Recent media coverage of the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict has highlighted the importance of media representation and its effects on public opinion. The general opinions formed and feelings felt in response to conflicts such as that in Gaza are born not out of a balanced intake of information, but out of images, headlines and statistics provided by the media. These ‘sound bites’ are designed to simultaneously simplify a situation whilst grabbing your attention through their sensationalist slant. This dangerous oversimplification of information results in misrepresentation and distortion. Conflicts then become condensed into sound bites and images which stand singularly without the benefit of context.
Photojournalism has proved a priceless tool when it comes to reaching an audience who do not always respond to words, rousing the masses from their apathy to take action. No one can fail to escape the suffering of the Gazan people when confronted by images of desperately grieving mothers and children with half their limbs. Yet they do not provide the “hows” and “whys” which crucially form the basis for understanding. In a fraction of a second and a click of a shutter, moments in time become immortalized.
The BBC news has always sought to provide an impartial news service, however it has recently landed itself at the centre of a controversial scandal regarding its decision not to broadcast the Gaza appeal on the premise that this would make the BBC lenient to the Palestinians, proving noble ideas of “neutrality” do not make everyone happy, as the thousands of protestors in favour of the appeal attest.
Perhaps it would benefit the mass mind of society if all digested news coverage was the product of careful consideration, caution and devotion to providing the truth. However, the majority of UK citizens are aware that certain publications provide more reliable and measured information than others; yet ongoing statistics for the circulation of newspapers across the UK suggest that the most widely read publications are those which seek first to entertain and then to inform.
The shock headlines favoured by British tabloid media encourage a dangerous ignorance, where rash uninformed opinion form the basis of consequential actions. The media’s delight in perpetuating the MMR vaccine debate despite comparatively little scientific evidence supporting their claims is an example of the media favouring a story’s sensational value over its factual foundations. The response of concerned parents, in their refusal to let their children be vaccinated, demonstrates the vital influence of the media. When this influence is not carried out responsibly there is the potential for a vast variety of consequences. In the case of the MMR scare, several years since the claims were made, the consequences are now becoming clearer as levels of measles increase. Despite studies which provided evidence contrary to these claims, the media preferred not to report on them, a clear example of where the influence of the media is required to communicate scientific findings to the general public, in order to decrease ignorance and influence behaviour. In their failure to communicate the negative results of the studies, the media failed in any ethical responsibility they might have had in correctly informing the public. Disturbingly the MMR scare coverage was not limited to sensationalist tabloids but was contributed to by media institutions trusted for their usual rational and factual approach.
Unfortunately for society, media institutions are not owned and run by misanthropic social beneficiaries on a mission to educate the world in the hope they might eradicate disease and create world peace, but are ultimately run on their ability to sell. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch believes he cannot afford to attempt ethical responsibility.
Few people seem short of an opinion regarding the conflict in the Middle East, yet how many people are informed of the complex series of events between Israel and Gaza which preceded the recent bombardment? It is human nature to form an opinion from available information which is processed. The amount and quality of this information varies depending on the individual. This leads us to the problem of the ‘media and disinformation.’ When media coverage becomes overly determined by emotion, a sense of the rational is lost, and with it perhaps the ability to find solutions, with each side simply desiring the demolition of the other.
Whilst some may take great lengths to attain a balanced and informed knowledge, it is an unrealistic expectation for the majority of society. Furthermore it is debatable whether it is possible to form individual opinions, or if “individual” points of view are simply the product of the media’s ability to permeate their underlying ideologies through carefully chosen words and images. Does the necessity to select and simplify for a wide audience warrant objective reporting impossible? Amongst the recent avalanche of debate and comment surrounding Gaza within the media, it is easily apparent that personal background heavily weights an argument to one side. Natural as this solidarity is, in my opinion its expression does not always lead to rational and positive outcomes.
Caution must be taken with the information fed to us by the media, since an objective point of view is not always the aim. A picture may speak a thousand words, but perhaps another few thousand are needed to contextualise and explain the reasons behind the image.
By Charlotte Sexton