Is the Media Your Message?

Max Allan

From Media for Social Change: A Resource Guide for Community Groups (Revised edition, 1986), published by the Community Forum on Shared Responsibility, Toronto.

I make CBC radio programs.* When people ask me how they can get their concerns dealt with by the major media, I ask them in return if that's what they really want.

The Community Forum book you're reading now is full of excellent advice on getting into the mainstream media: how to get your news releases noticed, how to survive interviews, how to cope with that process known as “making news.” The trouble with this advice, in my view, is that it's like advice on the best way to get into jail. It's a place you don't want to be.

Many people I talk to seem to think that getting on the radio to tell their story, or getting on TV (that's the real sign of success) is an end in itself. The argument runs like this: If lots of people are exposed to an admittedly abbreviated version of what you have to say, that's useful because knowledge is power, and the more likely it is that a change for the better will occur.

I don't know any evidence to support this notion. Remember that I'm talking about the transmission of information intended to support social change through the mainstream media. There are lots of other ways to exchange information posters on telephone poles, conversations over supper, etc. that in my experience are effective. But I think trying to get into the big time is counter-productive. Mainstream media are in the business of preventing social change, and the conventions of mainstream journalism are precisely designed to do just that.

The most effective of those conventions bipolar objectivity. It's also the most deeply entrenched. It works like this: a reporter's job is to pick (or sometimes devise) two positions on an issue that can be contrasted with one another and then to present the conflict between them without appearing to support either position. This nutty process is not the kind of thing you'd ever do in real life it only happens in journalism. There are rarely two sides to anything; more commonly, there are one or 140. And rarely is any knowledgeable person neutral: we spend our lives making up our minds. Journalists, however, are supposed to either conceal personal knowledge or not to have much. This tactic of casting information about the public world in the mold of bipolar objectivity effectively prevents the receiver of that information from drawing sensible conclusions about, for instance, moral responsibility, cause and effect, or possibilities for consensus.

Conflict is the bread and butter of objective journalism. The news is so packed with stories about death and violence because, according to a CBC Radio News veteran, ``the best news is news where there is dramatic conflict.''

Everybody news not just the CBC's is fragmented and decontextualized. Stories are always condensed. There's no such thing as a story that's too short. Almost everything is thought, by editors, to be too long. On television and radio, stories are so abbreviated that everybody relies on codes and shorthand. You have assume your audience shares with you a view of who and what is good and bad. You can't take time to explain all that. So guerrillas, for example, are always bad. Strikes are bad. Destruction lends itself to quick description. Construction is very complicated as a rule and is seldom discussed in the news. Death is fast. Life is slow. As a result, the news which sets the tone for all media activity is most often about death. On average, five out of seven CBC Radio hourly news stories are about lethal conflict though by the time you read this that percentage may have been changed by an act of will on the part of some newspeople.

This matters because your news the material you want the public to know is set in the mainstream media in the context of chaos and conflict. Suppose you wanted to sell your beautiful hand-woven linen sheets to the public. Would you advertise them by carrying a placard in a Ku Klux Klan parade? Suppose you wanted to garner support for more child care centres. Would you speak about this in the midst of a rally sponsored by an organization that trains mercenaries? When you put yourself in the midst of the mass media death-orgy, that's what you're doing. I think your message is thus unavoidably contaminated; people at least subconsciously understand that the news is mostly irrelevant to their lives in addition to be being gratuitously violent. How are they supposed to be able to distinguish what you're trying to say from this background, particularly since your message will be machined into a standard shape as it passes through the media factory?

Once you notice that news is defined as conflict (see the following page), whether international or interpersonal, I think you'll be as wary as I am of using it as the medium to convey your message. I don't think you can successfully sneak your good news in among all the dismemberment and have it retain its intended meaning. I urge you to look carefully at what the news you read or look at or listen to is actually about mostly it all goes in one ear and out the other: what you notice is the way it sounds with its snappy presentation and authoritative tones, and not what it's actually about. Once you catch on to what it's about (no matter that the names and the places and the toxic chemicals change from day to day), I bet you'll decide to avoid it.

News is defined as conflict

You probably haven't noticed what the media are most interested in because you've been paying attention to what you're interested in. But if you're thinking of reaching the general public, you'd better be careful of the context. The Toronto Sun is an easy target everybody knows the Sun is addicted to crime and disorder, so this typical sample of headlines is no surprise:


But the respectable Globe and Mail shares the Sun's worldview and gives it to us via these six stories gathered under the heading
“Around the World:”


On June 23, 1985, CBC Radio News started the midnight news with this remarkable little essay:
"It appears that Canada is no longer free of the type of terrorist acts that seem commonplace in other countries. That reality struck home on Sunday with the worst air disaster at sea the world has ever seen. As rescue workers continue to pull bodies from their watery graves, the feeling is the jumbo jet was blown out of the sky by an onboard bomb... Many people are wondering if the bomb got by security either at Toronto or at a stop in Montreal, and if Canada is to blame for the almost certain death of the 329 people aboard Flight 182. But there's more Canada may also be responsible for the deaths of two baggage handlers in Tokyo..."

And here's a day picked more of less at random (it's the day I'm writing this) from The New York Times. I've underlined some words. This list is the headlines of all the stories the Times found fit to print:

Philadelphia Mayor Says He Fears "Attempts at Revenge" by Radicals
Salvador Leader, at White House, Claims War Gains
Reagan Tax Plan Seen as Mixture of Policy Change and Loopholes
House Unit Backs Democratic Plan for 1986 Budget
Soviet, Once Again, Proclaims Measures Against Alcoholism
The Nigerian Exodus: Old Rivalries Emerge
Behind Military Budget Rise: Political Aims of Lawmakers
Further Bombings Expected in India
18 Rebels Reported Slain in Sri Lanka
Japan Says Soviet Plane Has Vanished
As Ethiopians Starve, Food Rots of the Dock
Panel Votes to Expand Fund on Toxic Waste
Thai Troops Force Vietnamese Soldiers Out
Soccer Fire Witness Tells of Cigarette
Bangladeshis Vote Despite Call for Boycott
I.R.A Party in Ulster Gains Elections
A California Businessman Is Indicted in Export of Trigger Device to Israel
Israel Offers to Return Some of the Trigger Devices Usable in Making Nuclear Arms
Army in Lebanon Denies Bomb Link
U.N. Aide Freed by Beirut Captors After 36 Hours; Deal Offered on 6 Others
U.S. Cities Warning to Iran
Canadian Battle Rages Over Timbered Island
Pope Tells Belgians to Abandon "Idols" of Secularized Life
Two Malaria Vaccines to be Tested This Summer
U.S. Warns 90 Exhibitors About Terrorist Threat at Paris Air Show
NATO Ship Barred by Greece
Texas Reaches Accord to End Prison Dispute
Hunt is Widened for Two Killers Who Escaped from a U.S. Prison
Reagan Gift List: Dog and Gun
Jackson Is a Witness for Ex-Campaign Chief
Recanted Rape Case Fails to Gain Early Hearing
Miami Offender Ordered Back to Santa Monica
Army Sergeant Charged with Killing 3 in Family
Wallace Spurns Request for Extradition to Texas
Trial Starts in Fatal Fire at Theme Park
Cuomo is Applauded Often During Visit to School on L.I.
Von Bulow Jury Is Told Insulin Brought on Coma
Clergy Malpractice Lawsuit Is Dismissed Again By Judge
Berkeley Package Explodes
Philadelphia Navy Yard Against Staves Off Knife
Accounting Officer Reports Chemical War Defenses Inadequate
Radical Group's Homes Under Watch
Senators Vote to Strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act
$74 Billion Given to Charity in '84
Buchanan Sees Political Gain for Reagan Tax Plan
School Workers Seized By Police in Sale of Drugs
Experimental School for East Harlem
Liberal Party, Looking for a Lift, Is Improving Its Ties with Koch
Lawyers for Goetz to See Jury Data
Judge Refuses Bail for Brink's Figure
Psychologist Held on Sexual Charges
Cuomo Appoints a Panel to Study Issues on Aging
O'Neill Approves Budget in Hartford
Kean Adds Restrictions on Jersey Water Use
Woman in Pie Toss Gets 30 Days in Jail

If all of this hasn't made you decide to avoid the news media altogether, the following list describes what works best as mainstream news, and contrasts those characteristics with others you might like to strive for instead:

High speed
Low Speed

If you still think your work will somehow count for more if it makes news, may I urge you to read these two books, both of which have meant a lot some alternative ways of exchanging information about the public world: Jerry Mander's book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television is the most thought-provoking book about the media I've read; and Brian Whitaker's News Ltd., a book almost nobody has heard of, is written out of first-hand newspaper experience and mixes very smart analysis with vivid anecdotes.



Subject Headings

Contact Connexions

Donate to Connexions

If you found this article valuable, please consider donating to Connexions. Connexions exists to connect people working for justice with information, resources, groups, and with the memories and experiences of those who have worked for social justice over the years. We can only do it with your support.