Thursday, December 1, 2011

How the Media Shape Your Perceptions of World Affairs

Just this month, The University of Fairleigh Dickinson has published its research which purports that Americans who watch Fox News Television know little than people who do not watch news at all; with some Fox Viewers thinking that the United States is the one bailing out the economically embattled Greece and some failing to correctly point that Egyptians successfully overthrew their government, (PublicMind, 2011).  Last year, the University of Maryland found that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed (Mirkinson, 2010) – there must be something about Fox News that trickles down to the viewers: Media effects. Media does things to its audiences - things that manifest in the opinions, attitudes, knowledge and world view. Specific media seem to have unique influences on their audiences; it is in this light that this paper will explain how media shape the audiences’ perceptions of world events.

Most of the people know things via the media and further to that most of these people believe what the media churn out to a greater extent, some even take it as well balanced gospel truth (Carron, 2010). This last part is unfortunately not what is on the ground. Every story is told from an angle, either the journalists’, the advertisers’, the politician’s, the source’s or the media house’s and as filmmaker and journalist Ruth Broyde Sharone said at a UN roundtable in Geneva in 2008; “there is no truly neutral story or truly objective story, every story is told through the eyes and ears of whoever is covering the story…”  (Broyde Sharone, 2008)

Psychologists such as Bandura (1976) with his bobo doll experiment, Silver et al (1969) and Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967) all support the fact that social learning- where audiences copy what models do – happens. This is supportive of the fact that Television can influence people since many people are increasingly depending   on media for not just gratification but also surveillance and interpretation among other uses (Wiener et al 2003:593 and Dominick, 1994).

Apart from the social learning theories, the media can also influence audiences in a number of ways such as priming, agenda-setting, framing and cultivation (CommGap, 2009: 2-3).
Priming is when media text trigger recalling of stored ideas, knowledge, attitudes and experience related in some way to the media message at hand. An example of priming would be when one recalls a trip to the Caribbean when the ‘Jamaica’ is mentioned on television. Media houses remind audiences of a lot when they mention 9/11, Tiananmen Square and Berlin Wall an effect that can be used to subtly alter opinion on some issue.

Agenda-setting is when the media influences what people think about via the choice of which topics to cover and what things to emphasize. It’s the editors and the journalists that decide what to leave out or what to include in the news casts and in so doing they champion certain things – a good example would be right after Sept. 11, CNN repeatedly ran the Saira Shah documentary, "Behind the Veil," against the Taliban to raise public support for then President Bush's plan to go to war in Afghanistan (Koolbreeze, 2011).

The other way in which media influence people is via the concept of framing – frames are the particular treatment or “spin” an individual media organisation gives to a text. Unlike agenda-setting which is about choosing what to tell the audience, framing is about how to tell that which has been chosen. Frames may “promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation,” (CommGap, 2009:2).  In 2006, controversy erupted when a Reuter’s photographer was found to have altered a photograph of burning Beirut to make it seem as if the Israeli bombing  was grave (BBC, 2006). This is a classic example of framing – Adnan Hajj- the photojournalist, was trying to raise a case for Hezbollah, to draw sympathy to Beirut via Photoshop and for any normal being, seeing a dark smoke from a city would easily have caused them to react with concern. Media has power to influence, it can raise or lower support for an issue of person via coverage and non-coverage (Zaller, 1999:164)

The media also cultivates beliefs. Since George Gerbner’s work back in the 70s it’s not very difficult to see the effects of television and cultivation especially after watching a horror movie, it’s as if the world becomes filled with zombies and usually the walk to the bedroom after the movie is a scary one. Cultivation is where heavy consumers of media text start believing that the real world is similar to the television world. Ask any man on the streets about African Americans and he will speak of Hip Hop and crime, a view which has been cultivated via television - which through its repeated portrayal of Blacks as rappers and criminals has made that view stick on. The same can be said of Muslims- the really typical ones; with beards and robes, sitting next such a man on a plane and then seeing him play with a black smartphone really works up one, it’s as if the phone is a detonator and that the guy is a terrorist- a stereotype being scaffolded by the media- through movies television newscaster’s emphasis on terrorism images/stories. And as Peterson and Steen (2002:250) state: “Television’s proclivity for ruminating in its news coverage compounds a tendency to magnify stories of violence in a self-serving way that may slant factual presentation… Unfortunately, the distortions in permanence and pervasiveness that serve the interest of the networks do not serve the best interests of young viewers who may adopt the pessimistic explanatory style to which they are repeatedly exposed.
When the Twin Towers were struck in the US, it was as if evil was let loose, the world felt so in danger, stepping on a public bus was a risk and images of death kept ringing in many a television viewer’s head, but really it was just like any other day, the media chose to speak about it and the rest of the world started discussing it. Another example would be the research in the USA where when media talked about medicine and climate, public opinion on drugs and climate was high and the figures slumped according when the media dropped the topics (ChallengingMedia, 2006)

The influx of Vietnam War movies in the 90’s is a good example of how media can help shape audiences’ perception of world events.  To this day many Malawians can still be heard saying that the United States army is not to be played with, that one of its soldiers is capable of doing what can take many Malawian soldiers- such sentiments are obviously Bye Bye Vietnam, Cross Bone Territory, Platoon Leader and Missing in Action speaking. The movies did a public relations function for the Americans who are said to have struggled with the Viet Cong at the end of the 70’s, instead there stands a flowery picture painted about the war with of course America winning it with the smallest effort and manpower possible.

The same can be said of the Iraq invasion by the United States in 2003. Many Americans supported the war because by watching news outlets like Fox and CNN, they were made to believe that Iraq was supporting Al Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon program on-going somewhere in his tightly guarded lairs. Many thought the invasion was justified, but it was only because the sources the media used when talking about the war (Agenda-Setting), the headlines associated with the conflict. Most 24/7 US cable networks tended to provide highly sanitized views of the war. These networks rarely showed Iraqi causalities Arab outrage about the war, global anti-war, anti- U.S. protests, and the negative features of the war; they only tended pro-military patriotism, propaganda, technological fetishism, celebrating the weapons of war and military humanism, highlighting the achievements and heroism of the U.S. troops (Carron, 2010).

Back in Malawi, President Mutharika keeps emphasizing on why online journalists should not write negative stories because he knows that the opinion of the donors can rely solely of the news reports, this is also why Kamuzu verbally attacked Mkwapatira Mhango who was filing reports to international media, he knew that as long as no international media knew about his dictatorship, his image would remain unscathed in the eyes of the donors.

The Chinese also bemoaned the bad newspaper coverage of their nationals by Malawian newspapers; it was all to avoid changing the public opinion. This effect is exactly the same as that which the average American has about Africa; they tend to think of Africa as some kind of jungle with as much game as men. It’s all because they draw their knowledge from movies, books and information about Africa that is not even authored by Africans.

In Summary, it can be said that as in the case of the Iraq Invasion that if one views Al Jazeera they would likely have an Arab centric view of the war and those on the side of Fox News would have another, it all proves that media shape audiences perception of world events. The media does this by way of its agenda-setting position, by framing, by priming and by cultivating beliefs. The media, which according to Stuart Hall are vehicles of those in power, take advantage of the fact that audiences trust them to sell the same unsuspecting audiences ideology.

 Things happen in the world, yes. People are intelligent, yes. After all is said and done, the media has to be recognised for shaping people’s perceptions of world events to a larger extent by way of the afore-discussed ways.


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Broyde Sharone, Ruth (2008) UN Roundable [sic] on Media's Influence on World Events [video] retrieved on 30/11/11 from URL:

Carron, Francine (2010) A Content Analysis of “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War” by Kull, Ramsay and Lewis [online article] retrieved on 21/11/11 from URL:

ChallengingMedia (2006) Constructing Public Opinion [video] viewed on 30/11/11 from URL:

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Dominick, J,R, (1994), The Dynamics of Mass Communication, McGraw-Hill, Anthens

Koolbreeze, Angus (2011) How Does TV Convey Information & Influence Public Opinion? [online article] retrieved on 30/11/11 from URL:

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Peterson, C and Steen, T ‘Optimistic Explanatory Style’ quoted in Snyder, C and Lopez, S (Editors) (2002) Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford: OUP

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Weiner, I, Lerner, M and Millon, T (Eds) (2003) Handbook of Psychology (Vol. 5) New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons

Zaller, John (1999) A Theory of Media Politics: How the interests of politicians, journalists and citizens shape the news, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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