Does news journalism reflect or shape society?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This ancient dilemma is often used to display the futility of identifying the first case in a circular cause and effect loop. When questioning whether or not news journalism shapes or reflects society, it isn’t good enough to say “society came first, because it was here before news” because a quick look at the academic literature quickly displays how news now has the power to inform society en masse (Allan 2010:15) (el-Nawawy, Powers 2006:440). The answer is neither one or the other. In its most simplest form it is a room in which two mirrors have been placed parallel to each other and are now in a loop, reflecting and shaping the other.
Before entering the discussion it is important to identify the definition of what news is within this context. As the lines between what is news and what is public relations (PR) grow increasingly blurred and clandestine to the consumer (McNair 2006:11) (Herman 1996:125). News within this paper will be treated as the following “A product of a news media organisation which is published with the intent on informing the public”. This definition will be used for working purposes in order to set aside the distinction of news and PR to better discuss what informs the public sphere.
The interrelationship between news and society is a complicated mess of ideological struggles and market influences. There are many actors within this dynamic and at any one point the dominant ideology will have several powerful competitors.

If journalism is shaping or reflecting society, then what is it that is being shaped/reflected exactly? Journalism and media as a whole is a device which is reflecting/shaping the meanings which constitute the dominant ideology and competing discourses of the day. Meaning in this context is best explained by Eric Louw:

“Humans experience the world through the more abstract phenomenon of consciousness, that is we think, comprehend and mentally process insights. We have a capacity for understanding – a capacity for making sense of the world and our sensations … We are ‘mental’ beings who try to ‘make sense’  of our world and ourselves … ultimately the human capacity for language, sharing and comprehension involves an ability to make meaning, that is we are able to make perceptions, process them, comprehend them and then share them with others” (Louw 2001:01)

Meanings can be understood as ideas, but they are ideas which are shaped and dependent upon the context of their time, place and culture of which they exist. An example of this is the concepts of ‘peace’ and ‘democracy’ which have generally ubiquitous positive meaning throughout the Anglo-Western political hemisphere.  To the US public sphere, peace and democracy could be seen as the status-quo, a free market with some government oversight and war being waged far from US soil.
These concepts have different meanings within the public sphere of middle eastern society. Peace means the end of civil war waged by different ideologically driven rebel groups and governments. Democracy could potentially be viewed as a form of Western and in particular US economic imperialism and an affront to their religious principles. The values and attitudes attached to ideas are part of the overall meanings these ideas take on. These values and attitudes are informed both by circumstance and journalistic discourse within the public sphere.
Meaning is therefore something which is struggled over by individuals and groups of individuals on all levels of society. Meaning is struggled over in everyday discussions, in legal hearings, in political debate, in art/cultural pieces and most importantly (in terms of power) within the news media.
News media is the most powerful societal actor within the meaning making game of society. The reason for this is because of its sheer capacity to spread a message to mass audiences, as Stanley Cohen put it, the media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readings what to think about” (Louw 2001:19). Thus because of the power of news media upon society and the meaning making process, and because some individuals have more power than others in the mass communicative process, journalism and news media is well placed in a position to be “shapers” of society, more than just mere “reflectors” of society.
However the most vital part of this all, is that all meaning creation is dependent upon the context of its time, place and culture and this includes its place in relation to competing ideologies/actors. This means that the meanings created, the ideas defended and the ideas criticised by these powerful media elites are inherently dependent upon the ideas defended/criticised by their detractors. In fact the complicated mess of it all means that even the media elite disagree consistently.

The Australian, an Australian national news paper published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited has taken a sharp antagonistic approach to discussing Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The Australian echoes the sentiments US officials in senate such as Mitch McConnell who have in the past branded him a ‘High Tech Terrorist'(2010, para. 01). The Australian regularly reports on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in a negative manner. A feature article from June 2012 was titled ASSANGE’S ASYLUM BIG IS BASELESS AND ECUADOR’S MOTIVES ARE SUSPECT (McAdam, Saul, 2012 p.14).
The article’s headline is inflammatory and clearly shows an antagonism to the claims and situation that Assange is in. The article continues to belittle Assange’s bid of asylum as being ‘premature’ and ‘legally baseless’ whilst reminding the reader that the ancient protection of asylum was traditionally granted by churches to give sanctuary to those fleeing lynch mobs, as if to say that Assange’s claim was petty given this historical meaning. The line “Assange oddly claims that Australia has abandoned him, and that he is at risk of being sent to face the death penalty in the US.” shows just how little The Australian believes in the sincerity of his claims, brushing them off as frivolous, over-dramatic claims, almost laughable.
The feature then continues to detail why Assange’s claim does not hold water using all the same rhetoric of Assange’s political opponents. It is interesting to note how a particular meaning of political asylum is used to challenge the position of Assange. This is a small example of how meaning is used and reinforced by news media in meaning the making processes.
In another article by The Australian on the same day ‘Assange says PM left him to wolves’ reads “JULIAN Assange has blamed his extraordinary decision to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London on what he says is his abandonment by the Australian government.” (Nicholson, Wilson, 2012, para. 01). This lead shows a very strong bias towards Assange, making note that he is blaming another institution for his own decisions whilst continuing the same sentiment discussed in the previous example, of downplaying the importance of the Australian government’s lack of support in this issue.
In a more recent article The Australian keeps up its attack on WikiLeaks and Assange by reporting on comments by Jemima Khan, a free speech advocate and editor from the UK. The article is titled ‘Jemima abandons ‘blinkered’ Assange’. A paragraph from the story syndicated from The Times explains its purpose “Ms Khan, who has defended Assange through his battles with democracies, dictatorships and judges, said his organisation had gone from speaking truth to power to expecting ‘blinkered, cultish devotion.'” (Sanderson, Simpson, 2013 para, 03). What this article shows is that in another attempt to smear the WikiLeaks and Assange name, even people who would traditionally side with Assange now view him as a figure seeking a cult of personality.

Yet throughout this attack on WikiLeaks and Assange it is questionable as to whether or not this kind of reporting and attack is a reflection of Australian sentiment to Assange or not. A recent poll reported on by TNT Magazine in the UK, a magazine offered for free and targeted to Australians/New Zealanders in the UK, claims that 26% of Australians would vote him into Senate if an election were held today (Featherstone, 2013 para, 03). With that considered it seems that News Limited would only be reflecting a conservative and antagonistic view of Julian Assange and reflecting very little of Australian society’s view of him.
Fairfax, News Limited’s largest Australian competitor within the newspaper market has taken a different approach to reporting on Assange. An article from December 2012 in Melbourne’s The Age ‘WikiLeaks founder eyes window of opportunity in Australian Senate bid’ reports on Assange in a far more sympathetic manner. The article reports on his likely extradition as fact, and not mere frivolous conjecture: “He [Assange] has sought refuge in this building a stone’s throw from Harrods because he is at risk of extradition to the United States to face conspiracy or other charges arising from WikiLeaks…”. The article goes so far as to comment on the bleak conditions of his current living arrangement.
A feature article from a few days later by Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald was titled ‘Hard to write off Assange’s chances in upper house” and cited his very strong internet presence in Australia and Abroad with his Twitter account of 1.7 million followers and Facebook page with 2.1 million ‘likes’ as support for his upcoming bid to be elected a Senator in the Australian upper house.

What does all this contrasting reporting say about whether or not news journalism is a reflector or shaper of society? Perhaps it is that these two news agencies, News Limited representing a more conservative outlook, and Fairfax is representing a more liberal outlook? More likely it is that they both know their markets and they cater to them by reporting on issues in a manner that affirms previously held beliefs. Such a phenomena is highly prevalent in news media already (el-Nawawy, Powers, 2010:445). What this means for the previous analogy of news media and society as a room with two mirrors parallel is bleak. Given the number of actors, different meanings and competing ideas within society, the result is more like news media as a disco ball dropped into a mirror maze. Meanings are constantly being discussed, changed and digested by society and media alike, each reflection is a different take on an issue from a different actor within society, the numbers and positions so bogglingly diverse and huge, the whole question of whether news media is shaping or reflecting society becomes a very difficult thing to answer.

So whilst news media agencies may wish to push a particular agenda in order to shape society, the eternal struggle of meaning making within society means a permanent set of meanings could never be found. As Louw poignantly explains:

Power is consequently constrained by the propensity humans have for struggle, and their capacity to find gaps and contradictions in any social structure. No structure, whether it be an economic or political structure, or a meaning-structure is ever a permanent ‘prison’ – at most, structures ‘channel’ human agency.” (Louw 2001:12)

News media no matter how powerful could ever be an all powerful shaper of society for it is nothing more than a powerful actor within a society of which we all are actors within our own right. An atomistic approach needs to be taken when looking at the power of news media organisations. They are groups of individuals at their very core, and thus are just as susceptible to this melee of ideological clashes over what is meaning. So whilst media organisations are powerful actors, they are made up individuals who are just as open to having their minds and positions on social issues changed.
For just like Fairfax is an actor with a competing ideology to that of News Limited, WikiLeaks itself, the topic of discussion, is an actor within its own right. In his famous TED Talk interview Julian Assange in response to the question of whether or not it was true that WikiLeaks had leaked more classified documents than the rest of the world’s media combined responded with “Yeah can it possible be true, that the rest of the world’s media is doing such a bad job  that a little group of activists is able to release more of that type of information than the rest of the world press combined” (TEDtalksDirector 2010, sec. 00:28). That comment has vast implications for what the meaning of a journalist is, what news is about, and what the duty and responsibility of a good news agency is in the 21st century. He has actively taken part in the meaning making game.
That video from the TED website has over 1.5 million views, the sheer number of views that the video has received along with WikiLeaks’ 1.7 million twitter followers and 2.1 million Facebook ‘likes’ makes WikiLeaks incredibly powerful actor within society.

Whilst journalistic news media is an incredibly powerful actor due to its ability to inform publics en masse, it not only has to compete with other news agencies in the message it spreads as detailed by the previous example of contrasting reportage by Fairfax and News Limited, but it also has to deal with the powerful and salient individuals and governments it reports on. Even though Australian media is highly oligopolistic with few media owners (Cunningham 2010:41), these media owners still need to contend with those whom they report on and are taken advantage by, such as governments, activists, NGO’s and prominent individuals such as Julian Assange, for each time that Assange is reported on, given attention and more time in the public sphere, the more his ideas are discussed within society and potentially more legitimate he becomes.

The question of whether or news journalism shapes or reflects society has become very difficult to answer. The purpose of this exploration of the idea, was to problematise the  simplistic view of society and its relation with news media. News media on the surface may to the lay man seem be an institution reporting on and thus ‘reflecting’ what happens in society in an objective and fair manner. But a look at the theory behind the concepts of meaning making shows that individuals when informed by political ideology always have an interest in the meaning making process. Individuals who are well positioned within the communicative process of society are particularly well placed as powerful actors to push their preferred meanings upon society. But every individual is an actor who plays a part within this game of meaning making, meaning shaping and meaning propagating. News media agencies are susceptible to this for they are collections of individuals who exist within the same context of their audiences, for the audience is society and news agencies are just as much a part of society and not an external actor.
News media is a mirror ball dropped into a mirror maze. It is a chaotic actor within a chaotic context amid a swirl of ideological battles fought with words, with laws and with guns.

References:

Allan, S. “News, Power and the Public Sphere.” In his News Culture, Third Edition, 8-26. New York: Open UP, 2010.

Chittal, N 2010, ‘Sen. Mitch McConnell: Julian Assange Is A “High Tech Terrorist”, The Huffington Post, Viewed 1/06/2013
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/05/mitch-mcconnell-wikileaks_n_792186.html

Cunningham, S. “Policy.” In The Media and Communications in Australia, Third Edition, edited by Stuart Cunningham and Graeme Turner, 31-48. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2010.

Featherstone, E 2013, ‘New poll reveals that Assange could win seat in Australian elections’, TNT Magazine, Viewed 1/06/2013
http://www.tntmagazine.com/news/australia-news/new-poll-reveals-that-julian-assange-could-win-senate-seat-in-australian-elections

Herman, E. “The Propaganda Model Revisited.” Monthly Review 48, no. 3 (1996): 115-28.

Louw, E 2001 “The Struggles for power and the Struggle for Meaning.”, The Media and Cultural Production, 1-35. London: Sage.

McAdam, J, Saul, B 2012, ‘ASSANGE’S ASYLUM BID IS BASELESS AND ECUADOR’S MOTIVES ARE SUSPECT’, The Australian, 21 June, p.14.

McNair, Brian. “Cultural Chaos and the Globalisation of Journalism.” In his Cultural Chaos: Journalism, News and Power in a Globalised World, 1-18. London: Routledge, 2006.

Nicholson, B, Wilson, P 2012, ‘Assange Says PM left him to wolves’, The Australian, 21 June, p. 9

el-Nawawy, M., and Powers, S., “News Influence and the Global Media Sphere: A Case Study of Al-Jazeera English.” In The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism Studies, edited by S. Allan, 438-49. Oxon (UK): Routledge, 2010.

Sanderson, D, Simpson, J 2013, ‘Jemima abandons ‘blinkered’ Assange’, The Australian, 8 February, p.10

TEDtalksDirector 2010, ‘Julian Assange: Why the world needs WikiLeaks‘, online video , viewed 1 June 2013,  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNOnvp5t7Do

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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