To what extent does news media shape our ethics and morals?

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13 January
11:27
20 January
11:52

The short answer to this question is ‘we don’t know exactly’. The longer answer requires a closer examination of the relation between news media and society. This involves concepts such as media power, audience reception and of course morals.

The thing about media power is that researchers don’t agree on how much influence the media have. If we go back to, say, the 1930s it was generally accepted among media researchers (and politicians for that matter) that the media were all powerful. Propaganda machineries had their heyday in totalitarian societies, best exemplified by Fascist and Communist states.

These countries would systematically produce propaganda to influence their populations’ sense of ethics and morals, focusing on topics such as race superiority or the evils of capitalism. For today’s viewer these news products can seem crude, but they did influence thousands if not millions of people at the time.

However, people’s understanding of news media changed and with it the perceptions of media research. As news media proliferated with the advent of TV and online media it became clear that the relation between media content and audience perception isn’t 1:1. People use news media in different ways and while some will accept the messages others will negotiate or perhaps even reject them. Some very recent and very illustrative examples of this are the British EU referendum and the US election.

Some researchers argued for an ‘agenda setting’ model where the media might not determine what we think but they do influence what we think about. In this view, ethical and moral dilemmas can be brought up by the news media but it’s up to the individual consumer to decide their own stance. Other researchers argued for a ‘framing’ model where the news media present things in certain ways to promote certain viewpoints. In this view, news media will suggest ethical and moral stances but it’s still not given that the audience will buy into them.

“The boundaries between right and wrong are constantly moving. What was right 100 years ago might be wrong today, and what was wrong then might be right now.”

What we can with some certainty say, however, is that the boundaries between right and wrong are constantly moving. What was right 100 years ago might be wrong today, and what was wrong then might be right now. Think death penalty and homosexuality. The news media play a role in drawing and redrawing the lines between right and wrong in our society by raising moral issues, identifying wrongdoers and suggesting solutions.

One of the central platforms for this is crime news. Crime plays a very small part in most people’s lives, but it still takes up a very large proportion of the news we consume. Crime news often follow the same pattern: a crime is committed, the police investigates, arrests are made, sentences are given. In that respect, crime news is rarely ‘new’. However, it can be seen as a ‘daily moral exercise’ where we as citizens get to recalibrate our moral compass and make sure we’re in line with what is acceptable and what is not.

Another way the news media can influence our ideas of ethics and morals is through moral panics. This was explored by the sociologist Stan Cohen, who explored how the mods and rockers of 1960s Britain were demonised and labelled as and public threats by the news media. To begin with these two groups weren’t much more than bored teenagers going to the seaside and getting into arguments with other groups. But as the news media picked up on the story (and dramatized it quite heavily) the panic spread and youth culture became a moral matter. It arguably still is, since young people and their habits are often criticised for being immoral.

So the longer answer says that ethics and morals are constantly negotiated and renegotiated and the news media play an important role in this. It’s impossible to put a number on it, and each individual and each social group will probably respond to news in different ways. But it’s undeniable that there is some influence. Finally, since this text is a media text, I’ve also, very subtly, incorporated some ethical and moral stances of my own in the hope that the reader will adapt them. Failing that, though, I will just have to accept that the reader is perfectly capable of making up their own mind. By the end of the day, that’s what we’ve all got to do when it comes to ethics and morality. 

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