Post No.: 0411
There are a multitude of ethical or problematic issues in journalism or reportage that we as the audience must be aware of. These include freebies – you may be surprised how many times freebies are given as kind of indirect bribes for good reviews or for eliciting an otherwise favourable reciprocal response from a journalist or reporter. And whenever journalists are being enticed with freebies or free travel to ‘come and see what we’ve got to show you’ – you can be sure that the party who is seeking the publicity is carefully controlling the script.
Sometimes journalists will alternatively pay to get a story that is believed to be in the public’s interest, such as paying an underground criminal for a story or angle.
There may be conflicts of interest – relationships that are too close to a news outlet to be fully impartial, or alternatively being a direct rival against whomever one is commenting on hence a bias in painting them in a bad light. Post No.: 0393 examined some biases that could lead to conflicts of interest in reportage, such as those arising from the close relationships with parent or sister companies.
Journalists might even deliberately stage or interact with a scene – so instead of merely being a ‘fly on the wall’, being silent and invisible and just reporting what one sees, a journalist might tamper or interact with a scene to intentionally compose it, such as asking protestors to pose in a certain way in order to make them seem more aggressive and confrontational than they really were, so that the most dramatic photograph can be captured.
The ‘Hawthorne effect’ or ‘observer effect’ is when people’s behaviours adjust when they know they’re in the presence of cameras, reporters or anyone else who’s watching them. This means that they’re not behaving as naturally as they would if they knew that no one (of importance) was watching them. This may involve tidying up the place, hiding some things and presenting things in a certain way when they know that a reporter is coming over. They might try to consciously shape the reportage or simply deceive by saying things that they think the interviewer and the audience wants to hear. Or they might overly try to please an experimenter if it’s a survey, study or experiment. Whenever a TV show is being made featuring a proprietor’s shop or restaurant, for instance, the presenters might receive an abnormally good service or good deals from them because a camera crew is present hence it’s spreading publicity for their business – but will this mean that regular customers will receive the same treatment? This ‘social masking’ effect can be conscious and intentional or unconscious and unintentional.
The camera angles, depth of focus, focal length, depth of field, filters, etc. chosen to compose a particular visual or emotional narrative may present a subjective interpretation of reality. This may be expected though because one has to pick a particular perspective and shot, but we must note that this would be just one perspective that one could take of the reality.
The ‘Rashomon effect’ and the problem of ‘naïve realism’ are related to when each of us sees and remembers certain things differently. Many things in life are relative and subjective and in such cases there is no objective right or wrong in how one presents something, but again we must note that any way would only be one way that it could be interpreted.
‘Selective dissonance’ is the unconscious process of distorting or forgetting incoming information if it doesn’t match one’s particular point of view, and ‘selective exposure’ is the unconscious process of selecting only what one wants to see or hear. They are both related to confirmation bias, and this can occur in the composition and editing stages by journalists or in the viewing stage by the audience. This is one of the major reasons why the same event can result in contradictory interpretations by different people.
Graphic images and spreading hate speech, and other incendiary commentaries such as those that incite violence, bring up the question of whether free speech should have limits, and if so then where should these lines be drawn and who should police it?
Press freedom and censorship may affect reportage – a state’s regulators may be restricting particular newsworthy incidents or news angles from being presented in that country’s media. (Or if a head of state cannot quite do that in his/her country then the next closest thing is calling any reportage one disagrees with ‘fake news’ in order to try to discredit those stories.) This is a form of government propaganda.
And sometimes there is a question of whether something is really in the public’s interest. For example, the private lives of royal family members – on the one paw they take (a lot of) taxpayers’ money but how far should the scrutiny go into their personal lives?
…News stories are symbolic representations of reality that are socio-culturally constructed by the people involved in the news event and reportage, including the journalists themselves, and us as the audience. In a way, journalists can never be just passive observers – the shots they take and select, the specific questions they ask, the words and phrases they use, etc. always represent themselves and their values and judgements to a small or large extent.
So we as news consumers must never be passive too – we must be more critical in our analysis of news and facts. Journalists are naturally incentivised to dramatise their pictures and sentences in order to sell what they capture and report – so fuzzy bear in mind that behind every photograph, video clip or word, there is a person or even an entire crew of people or other reporters, photographers, etc. making choices. Thus, for instance, if they claim to be reporting on a fresh skirmish that’s just sparked right where they are then would they really just be standing there in the middle of the road talking to the camera or having a photo taken, or indeed getting in the way of those who are supposedly fighting, instead of ducking and trying to find cover? Are they merely over-exaggerating the events to make the situation appear more dramatic than it really is?
This applies to shows, documentaries and other videos or images on TV, social media or absolutely anywhere – remember to think about the camerapeople and other crew behind the screen who are actually taking the pictures and sounds and how they’re doing it and how they possibly pre-planned those shots? They may have waited for hours or even days to get the shot they want, but would that shot be truly representative of what’s happening there the majority of the time? Some of those ‘lone survival experts’ in those adventure programmes aren’t alone at all, they exaggerate their feats, and may even retire to a hotel to sleep rather than continue camping outside overnight once the cameras stop recording!
After all that’s been said, the media cannot be alone to blame when they present sensationalised hyperbole, over-simplified angles, over-exaggerated stories and salacious celebrity gossip – the audience, the market, is equally to blame for being attracted to this kind of stuff over plainly-presented, ‘dull’ and emotionally-neutral facts. It’s about supply and demand. If a journalist doesn’t give what the audience wants (or at least what the audience gravitates towards and clicks on even though some readers may claim that they don’t exactly ‘want’ it) then they might lose their job to someone who will.
Journalists are humans too and can make genuine mistakes or be misled too, so they’re not always deliberately being biased or trying to deceive the public when they get things wrong. A free, independent and professional, and chiefly truth-seeking, press – although much more preferable to one that is not – clearly doesn’t guarantee the reportage of only truths or the reportage of the full truths, whether because of unintentional mistakes or intentional dishonesty. So it’s down to us to be better news consumers too.
Woof! The key is to read and view as many different and diverse news, information and educational sources as possible, and to learn about and use critical thinking skills; including questioning one’s own current beliefs now and again.