By Phillip Edward Alexander
Earlier this week a baby was burnt to death in a fire in a notorious 'at risk' 'hotspot' community, exacerbated by the fact that the fire services allegedly refused to enter without police protection, possibly robbing the infant of a life saving opportunity.
Phillip Edward Alexander is a social and political activist, a feature writer and columnist, the founder of the Jericho Project and the chairman of the Citizen's Union of Trinidad and Tobago
But believe it or not, that story was not the top news item for the night, and came eleven minutes into the broadcast, because a follow up interview by a reporter who had 'new' facts to offer that her homeless interviewee from the previous night's politically motivated interview was indeed homeless and thought by that station's head of news to be of greater importance to the viewing public than any dead child, incredulously pushed aside as the first story was followed by another political story that featured what was alleged to be the voice of one government minister referring to some of his colleagues as rats.
So what is the media trying to say of the values of the society, that scandal and bacchanal outweighs the loss of an innocent life in tragic circumstances?
And in another more bizarre media situation the head of news of another television station called the prime minister directly for a comment on a story and ended up insulting her live and on air, prompting the minister of communication to release a most scathing statement and for a wide cross section of the population to call for the journalist's immediate dismissal for his crass and classless behaviour and disrespect for both the office and the office holder.
These two situations were brought to mind as I read this week's edition of the London Guardian in which there is an article by Jürgen Krönig on media and government that contains a most instructive paragraph that I feel compelled to share verbatim: “The fourth estate is more powerful than ever. It is shaped by two dominating principles -- sensationalism and simplification, which the American sociologist Robert McChesney, in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, defines as the consequence of ‘hyper commercialisation’. It has led to ever fiercer ratings and circulation wars, which inevitably leads to what is called ‘dumbing down’. To succeed, the media industry tries to appeal to the lower instincts of people.”
This could well have been written about our experience except for the fact that here there is nowhere else here to go but down. In civilized countries there are checks and balances that keep the media from devolving to the feeding frenzy that we are seeing here, so much so that for many it is getting harder and harder to tell where the politics ends and where the media begins.
The article goes on to say: “In the ‘democratic age’ news and information have been transformed. The way politics is covered has changed radically. Papers don't ‘report’ news, they quite often present it according to their preferences and prejudices. The growth of columnists has led to the birth of a ‘Commentariat’. It contains a few excellent and analytical minds, but all too often reasonable, balanced voices are drowned out by journalists who seem untainted by facts or deeper knowledge but replace this with gleefully presented prejudices.”
How is this not ringing alarm bells throughout the land? Weighing in on that topic of the national discussion as ‘interpreted’ by media, independent Senator Rolph Balgobin, himself a serial media contributor, offered this stinging critique on the issue of the dumbing down of content and the deleterious effect on society: “Much of what passes for radio and television talk shows here, particularly by social activists and political commentators, is beginning to resemble hate speech. Parallels to radio exhortations in Rawanda during their civil war can be found. Bacchanal has created cynicism and indignation, and many people arrive at work angry, having been regaled by commentary that supposedly exposes the stupidity or corruption of public figures but which in fact are extreme and intolerant views unsupported by data.”
How does that sit with our reality? Is the media to be allowed to run away unfettered regardless of its potential to harm society? There is a maxim that the function of media is to reflect society to itself, not to influence it, and that has always defined the role of the profession to most. Encircled on all sides by politics, when media strays beyond those guidelines it does itself and the nation it serves a disservice by blurring the lines between what is real news and what in manufactured for other agendas, and much of the confused public perception and growing distaste is as a direct result of this.
Mr Krönig further states in his article: “News has become more superficial and sensational. The need for images and pictures is greater than ever. News is too often degenerating into ‘disastertainment’....”
How do we accommodate that idea? If media is now entertainment and not confined to identifying and reporting, should it still benefit from its constitutional protection?
My concern is far greater. Media has a power to shape public opinion through the manipulation of perception, and in circumstances where content is skewed to serve an agenda, what protects the people from misinformation?
Krönig says in closing: “Democracy and civil society need informed citizens, otherwise they will have difficulties in surviving. Without media organisations aware of their own power and responsibility, an informed citizenship cannot be sustained.”
I have been calling for a national enquiry into the operations of media in the hope that guidelines could be agreed to and established that protects the people from errant and biased media operatives and protects the profession itself from being hijacked from within. More and more as days go by I am even more convinced of the need for this before further damage is done.