Media and the Mass Production of Ignorance

20160524_154328-edAs I track disasters in various parts of the world, I am struck by how most are off the media radar.  Ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Somalia, Yemen, Congo and more are just not to be found in most reporting.  This is not surprising, it has been reported for a long time that news about crises is driven by whether the crisis is urgent and spectacular, whether it is close to home, the number of casualties, etc.  Ongoing and long-term events are just not spectacular.  There is more to the problem than just selective reporting.

Public perceptions are shaped by both the way crises are reported as well as what is not reported.  The mass media is often charged with being biased, whether it is a liberal bias or a market bias.  But research at Glasgow University by Greg Philo[1] and his team says the problem is both more basic and more profound than that.  He reports that our media is changing how people approach information and think about the world around them, resulting in not less than the mass production of ignorance.

Philo contends that the media selection bias does not simply shape what we think is important.  He asserts that “the decisions made by broadcasters (on commercial criteria) about what viewers would desire to watch have produced very negative responses in television audiences towards the developing world and the war, conflict and disaster within it.”  This is because the mass media provides a very limited explanation of events, and what they do explain is often based on the assumption that the developing world is better off when the developed world intervenes and controls events (neocolonialism).

Modern mass media presents events with little or no discussion of underlying factors, in a rapid series of brief, disconnected events, emphasizing the short term and dramatic nature of world events.  This not only conveys the idea that events are not related.  More importantly it leads to the belief that underlying causes and the interconnected nature of the world are either not important or do not even exist, and thus are not worth investigating or understanding.  That is a pervasive world view that is nothing less than the promotion of mass ignorance.

Ignorance in this sense is not a lack of information, nor is the issue a short attention span, but a preference for being informed in a way that ignores what events look like in the real world.  It rejects complexity, interconnectedness or the consideration of underlying causes.

Since Philo was writing in 2002, I went looking to see if there were more current comments on these ideas.  Andrea Miller and colleagues at Louisiana State looked at the reporting on Hurricane Katrina.  Their conclusion was that the media does a great job on “breaking events”, but the emphasis on the dramatic leaves little time to present or explain underlying causes or the consequences of different actions and policies.[2]

One consequence of this is seen in what Adams[3] and colleagues at UC San Francisco call “chronic disaster syndrome” where disaster survivors are caught in a long term struggle that often goes unnoticed.  The consequences of a disaster are neither brief nor uncomplicated.  Many people in New Orleans, as well as Japan, Kenya, and other places around the world are caught in a long-term struggle triggered by a disaster.  This struggle has unique emotional, social and physical consequences they called the chronic disaster syndrome.

So, can we do something?  The challenge is not only that global problems oversimplified, but this lack of seeing causes and contexts adds to a sense that nothing can be done, and then turning away from seeing the long term problem.  Other work by Philo and colleagues found that when people understood underlying contexts and issues, and especially when they realized how their country was connected to a problem, they became more interested and wanted to know more.[4]  Their work focused on perceptions of Africa and how distorted those perceptions become when all viewers get is a constant diet of crises and conflicts.  According to Philo … “The important point to emerge from this study was that the interest of the viewers in the group increased greatly once they understood the political and economic links underpinning the conflicts witnessed on television. More crucially, they realized that they were involved themselves and no longer saw the problem as just an “African” issue. If people understand that global political and economic relationships are fostering problems, then they can also see that these relationships can be changed. The sense that “nothing can be done” is altered, and audiences start to see the world quite differently.”

I think studies like these have important implications, first for engaging people in important issues, and for how we inform people.  It seems people want to know more when they see it is relevant, but sound bites and slogans will never achieve that.

[1] Philo, G. (April 01, 2002). Television News and Audience Understanding of War, Conflict and Disaster. Journalism Studies, 3, 2, 173-186.

[2] Miller, A., & Goidel, R. (December 01, 2009). News Organizations and Information Gathering During a Natural Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 17, 4, 266-273.

[3] ADAMS, V., VAN, H., & ENGLISH, D. (November 01, 2009). Chronic disaster syndrome: Displacement, disaster capitalism, and the eviction of the poor from New Orleans. American Ethnologist, 36, 4, 615-636.

[4] Philo, G. (November 01, 2001). An unseen world: how the media portrays the poor. Unesco Courier, 54, 11.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: