. The name of the Web site says it all: www.whomakesthenews.org.

Who makes the news? The answer to this question is a reminder that the media have a long way to go to reach the ideal of the mirror metaphor – to accurately reflect the world.

Consider this: Women make up 52% of the world’s population, but they are the subjects of only 24% of the world’s news coverage. “What’s wrong with this?” Macharia asked to make everyone think – really think – about how and why this is. She pointed out that if the media were truly a mirror of the world, the representation of women in the news would reflect their representation on this planet.

This figure of women as news subjects is up only three percentage points from 2005 (21%). In 2000 the figure was 18% and in 1995 17%. At this rate of progress (used in the most liberal sense of the word), it will be another 47.3 years – nearly another half of a century – until we achieve parity.

Someone in the audience, however, said a very heartening thing. Social media and the other powers of the Internet will surely help us speed up the rate of advancement on this front.

Participants all agreed that the first step in this endeavor is awareness; so take note, people, and make sure your circle of family, friends and acquaintances are also conscious of this barrier to the global advancement of women and the entire human race. Read the report. This is a problem of news media and also global society. We are all implicated, and we are all capable of contributing to social change.

Purpose-driven news

PARADIGM SHIFT

If the changes taking place in news media are in fact as revolutionary as the Gutenberg press, then maybe we could all use a moment or two to take in the perspective this statement should give us.

Take a deep breath and hold off on all claims to discovering the future of news along with snazzy catch phrases (i.e. “link journalism,” “network journalism,” I’m sure there’s even a “tweet journalism” out there.)

While the components needed to build the future ecosystem of news media continue to evolve and emerge, we can take this time to think about a fundamental principle that should, anyways, be clearly defined in the minds of producers and consumers of news media.

What is the purpose of news in our lives?

For this exercise, I think it is especially important for those of us who work in media professions to take ourselves out of that frame of reference for a moment. If you don’t know the difference between normative and explanatory theories, now might be a good time to look it up (especially in the context of objectivity.)

PURPOSE-DRIVEN NEWS

Knowing the purpose of news is an important element of a conceptual framework of the press. Newspapers online and in print have been notorious for adopting new “gimmicks” to attract or retain readers, then casting the practices aside when they don’t work. This sort of erratic behavior suggests an industry that does not have the guidance and organizing theory that a sound conceptual framework provides.

Are there overarching principles that could construct such a framework, one that is impervious to powerful forces of change like the Internet has brought about? For starters, knowing the purpose of the social interaction that we call news-sharing would lay the structure of the public sphere on a firm foundation, giving a very different shape to, incidentally, both the news outlets and the community. A lot of social imagination is necessary for this mental exercise, and in such a world we may not even find ourselves in the predicament we are in now, but since we’re considering new perspectives, we should not limit ourselves. How a community conceptualizes its media is just as important as how it conceptualizes its government, its schools, its agriculture and so on. After all, its communication systems count as social institutions, even if they have been commodified. Perhaps if we prioritized the institutions, mass media would not rank at the top, but there is a strong argument as to why we should not fragment our mass media from the rest of our social concerns.

MEDIA ARE THE MESSAGE

The assumptions behind the saying, “the media are the message,” point to a high degree of coherence in what communicators do. Think about how often recently the news has been the story. Mass communications are both the public sphere (the media) and conduits of the public sphere (the messages). It’s like reading a page of letters rearranged from a Shakespeare sonnet. Without the message to give the medium meaning, the latter is useless. It works the other way, as well. Without some tradition of communication, whether through the medium of oral stories or a staged play, the content could not travel from sender to receiver.

It seems, then, that the purpose of media is to transmit meaning. And since negotiating meaning is the very definition of community, mass media is essential in society.

This is the obvious juncture to talk about whether media are controlled by social interests or commercial interests. When discussing the content of mass media, many are quick to point out that certain content sells more than others, and media simply supply what is demanded. I would ask whether the current media corporations actually supply demand. On this note, further down I do talk a little bit about how media have the power to create space in public discourse. We could go off on a tangent here and explore how the practice (opposite to media’s purpose) of developing content to deliver a medium is becoming increasingly popular, but let’s save that for another day, or maybe someone could explain to me how exactly an audience buys into that.

VIRTUAL TOWN HALL MEETINGS

The purpose of the news media could be likened to the function of a town hall meeting, a role these meetings played to an even greater extent before mass communications. People gathered together to be informed and make decisions. This process of consultation among neighbors and citizens built consensus within a population, which built community. As populations grew, newspapers, and now online news sources, eventually took on this mass communication process.

As communities grow, their need for information and decision-making is organized into formal government; yet, the consensus factor cannot be given over to an elected body. I’m not talking about some propaganda-induced, superimposed, monolithic, bipartisan meaning of consensus. I’m talking about the agreement that comes when a group has consulted on all viewpoints and decides together on a course of action with the confidence that none of the members will set out on a mission to discredit the decision or sabotage the efforts to carry it out. That is true interactive media, taking place in the minds of each citizen. This complex, yet natural, process of community is diminished as citizens lose access to information and become disempowered in collective decision-making. The need for newspapers to facilitate consensus in the community likewise fades. In concert, mass media and community become hollow, sometimes even meaningless, or message-less, like a scrambled Shakespeare sonnet.

NEWS MEDIA: A COMMUNITY SPACE

There is a creative power in mass communications. It creates a space that then must be filled. The space is not necessarily determined by specific social or economic needs of a community, just its primal need for making meaning of the world around it; so, if it is not clear to a community how to use its media, then corporations, interest groups, retailers and political factions fill this space with meaning-making that fits their needs. This is why it is so important for media professionals to know the purpose of news, and of course, for media producers and consumers to be aware, to think about it.

IF NEWS IS IMPORTANT, IT WILL FIND ME

The thoughts in this post were triggered by an article I read today on this idea that if news is important enough, a person will know about it eventually. The assumptions underlying such a statement seem rooted in a consumerist worldview, which is dependent on a complete lack of a sense of purpose, except that of consuming. This is related to the direction that news media seems to be headed—I guess now we can go back to theorizing on the future of journalism—the path of civic or participatory media. The community members are engaged producers of news again, much like they were in town-hall meetings, empowered to share information, make decisions and reach consensus to build up their communities.