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:: 07 the future of Countries & Democracies
Mass media and democracy crisis
07 the future of Countries & Democracies    5/27/2003 4:15:54 PM

I read in a newspaper recently that women are imported into the European Union where they are forced to work in the sex industry, and that this trade amounts to 500,000 women each year. This slave trade is alleged to be the biggest illegal industry next to drugs and weapons trade. Now, this was written in one of the most serious quality newspapers in Denmark. But since the number seemed incredible, I decided to make some simple calculations. No matter how I turned the numbers, there weren't enough customers for all these prostitutes, even if every man over the age of 18 visited them once a week. It turned out that this implausible figure has circulated for years, and has been echoed by news media all over Europe and even in America, and that politicians and official organizations have cited it.

Now, journalists are supposed to select the news for us according to criteria such as importance and reliability. But obviously, there must be other selection criteria at work here. Some politicians and organizations may have an interest in exaggerating the extent of the problems. Maybe they even have to exaggerate in order to get attention. Another selection criterion is political correctness: Nobody dares to deny the claims for fear of being accused of being against the good cause. But the most evident selection criterion is, of course, that the newspapers need a new sensation on the front page every day to boost their sales, and preferably something with sex and violence.

Evidently, the mass media have a large influence on society and political life. But it is not obvious what role distorted media stories like this one have in the larger picture of social processes.

The purpose of the present article is to explore the larger causal chain, of which distorted media stories is only one link. What are the factors that influence the selection and shaping of media stories? And how do the resulting media stories in turn influence the social and political structure of modern society? Obviously, many different scientific disciplines will have something to say about these processes. The present article explores several different disciplines for what they might contribute to illuminate these important processes, and attempts to combine the very diverse contributions into a whole picture. The presentation must by necessity be somewhat terse. Indulging too much into the details of each separate discipline would make the text exceedingly voluminous and unsuited for an interdisciplinary readership. The reader is referred to the references for details about particular theories.

Consequences of media news selection
At first thought you may think that media exaggerations and focus on bad news is no big problem: After all, we are media consumers and we want to be entertained. We are all buying the good stories and we get what we pay for. But the situation looks much more serious if you consider the consequences to society as a whole.

The messages we receive are shaped in particular formats that are dictated by the technology and economic structures that govern a particular medium of communication. This has a remarkable influence on the political life, according to studies of symbolic interactionism (Altheide 1995).

More specifically, the media have a crucial influence on our perception of risks and dangers (Kone & Mullet 1994). It is therefore obvious that the exaggeration of a social problem can lead to inappropriate prioritizations. For example, a heated debate about the dangerousness of asbestos has forced the authorities in Denmark and certain other countries to spend huge amounts of money on removing this material, even though experts said that it was better to leave the asbestos where it was. The same money could have provided much more health improvement had it been applied elsewhere (Høj & Lundgaard 1989). Even more absurd is the amount of money spent on fighting the mad cow disease in Europe.

But the media excesses do more than this; they shape people's worldview. The intense focus on everything that is dangerous makes people believe that the world is more dangerous than it really is. And most of the time we are afraid of the wrong things. A bizarre and unusual sex crime can get full media coverage even if it takes place on the opposite side of the Earth, while other trivial, but much more relevant, dangers like traffic accidents, smoking, and unhealthy life style are considered much less newsworthy. The consequence is that we spend resources on protecting ourselves against dangers that are extremely unlikely to affect us, all while the much bigger everyday risks are ignored (Glassner 1999, Altheide & Michalowski 1999).

The full article can be downloaded here.

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