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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

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Media criticism – the state it’s in

bookshelfHaving followed all kinds of critiques of “the media” since the 1980s, I suspect the criticism has evolved less than the media itself – at least in its prevalent forms. Each day, dire press “coverage” (or “propaganda”, “churnalism”, “a clown show” – take your pick) reminds us of the need for media criticism which isn’t as tribal – or stupid – as the media it scrutinises, yet we seem stuck with the simple-minded binary tropes we had 30 years (and more) ago: bias vs balance, public vs elites, corporate vs independent, right vs left, etc.

So, what the hell’s going on?

1. “Sub-Chomskyan”

I see the term “sub-Chomskyan” used sometimes by those on the “right” who dislike the famous MIT professor’s politics, and occasionally by “left”-leaning commentators fed up with a genre of writing which reads like a sort of stark, zombified version of Chomsky.

The latter usage applies particularly to a widespread form of media criticism which makes overarching generalisations about “the corporate media” in a way which “owes something” to Manufacturing Consent (the classic 1988 book co-authored by Chomsky and Edward Herman). Given that the internet is currently the busiest forum for media criticism (in blogs, social media, “below the line” comment sections, etc) you could probably say that the Chomskyan (whether adept or “sub-“) variety is the most frequently voiced one.

But I wouldn’t blame NC for the current state of so-called “media criticism” any more than I’d blame JC for Xtian Evangelism or the Holy Inquisition. I suppose that what starts with a person of merit and originality often ends up with a self-righteous bunch of presumptuous acolytes or unfunny zealots. It’s true that burning people at the stake as “witches” is worse than denouncing journalists on Twitter as “corporate mouthpieces”, but you get the impression that the moral stakes are the same – corporations being up there with Satan.

(A recent tweet I saw responds to the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde by saying, “wake up, Honey”, accompanied by a picture of Manufacturing Consent).

2. Media “watchdogs”

David Foster Wallace said political discourse had become a “formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition”, and the same can probably be said for the output of various media “watchdogs” and “monitors” – at least those with political leanings (ie virtually all of them). Most of these groups boast of being “independent”, “non-corporate”, etc – which is good; but unless they have some form of “innocent” funding (or unless the people running them are financially independent – ie well-off), it follows that they’re constrained, albeit less directly, by the same economics as their more “corporate” colleagues. And they are certainly no more “objective” or “impartial” (although their particular “bias” may be seen as more virtuous – assuming you agree with their politics).

Still, they can serve a useful purpose within these limits, highlighting important problems with the so-called “mainstream” media. For several years, starting in the late 1990s, I attempted something modest along these lines myself. I sent 150 fortnightly editions of my “News & Distraction” newsletter to around 5,000 subscribers (it had been advertised in my satirical zine, Anxiety Culture), and had some minor successes – for example, getting the BBC to uphold my complaint that a BBC1 News report had “breached editorial guidelines on truth and accuracy” (not an easy matter), getting coverage on a late-night Channel 4 TV show, even a phone call from a Newsnight editor who wanted me to appear (too short notice, alas – Alice Nutter from Chumbawumba ended up doing it).

When I envisioned something more ambitious – Media Hell, a web community project to record, link and cross-index types of media fallacies using a purpose-built structured database – I quickly ran into the economic constraints that I mention above. Although I had professional experience of database design, I had no funding and (as it turned out) not nearly enough spare time. And since I saw the relational database as essential to the kind of ongoing empirical research I had in mind (I wanted to avoid being just another serial polemic/blog/alert issuer), the project soon ran out of steam.

3. Cherry-picking & lack of empirical studies

Many “independent” media critics don’t see the lack of decent empirical studies as an obstacle to promoting their viewpoints, but I regard the “scientific” approach as essential if you’re making claims about broad media trends or, say, the output of a newspaper as a whole. Much more common, unfortunately, is the Mickey Mouse style of cherry-picking (which often passes for “analysis”) – since it’s relatively easy, convenient and tempting to select precisely those press examples which “prove” one’s existing beliefs about bias and propaganda, etc.

As the volume (and in some cases diversity) of mass-media content increases, this type of cherry-picking becomes easier, while empirical studies become more time-consuming (and relatively rarer). The former becomes a kind of “confirmation bias made easy”, although it may be seen as convincing and “substantive” by those who already believe what it “confirms”.

What begins as informed opinion can rigidify into dogmatic ideology if there’s little motivation to actively seek counterevidence. And not just to seek it and record each instance, but to constantly keep in mind how our tendencies towards confirmation bias skew our evaluations of “evidence”. As Kathryn Schulz points out, in her book, Being Wrong:

“We don’t assess evidence neutrally; we assess it in light of whatever theories we’ve already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.”

“Sometimes, by contrast, we see the counterevidence just fine – but, thanks to confirmation bias, we decide that it has no bearing on the validity of our beliefs. In logic, this tendency is known, rather charmingly, as the No True Scotsman fallacy.”

4. “No True Scotsman” logic

So, you believe that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge. But I present an example of a Scotsman who puts sugar on. You dismiss this by saying, “Yes, but no true Scotsman does that”. My counterevidence makes no dent in your belief.

One sees this a lot in “radical” media criticism – especially where there’s a reliance on blanket generalisations and broad class identifiers (“corporate”, “western”, “liberal”, etc). So, for instance, you believe that no radical content is allowed to appear in the “corporate media”. I list some good examples of radical articles that have appeared in the corporate-owned press, but you dismiss them as not “truly” radical.

If you dismiss counterevidence in that way, there may come a point when the question doesn’t even arise in your mind – your thinking on the issue gets replaced by a “Correct Answer” reflex. That’s how tentative beliefs turn into fixed doctrines – all the inconvenient examples which seem to contradict your belief are automatically brushed off. It’s a completely different mindset than the one you’d ideally want to bring to an empirical study. It’s “anti-scientific” in that evidence isn’t used to determine what is really going on – rather it’s carefully selected as a means to persuade others of a foregone conclusion.

This is how a certain type of media criticism becomes more and more sweeping in its assertions, until the rhetoric departs from messy reality and enters some platonic realm in which abstract generalisations about an abstract noun (the “mainstream media”) count as “hard-hitting” truth. This stuff fills my Twitter timeline every day – it reads like a rightwing caricature of “strident lefties”. It’s simplistic, even simple-minded. We learn nothing new from it; history repeats.

5. Panchrestons, overgeneralisations

“Panchreston” is a word we don’t bump into very often. The thing it refers to, however, seems very common:

Panchreston (noun): A proposed explanation intended to address a complex problem by trying to account for all possible contingencies but typically proving to be too broadly conceived and therefore oversimplified to be of any practical use.

Panchrestons in media criticism include many of those sweeping generalisations that you hear about “Western”/”establishment”/”corporate”/”mainstream” journalists. Of course, there are also high-level generalisations which are valid – but they’re usually either banal statements of the obvious, or valid by definition. It’s not a panchreston to say that the “corporate media” requires commercial revenue to survive, but I would consider it a panchreston to “explain” newspaper content largely in terms of its “corporate” attribute. That’s far too “easy”, reductive, and disconnected from messy reality. (It also seems to be very popular, but then so is “one powerful elite controlling everything” conspiracy-type framing).

(To be continued at some point…)

Written by NewsFrames

February 25, 2016 at 10:26 am