The conscience of media
There are elements within the world’s mass-media these days that seem to believe that freedom of the press gives the media freedom to do whatever they like in the interests of making money. The number of mass media owners who have given up trying to balance social responsibility with profit and often survival, is growing alarmingly.
Unfortunately, the single-minded strategy of most media today is to pander blindly to consumer demand which has resulted in a plethora of reality shows and soap operas, all of which are predicated on a combination of voyeurism and man’s inhumanity to man.
Now, regrettably, news and information have got on to the bandwagon of appealing to this dark side of human nature in order to boost viewership, listenership and readership and increase profits through higher advertising rates.
Freedom of the press is being abused in being taken so literally. While the very notion of freedom of speech and expression is central to democracy, this does not mean that the media can simply take a neutral stance in absolutely everything regardless of the consequences.
I am not suggesting any form of self-censorship by the media; after all, there can be nothing worse than the prospect of some business executive deciding on what the public should view, hear or read.
Some time ago SABC 1 TV news quite rightly took a lot of flak for running gruesome footage of an American hostage being beheaded in Iraq, and one wonders whether this stemmed from a desire to keep the public informed by withholding nothing — or whether this was macabre marketing.
SABC 1 is not alone, because there is not much difference between actually showing pictures on television and explaining what happened in detail on radio and in print.
The question one needs to ask of all media is the old evergreen: Would those Iraqi executioners have gone to such dramatic lengths to get their message across if the entire world’s media simply refused to give them any sort of publicity? Do these extremists videotape these beheadings knowing that the footage will get coverage all over the world and that this coverage will lead to public outcries and consequently pressure on the governments of the super-powers they are trying to influence?
What would happen if the world’s media simply refused to give any of these atrocities any sort of coverage? Would there be an end to these gruesome beheadings? Or would they just continue with pictures going straight to governments, in an effort to “persuade” them to back down? And with the public not knowing what was going on, would governments just do what many governments have always done and cover everything up, hoping that after getting nowhere, terrorists would stop beheading people?
One thing is for sure, at the time in the terrorists’ camp, they must all have been crowing with delight when they saw just how many television stations and newspapers actually ran their grisly pictures.
There is no question that the more the coverage, the happier the rebels are and the unhappier the governments are.
Are the media really just messengers, or are they beginning to fall into the category of accomplices?
It’s an incredibly tough call for an editor to make: “Damned if you publish and damned if you don’t. But somehow the media have to start looking at the role they play, because this kind of ghastly PR exercise could get a lot worse before its gets any better.
To a lot of people it looks like the media are either being manipulated or have stepped out of the ring and as usual have used the old “don’t shoot the messenger” excuse. Others will get extremely nervous about any move towards self-censorship.
So, at the end of it all, it will be the consumer that decides on whether this practice will continue, because the only things the media understand is falling listenerships, viewerships and readership figures.
And given the global consumers’ penchant for reality shows, my guess is beheadings and other monstrous acts of human madness will appeal to a growing population of bloodthirsty voyeurs who really couldn’t care less whether something is staged or real — as long as it doesn’t happen to them!