Exploring the Impact of Media

A few hours ago, Brian Stewart delivered a most excellent keynote address at the opening of the Munk Graduate Conference 2010, the theme of which is Negotiation in the 21st Century: Diplomacy and Conflict.

As someone who joined the CBC while my parents hadn’t even graduated from university yet, I look up to him as a true media veteran. Veteran in this case being a rather appropriate word, I’d say, given his extensive wartime coverage, experiences from which he drew several lessons that he shared with us today.

However, I felt something was missing from the speech. First, however, a quick recap.

Mr. Stewart began by highlighting the differences between journalism as he knew it as a rookie and journalism as it exists today; he spoke, in particular, about the power of the television. He grew up in an era where you had to go to the theatre once a week for the news! Given this context, it seems almost incomprehensible that we now live in a world where I get news updates literally every second from my Twitter feeds.

Yet increased information hasn’t necessarily resulted in better decision making, he pointed out – although it would be logical to assume so. Misfired predictions such as the collapse of India, Pakistan, and…Canada (!) were obviously a little far-fetched, but the fall of communism and the recent economic crisis were shocking as well.

This exponential growth in information has, in fact, only led to more pressure – more problems to deal with for world leaders and decision makers, more factors affecting every decision, more ’causes’ being thrown at governments, and all of this has led to a severe lack of time! As Mr. Stewart wondered aloud – when do the politicians today have time to think? Spending all their time travelling from meetings to press conferences to briefings – when do they get the time to think and digest the unbelievable amount of information thrown at them?

One factor that has lessened the burden somewhat is the rise of the nonstate actor. The emergence of NGOs and nonprofits is a relatively recent phenomenon, and while Mr. Stewart cited them as a factor that often adds pressure, I think they do play an important role in relieving some pressure as well. At least in developing countries such as Pakistan, NGOs often play a critical role in providing services where governments often falter.

Indeed, Mr. Stewart lambasted the recent trend of criticizing relief efforts; while corruption exists everywhere, it is severely counterproductive to question organizations that are actively working for the benefit of millions. He mentioned, for example, that the media reported only that there were containers of relief goods waiting at airports in tsunami-hit areas in 2004 – but few reporters explained why the relief goods were being stored there (they were reserves, and the authorities were waiting to find out which areas needed them most before distributing them.)

The more alarming trend here, which was a theme of the keynote address, was that the media seems to be focused on simply breaking news and seems to have a short memory. Haiti, for example, rarely receives coverage anymore, despite the fact that it still needs help. There is a marked bias towards sensationalist, ‘event’-based coverage as opposed to ‘process’-based coverage, and this seems to have had an effect on policymakers as well. Mr. Stewart mentioned the confusion experienced by generals in Afghanistan over their mandate-amidst the press furor, governments have found it difficult to establish and communicate a clear doctrine over the past decade.

There are positive signs, however. The increase in the number of think tanks (such as the Munk Centre itself) and research institutions that help leaders analyze and understand global events, are playing an important role by providing ‘a calming voice’. The relatively balanced analysis that think tanks produce helps counter the exaggerated opinions propogated by the media.

So, in this entire debate about the role of the media in influencing public opinion and thus policy, there was one element that I felt was missing. The media must be held more accountable, said Mr. Stewart, but on what standards should we judge the media? It seems to me that the commercialization of the media results directly in the drive towards sensationalism – as a business, media relies upon eyeballs to drive advertising and sensationalism simply works better for them. Why isn’t the media thought of as a profit-making entity – why do we ask it to be objective and limit itself spreading information instead of acting as a ‘crusader’? There is an interesting debate to be had on the topic, I feel. What is the media? Is it a public service or is it an enterprise focused on maximizing shareholder value? On what basis should we judge the media?

The phenomenon of going to cinemas for the news may have disappeared, but perhaps today’s media is more cinematic than before – increasingly commercial, more glamorous, catering to an audience rather than objectively providing coverage. Have we progressed or regressed?

My personal (and most humble) opinion is that we have both progressed and regressed – with the expansion of media we have seen a huge rise in content, both good and bad. However, the bad content tends to dominate the headlines, and I believe social media will increasingly play an ever more important role in countering this. The trust deficit that people currently have vis-a-vis government is developing vis-a-vis traditional media (especially television) as well, and the shift in advertising revenue from television to social media reflects this. As David Eaves has pointed out, transparency=credibility in the modern world, and there is nothing more transparent than the source – which is why Twitter feeds were more valuable than CNN during the revolts in Iran last year.

As news channels lose credibility, people will turn to newer sources of information – social media provides that information, and thus is a factor that cannot be ignored. This video does a great job of highlighting the rise of social media.

Shift is happening. How do these shifts impact the role of media in public policy?

(This, by the way, is my proposed area of research as a public policy graduate student. Let’s hope the university grants me admission!)

Further reading:

The CNN Effect: www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/publications/papers/research_papers/r18_livingston.pdf

The Myth of the CNN Effect: http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/1493/1619



  1. when a news breaks in all its cinematic glory, it sets off a social spiral that lasts longer than the time for which media can focus its resources, not attention mind you,on the subject.

    media is a forum and it has to move at the rate at which our world moves, not according to what we think is worthy of footage on a social or personal scale.

    so they create the bang resulting in optimal dissemination of information, setting the stage for the social media to work through the process of it all. their job is done there. asking them to stay after that point where our social conscience should ideally take over is. well. against the natural order of things.

    very well written though, cheers.

  2. The pessimist I am, I just cant see social media adding much *value* to the information overload which already exists. In theory the whole concept of every other person being a news source seems really noble, but every other person has their biases and a highly subjective view depending upon the economic/social strata they belong to. So social media would increase the volume of information exponentially but the quality of that information would be well below par; and objectivity shall be an alien concept by then.

    The opinions generated via social media in Iran took a very parochial view, mainly an urban-upper middle class tehran view. So one just cannot generalize this for the whole of Iran. Similarly, during this whole judicial comedy that happened in the country, twitter/social media feeds were full of pseudo-revolutionary jargon; but that represented a very small portion of PK’s urban class (upper echelon urban Punjab), and not the whole of Pakistan (or even urban PK).

    Google Trends rated Sania-Shoaib as more popular than Jesus & Good Friday for a couple of days?? This was social media at play here, pretty much defeating the whole concept of objectivity/importance of news.

    I’d say social media coverage tracks whatever’s going on television; once a news is off television, its off social media as well. You can prove/disprove this via some quantitative data.

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