Media’s racial bias - Media Essay Example

Media’s racial bias

Introduction: media in new age capitalism

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As in any news industry news production is a sequence of gathering raw material, processing it into the required product, and distributing the product to an intended market. This characteristic of the news gathering industry is specific of the modern capitalism. Capitalism during the twentieth century ushered in a mass culture that was based upon standardization, commodification and conformity. Media industries were invested in order to gain profits irrespective of questions of value. The mass culture of capitalism was then built upon the order of tried and tested packages which were deeply suspicious of cultural innovation and avant-guardist form of experimentation. The fear that dominated this particular era was that dominant cultural producers, i.e., the United States, would push both minority cultures to the margins while diminishing more literary and educated sensibilities. This has meant that capitalism is becoming less associated with a culture of mass conformity than with the catering of products to meet the preferences of explicit population groupings.

The manufacturing of news

The mass media serve as a system of communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain and inform and to inculcate individuals with the values, believes and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interests, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda. In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that media serve the ends of dominant elite. It is much more difficult to se a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and general community interest. What is not evident is the limited nature of such critiques as well as the huge inequality in command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behaviour and performance. Herman and Chomsky propose a propaganda model that explains the character of the capitalist media that focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. The essential ingredients of this model are a set of news ‘filters’ that fall under the following heads(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media (3) the reliance of media on information provided by government, business and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power (4) ‘flak’ as a means of disciplining the media and (5) anti-Communism as a national religion and control mechanism.   Herman and Chomsky say that these elements interact with and reinforce one another. The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print. They fix premises of discourse and interpretation, and definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns. The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news values.

Embedding the ideology

In liberal capitalistic societies, no institution is devoid of hegemonic[1] functions, and none does hegemony work only. But it is cultural industry as a whole, along with the educational system, that most coherently specialises in the production, relaying and regearing of hegemonic ideology. The media of the culture industry are ordinarily controlled by members of top corporate and political elites and by individuals they attempt to bring into their social and ideological worlds. The dominant class does not, for the most part, produce and disseminate ideology directly. That task is left to writers and journalists, producers and teachers, bureaucrats and artists organised for production within the cultural apparatus as a whole – the schools and mass media as a whole, advertising and show business, and specialised bureaucracies within the state and corporations. The liberal capitalist political economy is layered as an economy and a polity which meet and interpenetrate at many levels but remain organized separately; the executives and owners of the cultural apparatus – the press, mass entertainment, sports and arts – are also interlocked at high levels with the managers of corporate and political sectors. The characteristics of the capitalist media, read the US media, reflect these features of the hegemony.

The U.S media and ‘objectivity’

American journalism has been regularly criticised for failing to be ‘objective’. The topic assumes special interest when one learns that before 1830s, objectivity was not an issue. American newspapers were expected to present a partisan viewpoint, not a neutral one. Herman and Chomsky make an ideological debate on the objectivity of the American media. The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media need a steady and reliable flow of the raw material of news. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictate that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumours and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, in Washington DC, are central nodes of such news activity. These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows. Mark Fishman calls this ‘the principle of bureaucratic affinity: only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy.’ Government and corporate sources also have the great merit of being recognizable and credible by their status and prestige. This is important to the mass media. ..The Pentagon for, example, has a public-information service that involves many thousands of employees, spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year and dwarfing not only the public-information resources of any dissenting individual or group but the aggregate of such groups.[2]

Racism, psyche and media

The complexity of contemporary racist ideology has brought about a number of new and original critical engagements at the border between sociological thinking and psychoanalysis. Racial has been explored through a number of theoretical traditions, the most prominent being Klienian and Lacanian tropes. Homi Bhabha has utilised Lacanian theory in order to investigate the nature of colonialist discourse. For Bhabha the cultural strategies of racial superiority ‘connotes rigidly and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and demonic repetition’. The most important trope here is that of the stereotype which must be endlessly repeated in order to ward off the anxiety that it could never be proven. The racial stereotype for Bhabha, does not so much mean the setting up of a false image but projection of unconscious fantasy. Racism is grounded in institutions and material social circumstances that underlie and help reproduce racism. Thus racism depends not so much on the constant features of ontological lack or psychic splitting, as important as these undoubtedly are, but on the degradation of one group to the advantage of another. The racist representations of Blacks in the West and images of ‘cultural backwardness’ of those in the South, reinforces continued structural inequalities within and between these domains. These features continue to be present in contemporary media and image cultures. In the news media they take the form of racially biased reporting where the truth an even the language used to narrate the incidents are purposely manipulated, to give tailor-made reports. The media portrayal of African Americans during Hurricane Katrina and the depiction of Iraqis after the 9/11 are good examples in this regard.

Racist reporting – Case 1: Hurricane Katrina

” I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black….

While reporting Hurricane Katrina, the media published two images. Although similar in content, the races of the individuals captured were different and unfortunately, so were the captions associated with each. In one image, an African-American holds food in hand and the caption indicates that he had just finished “looting” a grocery store. In the second image, two White individuals hold food in hand and the caption says they were “finding” bread and soda from a grocery store. Why one was looting, while the other was simply finding food. The difference in captions for these two images “may be indicative of racial bias in the mainstream media.“ writes Carmen Cusido of Diversity Inc.
When we consider the public’s expectation that the media serve a powerful vehicle for information, for truth, missteps like these help us to clearly see the important role it continues to play in perpetuating debilitating stereotypes that further harm race relations.
Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki book “The Black Image in the White Mind,” illustrates how the television and news focus on black poverty and crime is grossly out of proportion with the reality of black life.[3]

Yahoo News was one of the organisations which was found to be collaborating with the American news agencies after several images were found on its news photo website showing a clear bias and penchant to act with moral disparity with its portrayal of African people. In an image taken from a moving helicopter constituting a part of a collection of ‘looting’ photos, language is used which invites an assumption of criminality on the sole basis of ethnicity. Yahoo News never apologised but issued a press statement after receiving numerous complaints about its publishing of racist propaganda labelling African American survivors as looters. In the statement Yahoo did not take responsibility for the content of news photo articles published on its network and states “we present the photos and their captions as written, edited and distributed by the news services with no additional editing at Yahoo News.”

Case 2: Portrayal of Iraqis after 9/11

Particularly after the 9/11 the US media led by the CNN and the mainstream newspaper virtually fought a war against the Arab-Muslim community and the people of Iraq in particular. Their main strategy was to misrepresent the scale of events and portray Iraq and the Arab community responsible for the tragedy of 9/11. The mainstream media were supported by political parties whose intent is to promote and spread its own opinion and beliefs through different media outlets, such as Fox News. In fact the print and video journalists were covering events to create an explosive atmosphere to build a public opinion that a war is inevitable. The inaccurate picture they pained has distorted the world view of the reality.  The most sensitive of these reports was not the story but the language used by these reporters. Most of the US based media reports portrayed Arab people as ‘terrorists’ and ‘having strong racial and prejudices’. The other expressions used to portray included “A threat to the American way of life”, ‘unholy’, ‘bestiality’ etc. Mainstream media such as the CNN focussed on specific terminology that stick in the mind of the viewers, words that people like to refer to as “water cooler words,” because these words are constantly used as topic of discussions in conversations about the Arab world. These terms also promoted patriotism in order to make each American citizen feel happy and satisfied about his or her support of the Bush administration for his action against the people of Iraq.

These media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules. These techniques influence the various meanings we can take away from a message. The way messages are construction varies from mainstream to alternative media depending on the basic of visual communication from lighting, composition, camera angle, editing, use of props, body language, symbols, etc. In addition, the construction of these messages is based on the specific emotions that they evoke. The techniques that are used in reporting for propaganda against Iraq as well as the Lebanese and Palestinian wars are real/live images that support their message as well as real/live sounds. However, publishers are careful with these messages since Fox news for example, does not show images that demonstrate something that challenge their position as pro-Bush. They do not show what American army is doing to Iraqis in terms of harming them. When CNN, for example, show Iraqis’ miserable situation under Sadam’s regime, they want to attract audiences’ attention on that dictatorship regime in order to get support and justify Americans invasion of Iraq in which the purpose is to liberate Iraqis from Sadam’s ‘terrorist’ regime and spread democracy and freedom in Iraq.

Books cited

Mark Fishman, Manufacturing the News.  Austin. University of Texas Press. 1980.
Tumber Howard, edr. News:A Reader. Oxford University Press. 1999.
Rantenen and Boyd-Barrett, edrs. The Globalization of News.London.OUP.1998.
McLaughlin Greg, The War Correspondent. London. Pluto Press. 2002.
M.L.Molotch and M.J.Lester, ‘News as Purposive Behavior’, American Sociological Review, 39(Feb 1974): 101-12.
Stevenson Nick, Th Transformation of the Media: Globalization, Morality and Ethics.London. Longman. 1999.
 

 

[1] Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony can be defined this way: hegemony is a ruling class’s (or alliance’s) domination of subordinate classes and groups through the elaboration and penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and everyday practice; it is the systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order. No hard and fast line can be drawn between the mechanisms of hegemony and the mechanisms of coercion; the hold of hegemony rests on elements of coercion, just as the force of coercion over the dominated both presupposes and reinforces the elements of hegemony.
[2] Mark Fishman, Manufacturing the News.  Austin. University of Texas Press. 1980
[3] Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, The Black Image in the White Mind. Chicago University Press. 2000

Entman and Rojecki illustrate how the television news focus on black poverty and crime is grossly out of proportion with the reality of black life, how use of black ‘experts’ is limited to ‘black-themed’ issues, and how ‘black politics’ are often distorted in the news. They conclude that although there are more images of African-Americans on television now than ever, these images are often harmful to the prospect of unity between the races.

 

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