Analyzing Media Coverage

Prime Minister Tony Blair says media coverage
today is degrading community life.

The damage
saps the
country’s
confidence
and self-belief
–Prime Minister
Tony Blair

When outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair told journalists yesterday that increasing competition and pressure from rapidly evolving new technology is “unraveling” journalistic standards, he called attention to an issue that resonates.

Blair said sensation, shock and controversy have replaced the attempt to achieve impartial reporting. His remarks are colorful, befitting the claims he’s making. He said journalists in competitive mode act like a “feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.”

Blair’s key point, however, is his belief that the declining quality of coverage is affecting how issues are perceived and even the spirit of nations to address them.

This is not a new issue, of course. Bloggers have attacked mainstream media for years. Conservatives claim media bias against conservatives, and liberals, conversely, claim progressive positions are left out. It’s important to note that Blair isn’t talking about bias, however. He’s talking about style, substance and standards.

…we are
all being
dragged
down by
the way
media
and public
life interact.
–Prime Minister
Tony Blair

The argument about political bias, while interesting, misses the point. Electronic and digital media serve up inconsequential sensationalism and give short shrift to the information we need to be informed citizens. Moreover, Blair says feral media behavior demoralizes politicians as well as constituents. This is a quality of life issue.

A media study released May 29 by Media Matters proves the point. Media Matters’ research shows that provocative religious right commentators get twice as much media coverage as moderates, who according to Media Matters, are less likely to offer extreme or provocative sound bites. And “celebrity religious leaders” left or right get more coverage than leaders of mainline communities with considerably larger membership bases and much less rhetorical saavy. The conclusion: moderate religious voices are left behind.

When media coverage seeks out the extremes it shapes the debate. It leaves out moderates. To the degree that extreme voices have learned how to use the media, the media are complicit in degrading the public conversation by giving access to polar extremes. The middle is where compromise makes it possible to find common ground. The political dialogue in the past decade, maybe longer, has deteriorated in part because media coverage has provided a platform for the extremes while it has trivialized and excluded the moderate middle.

I’m fully aware that some cultural analysts, even some theologians, claim that the middle is so devoid of passion and energy that the only way to live authentically is on the edge. I’m reading one theologian right now who makes this claim. Well, maybe. Maybe not. Edginess depends on context. Sometimes radical solutions are necessary to break through calcified practices that prohibit solutions to long-term problems. But sometimes extreme positions shut down change. Compromise somewhere in the middle is necessary to move things forward. So the middle isn’t always a bad place. The polarization of issues and constituencies today shuts down consensus and makes it nearly impossible to find common ground on global warming, immigration and health care, for example, not to mention Guantanamo or the war in Iraq.
No doubt Blair will be portrayed as a disaffected politician taking a parting shot on his way out the door. There may be truth in this claim, but there is an equal measure of truth in what he said about reportage and interpretation. As reporters grapple with the demand to build audience in a fragmented media environment and grab our attention when we are flooded with messages, the sensational sometimes works. But it also undermines credibility, and that is a major liability.

Post-modern audiences are nurtured in skepticism. Older audiences, formed in a different culture, expect different standards. They aren’t likely to stay with coverage that doesn’t satisfy their minimal expectations for serious content. This is is a recipe for decline, it seems to me. Before reacting too defensively to Blair’s criticism, media professionals should dissect his remarks and look at their demographics and retention rates. There may be more truth in Blair’s comments than the musings of a frustrated politician whacking the media as he walks out the door. To write him off in this way is to do exactly what he is criticizing, that is, to trivialize serious issues and reduce them to the personal pique of a celebrity politician.

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