The Role of the Media
"To lead and shape public opinion"
According to Geraldine Kennedy, Editor of the Irish Times, this is the function of the media. It is a strikingly paternalistic statement and one that clearly reveals the attitude of the paper to its newspaper reading public. What is perhaps more concerning is that Ms Kennedy and the Irish Times appear not to realise that the majority of their readership, in all probability, do not share any such conviction about what it is the Irish Times is supposed to be doing: reporting the news factually with respect for the interests of the whole community. Nevertheless, her bold statement of intent is advertised confidently on the Irish Times website. 
Though we generally consider ourselves immune to media manipulation, we tend to believe what we read and hear in the media. In order to understand how our beliefs might be manipulated it is essential that we identify the controlling influences which, in turn, tend to lead and shape the media itself.
We know that journalists do not, with few exceptions, tell outright lies and that a stated guiding principle of what they do is to strike a neutral and balanced position in reporting events so that all perspectives and views can be taken into consideration. Should we therefore simply accept that they succeed in applying the highest standards to their work? Given the importance of what they do, should journalists and journalism be accountable?
These are the questions with which we are concerned and which have prompted us to establish MediaBite. Aside from our own personal interest in and commitment to these matters we have also been inspired by the UK-based organisation Media Lens which has generated a valuable debate within the profession of journalism there, at a time when the British media urgently needs to re-assess its role in contributing to and promoting corporate interests at the expense of ordinary people the world over. We aim to emulate that debate in Ireland and hope to engage with journalists here constructively for that purpose. In pursuing this objective there are several factors which MediaBite have in mind.
The Corporate-led Mainstream Media
Firstly, the corporate environment within which the news media operates, the extent to which it is dependent on advertising in order to survive and how that impacts on the way news is told . There is also the bottom-line orientation of media corporations owned by wealthy individuals and even larger parent companies and the dependence on subsidised news from government and corporate sources. The relationship between the political establishment and the corporate sector - and the knock-on effect that has on how journalists report what politicians are doing - all need to be considered too. Journalists often speak of the 'firewall' that is supposed to protect editorial decision-making from external influence but is that firewall in reality more like a 'revolving door' between journalism, government and big business?
For example, the weekly Irish Examiner columnist Terry Prone is also a PR advisor at Carr Communications where several of her clients are major government departments. 
When the recent revelations about Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's acceptance of several undeclared cash payments came to light, Prone was prone to emphasising how unnecessary she believed the resulting fuss to be. There is no suggestion that Terry Prone was motivated to express this opinion by anything other than her own genuine convictions, but how much more difficult for her would it have been had she taken the opposite view? As it stands she has devoted no fewer than three of her recent columns to defending the Taoiseach, one way or another, in his hour of need.
These are elementary questions but they are not considered often enough and are certainly worth asking again, and again, in our view. For instance, how credible is it that a newspaper that is heavily dependent on property advertising is likely to carry articles that are strongly critical of practices within that sector? To what extent does the pursuit of profit dictate what is included and, as importantly, is left out? And if we accept that these are merely the pragmatic facts of newspaper life, do we then simply ignore their ongoing significance to the version of society that we are encouraged to believe in? This is not to argue that there is a conspiracy theory, but rather a filtering out of challenging facts and ideas by media personnel driven by the human capacity for self-deception and denial - and the need to survive or succeed within a frame of reference that is unsympathetic to other considerations.
For the last 15 years at least, Ireland has been administered almost exclusively in the interests of major national and international corporations. There is no part of our lives that has not been affected from the school curriculum to the commercialisation of care for the elderly. If anyone doubts this is so, then they should pay a visit to the IBEC website. There you will find that the country's most influential corporate movers and shakers have set out extensive, detailed policies for how this country should be run - in order to serve the needs of business. There is no corner of life into which they have not directed the penetrating beam of their gaze - from social welfare and immigration through education and health, to strategic and infrastructural planning, and much more besides. Here is a quotation from the Human Resources Policy Committe page on the IBEC website:
"The Human Resources and Social Policy Committee monitors new employee protection legislation to assess its impact on competitiveness, the content and delivery of all education and training activity, to ensure that training standards and relevance are consistent with business requirements. Committee members represent IBEC on a wide range of education and training bodies." 
Our laws have been changed to accommodate these big business demands - with drastic consequences for democratic participation, social administration and the environment – not least of which is the controversial Strategic Infrastructure Bill which gives sweeping powers of decision-making to government appointees while drastically curtailing the democratic public involvement in assessing controversial development proposals – the better to service the demands of major foreign corporates, among others. These new laws have ensured an alarming convergence of power on central government with barely a murmur from the media about what is happening. We believe for all these reasons there is now a compelling need to reassess the news media's role in accepting and promoting the commercial agenda and how they comply with the imperative emanating from some quarters to place that agenda above all other considerations.
“What we have to do in the media is to build trust with the corporations so that they feel more comfortable in telling us these stories,” said Sarah Murray, U.S. editor of the Financial Times. “Because I think that in the end, if they do, they can actually build credibility.”
This is a quote from the Columbia Business School website in the US about a conference they held on Corporate Social Responsibility. 
Balance & Neutrality
Secondly we would like to challenge the notions of what are called 'balance' or 'neutrality' in news reporting. Straightforwardly, we believe that far from ensuring fairness and accuracy these notions have been the fig leaf behind which much systematic bias , inadvertent self-censoring and evasion of uncomfortable realities is disguised by journalists.
We will try to show that 'balance' and 'neutrality' have been used, for example, to insist on the highly questionable assumption that for each and every example of corruption, mismanagement or whatever, there is automatically some mitigating factor that must be found to put the issue at hand into a 'balanced' perspective, thereby lessening and frequently even obliterating the meaning of the stark truth - and the vital lessons that ought to be learned from it. This sort of 'balance' has nothing to do with accuracy - in fact it is its opposite. Isn't 'balance', in this sense, facilitating and nurturing access for journalists to the corridors of power and big business? Doesn't it simply keep them to the corporate-prescribed script within which their own career interests and those of their employers truly lie?
The standard, it seems, has been gathering dust in a broom cupboard for a long while. How many journalists have hesitated, fingers over the keyboard, instinctively aware that to write the unadorned truth of a story is very likely to attract the ire of the subject of the piece? And is that not exactly what has happened to many a journalist who has put truth ahead of expedience?
Here is The BBC's Andrew Marr responding to a similar observation by Noam Chomsky in an interview:
"What I don't get is that all of this suggests - I'm a journalist - people like me are self-censoring."
"I don't say you're self-censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting." (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996)
To what extent has anxiety about this sort of outcome created an incentive for journalists to convince themselves to find a way of relating things, in the interest of 'balance', that will not draw it on them? We don't argue that many journalists deliberately do this much of the time but rather that these circumstantial realities are absorbed and reflected within the core principles of the profession so as to buffer itself from the naked reality: there is no profit to be had from telling the truth. Profit should have nothing to do with it and so long as it does people will continue to experience inequality and suffering which a truly independent news media could help greatly to prevent.
The authors of the book Guardians of Power, David Edwards and David Cromwell, who are also the editors of the Media Lens site have offered the following analysis:
"In his remarkable book, Disciplined Minds, American physicist and writer Jeff Schmidt shows how professionals throughout society, journalists included, come to promote the agenda of the powerful without awareness. Schmidt, formerly an editor at Physics Today magazine for 19 years, points out that professionals are trusted to run organisations in the interests of their employers. Clearly employers cannot be on hand to supervise every decision, and so professionals have to be trained to "ensure that each and every detail of their work favours the right interests or skewers the disfavoured ones" in the absence of overt control. Thus, the whole process of selection, training, and even qualification, Schmidt argues, has evolved so that professionals internalise the basic understanding that they should "subordinate their own beliefs to an assigned ideology" and not "question the politics built into their work". Schmidt continues:
"The qualifying attitude, I find, is an uncritical, subordinate one, which allows professionals to take their ideological lead from their employers and appropriately fine-tune the outlook that they bring to their work. The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today's most highly educated employees is no accident." (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.16, http://disciplinedminds.com/)
Is news passive and objective? How can it possibly be? Within the confines of every report, there is an automatic selection process as to what is said and how. That, in essence, is highly subjective and no journalist can avoid that subjectivity in anything they write. What is needed, we argue, is journalism that acknowledges this truth up front and which instead is motivated by a positive respect for all of its readers and places their varying interests at its heart. Not an easy thing to do, of course, but in reality we contend it is a perspective more likely to result in representative, rational, fair and accurate news reporting.
The British broadcast journalist, Kate Adie, has described in her autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers, how she responded to the shooting of a young father in Northern Ireland just before Christmas some years ago. He had been murdered in front of his young child and had fallen across the Christmas tree in his living room. Adie was the first person to reach the scene. Her responsibility, she said, was first and foremost to be a neutral journalist and for that reason she made no attempt to comfort the child. No hand on the shoulder no word of reassurance or acknowledgment of what the child must have been feeling. Neutrality in everything was the proper role of a journalist, she said, adamant that she had conformed to the highest principles of her profession. She waited until the appropriate authorities had arrived and left the scene. The effect on the child of that withholding of compassion, in that horrifying moment, is hard to think about. Adie's intention was not to be inhumane, but inhumane her omissions were, nevertheless. As one reviewer of the book has put it:
“Also missing, for the most part, is any semblance of Adie saying what is right and wrong about what she covered in her job. Yes, there is a small reference to her Royal Correspondent days as being totally worthless, and she admits that all the news flooding out of NI during the troubles was one of the biggest turn-offs for the TV news viewer…”
That small window of insight to Adie’s views of course confirms a little of what many people on the nationalist side of the divide felt about her book – that it was positively racist in the way it depicted them in the North of Ireland. Adie herself, at the end of her book says ‘I just stick to the facts’. But the facts actually include that when a small child witnessed the murder of her father an adult woman at the scene ignored her immediate and urgent need for assistance.
Kate Adie, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’, Headline Publishing, June 2003
It's a stark example of how journalists are so effectively schooled from disengaging from their own rational humanity. Although this may seem like an extreme example it is nevertheless relevant to the arid and distorting effect on news reality which such entrenched journalistic conventions have on real lives everywhere. That journalistic disconnectedness does nothing whatever to ensure balance or neutrality. In fact, it is precisely the conscienceless vacuum into which the genuine lived truth is constantly disappearing where most news reporting is concerned.
"True, emotion can distort. But it can also enhance. If one of the functions of the scholar is accurate description, then it is impossible to describe a war both unemotionally and accurately at the same time... Thus, exactly from the standpoint of what intellect is supposed to do for us - to extend the boundaries of our understanding - the 'cool, rational, unemotional' approach fails." (The Zinn Reader - Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, Howard Zinn, 1997, p.506)
If journalism is not supposed to care, what and who is it really for? This same brutal detachment from reality this so called 'neutrality' - is colouring the reporting of thousands of aggressive and corrupt acts the world over every day. Exactly whose interests could possibly be served by 'neutralising' events in this way, except those who have an interest in pursuing the aggression/the corruption/the inequality/the social ills - whenever and wherever they occur? Take your pick from any of these, because this style of journalism is having a comparable impact on everything it touches. We are all exactly like that child in that our genuine concerns about our communities and our world, whatever they are, so seldom impinge on or are truly reflected in what news reporters do and how they do it - so much goes similarly disregarded by the fourth estate in this soulless quest for 'neutrality' and 'balance'. And if politicians are wondering why people have disengaged from politics then they should understand that it is almost certainly because of this detachment at the heart of the way their world is presented to the public - the strange three-partnered dance between business, politics and the media that we are forced to watch every day of our lives. It has nothing to do with us any more, we are never truly invited to participate. In fact, outside of the tiny locus of the letters page, we are pretty fiercely discouraged from getting involved in the mainstream media at all. We read it only to be told what to think, according to Geraldine Kennedy.
Language too has a key role to play in 'leading and shaping' our opinions. Words such as 'pacification' and 'pre-emption' are used to describe, for example the Bush/Blair illegal war of aggression in what they knew to be a virtually defenceless country - Iraq. We now know that approximately 655,000 deaths have occurred in Iraq, according to the Lancet’s most recent study, in order to achieve this ‘pacification’. Surely, we are talking about an inversion of meaning here that goes beyond any rational justification? In 2005 the media hailed the Iraqi elections, conducted under foreign military occupation, a "resounding success" and an "astonishing testimony to the power of democracy," while in the same year the media described elections in Zimbabwe as "stealing democracy" even though a similar formula for un-fair and un-free elections existed in both countries.
On the other hand you have Galloway the ‘firebrand’, Chavez the 'populist' and so forth. Again, all these terms converge exclusively with the perspective of state and private rhetoric. The language of mainstream journalism is a far cry from neutral. It lends seeming credibility to incomplete and inaccurate accounts of events, while at the same framing assumptions about anything that is a challenge to the status quo as a threat. How many people have either George Galloway or Hugo Chavez been responsible for killing? Nevertheless, we have the received journalistic 'wisdom' that Bush is 'bringing democracy' to Iraq going virtually unquestioned, despite any proof or historical precedence for what is being claimed. In reality, the exact opposite is the case but the media apparently is incapable of noticing the carnage.
Welcome, for all these reasons, to MediaBite. Populist newspapers are not the subject of our interest: by and large they wear their hearts on their sleeve and in a certain way, though it is not always true, are more often straightforward about what they do. What we are concerned with are the avowedly liberal or broadsheet media to whom people traditionally look to as a safeguard against encroachment on our democratic way of life and for reliable, considered news. That is the place where we perceive the worst of the critical journalistic oversights as described above. We hope you will participate in the debates and discussions raised here and that, as mainstream media journalists, you will welcome the focus of our attention on your profession. If the Media Lens experience is anything to go by, that debate is likely to be lively and challenging at times but we hope it will never be less than interesting or worthwhile. For other readers and contributors we hope you will help us to highlight the frustration and alienation that many people increasingly feel from the corporate-driven media.
4. Columbia Business School