A (Neglected) Duty to Inform

With the widespread closure of international bureaus, and serious underfunding of those that remain open, American coverage of world affairs nears an all-time low. Today, the mainstream U.S. media often seems precariously close to preaching an official reality and severely restricting the average media consumer's view of the world.

Jonathan Lethem's most recent novel, Chronic City, parodies a New York City so exhausted by Iraq reports that the leading newspaper (a thinly-veiled New York Times) is compelled to produce a "War-free edition." Although Iraq and Afghanistan fatigue is perhaps inevitable by this point, one could argue that democracy elevates staying informed to a civic responsibility.

More critically, in a democracy, the media has a deep responsibility to provide the facts. By relegating "World Lite" foreign news to the bowels of a newspaper, the mainstream media fails to uphold this responsibility and neglects issues upon which it is historically obliged to shed light. Everyone has the option of tuning out foreign news, but the current mainstream media doesn't leave much to tune out.

The important question in this context is a chicken-or-egg dilemma: Is the U.S media responding to domestic indifference for international news? Or, by failing to provide detailed information about global events, is it actively promoting decreased attention to the world around us? The media plays a massive role in agenda setting; by inundating its audience with light news and pop culture, it is implicitly conveying a set of priorities. Our limited capacity for processing information becomes dominated by a set of distractions, while the larger world fades into the background.

In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann argued that media creates the "pictures in our heads." Unlimited information coupled with limited human cognitive ability to process information results in the media playing a critical selection role. The images and sound-bytes in media reports, chosen from an overwhelming cascade of facts, contribute profoundly to individual conceptions of reality -- conceptions that may be deeply inaccurate or incomplete, depending largely on the media channel's agenda.

FOX News
is not the only culprit here. I recently wrote about NBC's coverage of Evgeny Plushenko, the Russian figure skater who infamously referred to his 2010 Olympic silver medal as "platinum." NBC's human interest profile of Plushenko depicted a Russia -- and, more broadly, a U.S.-Russia relationship -- stuck in the height of the Cold War. Between menacing music, sepia-tinged shots of an eerie-looking Saint Petersburg, and (likely thanks to ingenious editing) sinister commentary by Plushenko himself, an average viewer could be forgiven for assuming the Cold War was back on. FOX's bias is generally widely recognized, but NBC is still largely accepted as neutral and reliable. This makes its coverage of Russia unforgivable and akin to public opinion manipulation.

The explosion of new media is creating an ever-expanding infosphere, which arguably empowers media consumers to locate news that escapes the mainstream focus. An informed -- and connected -- citizen is capable of finding infinitely more information than he or she could have even five years ago. But what about those who fall short of this narrow category? At the risk of sounding elitist, what of senior citizens in Arkansas who receive only the four network television channels and rely entirely on these news reports to form their images of the world?

And this says nothing of individual selection biases that can plague even the savviest media consumers. In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte coined the idea of "The Daily Me," a way of receiving information that only confirms one's conceptions of global dynamics and perpetuates a positive feedback system. In a globalized world, what are the implications of surrounding oneself with news that fortifies stereotypes and fails to supplement the old pictures in our heads with a changing reality? Arguably, it constitutes a whole different plane of official reality, albeit on an individual level.

Despite the risk of entrenching tenacious beliefs about the world, the Internet and new media in general present the most promising way around corporate media and its commercial perception of the world. Although the blogosphere is no substitution for professional journalism, it can play a critical role in publicizing certain events and trends neglected by the mainstream media. Access issues aside, blogs are perhaps democracy at its finest and provide a reasonably solid alternative path as traditional journalism struggles to redefine itself in the 21st century.

In Russia, this week's tragic subway bombings will surely usher in a new wave of media crackdowns and perpetuations of the simplistic victimized-Russia-versus-evil-Chechnya version of reality. For Vladimir Putin, this narrative is profoundly galvanizing as he eyes the presidency in 2012. Americans tend to dismiss such press freedom issues as a foreign problem and to smugly reassure ourselves of the impermeability of the First Amendment. But true press freedom is about much more than free speech, and the issues are much more subtle.

To ensure that we have the necessary information to decipher the world around us, Americans would be well advised to scrutinize the current media and demand action to produce a more holistic -- and accountable -- future information environment.

A version of this post originally appeared on Save the News (http://www.savethenews.org/blog/10/03/30/neglected-duty-inform) on March 30, 2010.