Sunday, June 20, 2021
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Dunne Speaks: The Danger Of Trusting Superficial Media


The unravelling of Britain’s Royal Family being brought
about by the continuing revelations from Prince Harry about
his upbringing and the way the “firm” reacted to his new
wife and son continue to attract attention around the world.
It seems to matter not whether one is a monarchist or
republican – natural prurience is keeping enough people
lapping up the stories for media outlets to keep seeking
more and more from the disgruntled but seemingly eagerly
obliging Prince to keep the gossip alive.

Whatever
else one may think about it, the issue raises the
interesting question of the extent of the public’s right
to know personal details about the lives of those in
prominent public positions. The general rule-of-thumb so far
has been that the public right to know extends only as far
as those details impact upon the person’s ability to carry
out the functions required by their position.

Short of
that, as Prince Harry’s case demonstrates, the public is
often subjected to all manner of trivial and silly details
about a public figure’s private life, their likes and
dislikes and much other nonsense via magazines and soft
media stories in some strange act of national titillation.
Over the last year or so, this ritual has reached new
heights, or probably more accurately, plumbed new depths.
For many it is just harmless, trivial fun, to be taken with
a grain of salt, scoffed at over morning coffee, and then
put aside.

But, aside from the coffee table
diversions, there is a more serious and concerning point
about all this banality. New research by international media
monitoring firm Isentia based on thousands of media reports
about leaders and leadership in the past year shows that
what the media say about leaders and their leadership is not
only critical to their popularity, but more importantly,
their perceived trustworthiness and effectiveness. In other
words, perception rather than performance has now become the
key to evaluating effectiveness.

To make things even
more bizarre, many other surveys are currently recording
declining trust in news media credibility. So, we have this
extraordinary situation where the public seems to lap up
every detail about our public figures’ private lives,
however trivial, fatuous or salacious, as solid fact that
the news media they distrust dishes up. Yet, weirdly, they
then base their assessments of these public figures’
trustworthiness and effectiveness on this
information!

It is a situation ripe for political
exploitation and manipulation, whereby “soft and nice”
stories about community and national political and other
leaders are offered by their media managers to media
outlets, with the dual expectation in return that not only
will the stories be published, but also that their warmth
will influence the way the media portrays their person in
other more challenging situations. We have seen many
examples of this over the last couple of years.

There
is another more worrying aspect to all this. Given declining
trust in media credibility, what confidence can we have that
the media will look beyond the froth when it comes to
serious stories about the way our leaders are doing their
jobs. Does the false intimacy all the soft stories engender
mean that the media is no longer willing to probe more
deeply than the superficial when harder issues arise about
what our leaders have been up to?

We are often told a
fearless and unfettered news media is an important
democratic safeguard. Although the relationship between
politicians and the media has always been symbiotic, for
obvious reasons, it has generally been considered that each
should hold to its own corner. But is that still true, given
the Isentia findings, or has the media now become the
politicians’ captive plaything, incapable of running
critical stories that might negatively impact on public
perception? If so, what implications does that have for an
open society’s right to know the evidence, as well as to
be critically informed?

As recent events in New
Zealand and elsewhere confirm, the obsession with soft and
trivial stories is becoming too overwhelming – in an age
of so many other choices people are increasingly turning to
media that run the stories they like. Those stories, rather
than the facts behind them, often become the new truth that
contorts public perception and opinion accordingly. The
distinction between hard news, which can sometimes be
unpleasant and challenging, and soft stories presenting
people in the best light to shape favourable public
impressions of them is becoming significantly
blurred.

However, a properly informed electorate
remains the key to a functioning democracy. The news media
still has a vital role in ensuring that people have full,
meaningful and accurate information on which to base their
political preferences, especially at election time, or even
at times of great national crisis. For that reason alone,
countering the increasing focus on trivia at the expense of
what matters and the media pliancy that can give rise to, is
posing a serious challenge all open and democratic societies
need to
confront.

© Scoop Media

 



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