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The Media Filter

When the United Nations finally acted in March 2011 to authorize a No-Fly Zone over Libya, whole populations around the world applauded or at least breathed a sign of relief. They had become engaged in the media coverage of how the dictator Gaddafi's forces were inexorably retaking towns and populations that had briefly experienced independence from his central control. The central bastion of the independence protests, the city and population of Benghazi, was at risk - and the media allowed many of its population to beseech help through TV screens to living rooms world-wide.

Why did the media filter show these pleas? They were available pictures, an apparent pre-requisite for an item to make the night time news, and they were emotionally engaging pictures, perhaps an even more insidious growing requirement for today's popular news.


World governments and particularly western governments certainly found that the "politics starts at home" maxim had a definite international dimension. Public opinion, fickle at the best of times, was motivated and had momentum. Leaders were applauded for voicing the popular concerns and for engineering the UN resolution. Even Russia and China felt enough pressure to abstain.

Most likely the Libyan cause is worthy and action is well justified, but would this not apply to many other causes across the planet. Why did Libya get international action?

The big issue is whether the process we observed was and is a good way to make global or even local policy decisions - to determine how scarce resources and human lives at expended.

Any form of democratic or open participatory government will be sharply influenced by the information that its actors receive, believe and act upon. This is too important and fundamental a foundation for modern political decision making to be left unscrutinised or left subject to inappropriate forces. Yet it seems this is largely the case.

There is too much going on in the world for many of the actors (the increasing part of the world population that is able to participate) to follow much of it. The growing ability to access information, yes and pictures, from around the planet in real time is not matched by the actors' ability to make sense of it in context. A filter, hopefully one "conscientiously-configured" by the recipient, is required to manage the information flow - "to make sense of it all".

Modern technology enables global timely information but perhaps also undermines it by encouraging recipients to favour timeliness over accuracy and contextual presentation. Moreover the quantity of available information encourages many recipients to use easy rather than good filters - such as an item's direct emotional appeal or its social networking popularity.

Recipients are basically spoilt. With electronic media, social networking and growing international affluence, people expect to be able to keep instantaneously abreast of what is going on. But most do not want to work at their understanding through investigation and research but expect information to be served on a plate, on demand, appropriately filtered.

It is questionable whether any of the popular media channels are offering a quality filter, or even an adequate one, in terms of providing political participants with timely balanced information in context to facilitate their making or influencing good political decisions. Different issues affect the various formats:

Article incomplete beyond this point

TV mainstream network news

  • Pressure on timeliness takes precedence over providing contextual background
  • Pressure to provide engaging video takes precedence over news worthiness - or news worthiness dependent on decision to send camera crews
  • Both of the above make this format at risk to PR type manipulation either by engineering news stunts or providing engaging video

TV network investigative journalism/current affairs

  • Wide quality range, with inverse relationship to editorial indendence and research budget and time (both research time expended and the time to reflect on the events that are making news)
  • Commercial offerings can be tainted by drive for ratings/popularity and sometimes by station's ownership and/or advertising/sponsorship relationships

Radio/podcast news

  • Pressure on timeliness takes precedence over providing contextual background
  • Lack of pressure regarding engaging video removes an inappropriate filter on what is aired as news worthy - though engaging audio has a similar lesser effect
  • Lower budget than TV news to access expertise to contextualise news events

Radio/podcast current affairs/special niche coverage

  • Appears to be endangered format for many commercial operators who either prefer the talk-back format or realise they cannot compete with public operations
  • Quality of information and contextual placing generally good with major issue being awareness of any particular viewpoint of the program editor/sponsor - needs a meta directory that provides independent review and facilitates user access
  • Part of growing narrowcasting development but has not achieved widespread popularity in part because of its relatively complex user interface (compared with TV remote control/radio tune button)

Radio talk shows

  • Popularity and engagement based on highly opinionated expression - appeals to and feeds on those who feel discontented and what someone to blame
  • Talk back hosts often portray their programs as news commentary programs while not attempting to provide balanced overage
  • Can be tainted with advertiser/sponsor relationships with the radio station and/or the talk show host
  • Tends to follow a rapid opinion cycle with the host developing a "new angle" each show to make it new and dropping a topic when there is something better to replace it

Print newspapers

  • Needs to be considered in the context of the TV/Radio competition which is not as constrained by a daily publication cycle
  • In consequence some print media tends to offer more considered journalism with the benefit of investigation and reflection that the time to the next publication deadline allows - though close to deadline news can suffer the reverse
  • Can be highly subject to owner and/or editor viewpoints on particular issues
  • Attempts to retain commercial success can lead to reduced journalist resources/time and to tainted independence with advertiser relationships and advertorials

Online news sites

  • New media still picking up following/popularity
  • Cheap barrier to entry allows wide range of sites with brand being important perceived measure of news credibility for general sites and with known editor expertise/impartiality being important measure of news credibility for niche area sites
  • Pressure to publish first on a news item means contextual background can suffer, but items can be coninually edited as an item develops and its contextual background is investigated
  • "Labor of love" niche online news sites/sources can fade as the love fades

Social networking

  • New media still picking up following/popularity - using Twitter/Facebook et al to communicate current news (with links to online articles etc providing the capacity for in depth coverage)
  • Leading edge in terms of decentralised (anarchic?) news publishing - full range from social catchcries to serious news items
  • Timeliness based on decentralised inputs
  • Contextual background also dependent on decentralised inputs with this likely to be apparent in more serious news events and less so in more opinionated/emotional ones
  • Less subject to commercial pressures though has been manipulated through PR and related stunts

Is this media process, the news reporting filter, adequate to the need to ensure good decisions are made on good information? Should there be a regulatory overview for news reporting, and if so is it adequate? If there should be a regulatory overview, does this in itself create risks that also need to be managed?

Finally from a practical vantage point, how do we move from where we are to where we think we should be? And how do we manage this evolving management process over time?

There is great complaint from 1600 about the new way information was being distributed: "One of great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world" (Barnaby Rich, 1600, as quoted by Malcolm Knox, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Apr 2011, Spectrum p7). Lament about there being no possible successful transition in our present situation is also probably ill-founded. So what can usefully be done?

Orphan reference to an article that suggests that even public debate is effectively controlled/muzzled - "You have been indoctrinated (oh yes you have)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 May 2012 00:40

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