Media denotes a section or form of communication channels that is intended to get in touch with a very large audience such as the population of nation or state. Examples include newspapers, magazines, books, televisions radios and the internet. It serves various constructive purposes such as advocating both for business and social concerns, entertainment, and public service announcements. Media also has negative characteristics some of which include the inability to transmit tacit knowledge, manipulation of large groups of people through its outlets, biasness and its inability to act as peoples’ watchdog to wrongs happening in the society. The population covered by media consists of people with diversified characters, opinions, educational backgrounds, and religion. The influence of media to people in a given population- their social, political, environmental, economic and religious issues- is therefore quite variable. Social issues are matters directly or indirectly affecting many or all members of the society and may be considered as societal problems, moral degraders or both. Some examples include poverty, violence, abortion, rape and social injustice. Environmental issues on the other hand are those changes in the environmental conditions which directly or indirectly affect the society such as global warming, climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, etcetera. The media has a social and moral obligation to highlight these issues and help in mitigating them if not totally curbing them. This paper describes both negative and positive nature of the relationship between media coverage and social and environmental issues within the perceptual and contextual role of media in contemporary society. The writer assumes that media has continued to maintain a positive relationship with both social and environmental issues facing the society despite its false starts.
Man is a social being and cannot exist on his own. He has to depend on others for co-existence. This mutual relationship with others brings forth the aspect of society. Due to the fact that people are of different characters, co-existence portends social problems whose magnitudes depend on how the society copes with them. This is the point where the media comes in. Media are business entities out to make profits (Kiousis & McCombs 142). This drive leads them into selecting topics suitable in improving their business through strategies like maintaining their audience by appealing to them. This fact has been stressed further by the agenda setting theory of media which claims that media does not direct people into what to think, but what to think about (Kiousis & McCombs 142). This role conflicts with media as a watchdog to and an instrument of fighting social norms. Some social issues which may have a more significant impact on the society are not reported extensively whereas others which may not be as important or even negative to societal existence are reported accurately with extensive coverage or sensation resulting in moral panic.
Mass media, especially television, has also contributed to some social evils like violence through broadcast of programs which are violent in nature like wrestling or episodes of unnecessary wars. The effect of this has been found to affect severely the children and the youth as depicted in the media’s effect cultivation theory. This theory, developed by George Gerbner, has in its fundamental claim that persistent long-term exposure to television content has little but measurable effects on the perceptual worlds of audience members (Entman 121-122). Gerbner further claims that heavy television viewing creates an exaggerated belief in a “mean and scary world” and that television has surpassed religion as the key storyteller of our culture (Carrie & Bonds 56). The theory is most famous for its applications to the correlations between media violence and violent behavior and according to Gerbner, the children, elderly, African-Americans, Latinos, women and the less educated are often the victims of television violence (Bryant & Zillman 46-7). Television is not a reflection of the world but a world in itself and a kind of modern day religion that affects every aspect of social life of its audience. People cultivate perceptions of reality by television, meaning that they make assumptions about others, places and things from fictional sitcoms, soap operas, dramas and television news all of which have direct impact on social decisions and actions (Gerbner et al, 17-40). From fictional sitcoms, people tend to take the fiction in them seriously and even go to an extent of reflecting them on their life. From soap operas, they take the stage acting as a real life situation; many envying to live the ‘movie superstar’s life’ forgetting that it is only stage managed. Dramas have similar effects too while the effect of the news is variable depending on its content and area of coverage. For instance, news showing people striking or demonstrating for their rights ends up spreading the message that striking and demonstrating are the solutions to oppression and decaying societal morals. If such news receives countrywide coverage, mass revolts may be opted for instead of conventional democratic processes and political dialogues.
The repetitive nature of mass-produced messages and images forms the conventional symbolic environment that people base their perceptions on. For example, most of television programs are commercially designed to be watched by nearly everyone in a moderately nonselective fashion. This design is aimed at widening the target audience. Newsprints and radio programs may also have the same strategy. These strategies cultivate the very predispositions and preferences that used to be acquired from other primary sources like parental counseling and are largely contributed by the continuous absence of parents to preoccupy their children with other activities and to monitor their habits of utilizing the mass media. Children who watch violent television programs like wrestling end up being violent and aggressive in schools (UCLA Center for Communication Policy par 2-14). Later in life, they become more prone to being on the wrong side of law. They grow seeing incidences of violence in these programs whose effects are gradual. At first, they may not be influenced much but as time elapses, they unconsciously start engaging in violence when faced with some situations since their minds are already preformed to think that violence can solve problems better. In fact, in 1993, at a conference of the National Council for Families and Television, it was estimated that 10% of the violence in the United States result from television viewing (UCLA Center for Communication Policy par 2-14). Television violence incidences forms a necessary part of plot and character development accurately portraying real life and it is responsible for actual violence in society, a diehard social issue in many societies.
Social moral decadence has also been compromised to some extent by the media. When the society gets exposed to some other cultures through the mass media, their moral values become affected. This effect is more rampant in developing countries in the East and in Sub-Saharan Africa where western culture has been of great influence to the youth propagated by the mass media whose coverage extends that far. Western hip-hop music which seems to glorify social evils like adultery, demeaning the feminine as sexual pet, fornication and use of vulgar language is of great impact to the youths who tend to give a try to whatever they hear or see. Evidently, the youths’ modes of dressing have changed from decent wear to scanty clothes whereas cases of premarital pregnancies have been on the rise ostensibly perpetuated by glorification of sex. To this effect the media which is supposed to be the societal guider in maintaining morals and preventing social evils, acts contrarily by promoting them.
The role of media in propagating environmental issues is an area of concern to many who view it as a champion of societal good. Media coverage has in many instances failed in sensitizing environmental issues facing the society such as global warming, climatic change and resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, pollution, land degradation and global dimming. Instead of having enlightening coverage of the issues, they make them a liberal versus conservative or science vs. scientific hype issues (Boykoff & Boykoff par 1-10). Instead of doing analysis, they drive the issues into political discussions, because they draw better media ratings from making politics out of virtually everything that is contentious.
Environmental issues are real and usually find their way into the media, but only in ways that are not so important. They are relegated to the periphery of importance compared to all other topics of media coverage (Kester, 2008). Most media channels do not comprehend the consequences of environmental relapse until the society is faced with them in such a way there is a radical change in the lifestyles of the people. This reflects the fact that many modern journalists find environmental issues unrealistic and not worthy of descriptions that endear journalists to their clients. The old aspirations of journalists to report societal ills and imbalances are equated with words like “fairness,” “accuracy,” “balance,” “comprehensiveness” and “truth” only if these describe the more important aspects of news coverage of which environment is not as appealing until its issues are grave.
In terms of arising issues, journalists are taught to abide by the norm of balance; identifying the most prevailing, widespread positions and then telling “both” sides of the story. Balance aims at attaining neutrality. It requires that reporters present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention. Balanced coverage does not, however, always mean accurate coverage. In terms of environmental issues, “balance” may allow skepticism. Many skeptics most of whom have vested interests in environmental issues or are not able to appreciate environmental responsibility opting for other forms detrimental to it, use every coverage opportunity to take control of the media (Boykoff & Boykoff par 1-10). This is exemplified in the case where carbon based industries fund environmental skeptics to come up with theories contradicting the known causes of global warming in a desperate move to keep themselves in business.
On the positive, media coverage can be praised for its efforts in counteracting some social and environmental issues. Mass media coverage promotes civic education to the society; teaching people about their civic rights and enabling them to understand their leaders and the government better (Anderson & Meyer 67). Through such coverage, social issues such as injustice, suppression of human rights, social or gender discrimination and affirmative action have been well and clearly highlighted in the society promoting democracy and a unified community whereby all people are equal as per the provisions of their country constitutions. Without civic education, people fail to know their constitutional rights and are likely to be oppressed.
Media comes first as the most trusted institution by many people even before judiciary or the government in contemporary society. Due to this, mass media has for a long time been the people’s watchdog; monitoring the government and its agents, other agencies and peer journalistic establishments in their activities. As a result, social issues like corruption have been reduced in places where effective media exist.
Nowadays, people have become busy in their jobs and businesses thereby giving little regard to social development of their children on issues like sex education and drug control. This can also be attributed to the fact that some parents fear their children reaction when they initiate these topics. Mass media has been left as the only tool for teaching these topics on a neutral ground evidential in many counseling programs in media broadcasts. Counseling programs do not only benefit the children. Parents also have their share on late night programs which target societal issues like marriages, sex education, societal relationships and politics. In so doing, media coverage helps in providing the necessary information to them on these topics and thus mitigating the long term effects of such societal issues.
Media also has played its role as a gatekeeper; mediating the flow of messages by incorporating a diverse and unbiased range of political perspectives and social actors. Through this role, the media facilitates conflict managements which are serious social issues facing many countries. For example, the resigned acceptance in Russia, ethnic violence in Kenya and protests in Turkey and Mexico, the political turmoil and cholera crisis in Zimbabwe, the middle east crisis and many more.
Mass media as people’s watchdog has been monitoring government concern toward environment by covering its environmental crusades and since the government needs to appeal to its citizens, it has continually intervened in instances where environmental degradation threatens the very comfort of its citizens. This has somewhat minimized most environmental crises around the world. Media coverage on environmental issues like draughts, pollution and environmental degradation has helped to highlight areas of the environment that are seriously affected. This coverage attract the attention of ‘would be problems solvers’ like the non governmental organizations (NGOs) or community based organizations (CBOs) and other advocates of environmental sanity and sustainability who could not have known the magnitude of the problems had the media not highlighted them. The extensive coverage of the mass media in almost all regions is due to the fact that most media houses have reporters based at grass root levels and who are primary witnesses of devastating societal disregard for environmental responsibility, circumstances that they sometimes report with a passion.
During crises like droughts, famine or any other serious environmental or social issue, media coverage plays a significant role in organizing well wishers who are ready to help in such situations. As an example, following the recent draughts and escalating prices of consumer goods early this year, Kenyan media houses hit international news headlines by organizing one of the most successful campaign of its kind in history dubbed Kenya in twenty four hours, whereby well able citizens dropped off food donations at strategic points during the stipulated twenty four hours. These donations were later forwarded to specific NGOs for distribution. In such a case, media coverage played an important role in highlighting the plight of the less fortunate and organizing the citizens towards their rescue.
The role of media coverage on social and environmental issues remains central to its measure of strength in serving the society. The population covered by media consists of people with diversified characters, opinions, educational backgrounds, and religion and thus the influence of media on them varies as a function of how effective the coverage is the kind of media in use and what the journalists consider profitable and appropriate for its client audience. Media has negative as well as positive characteristics. Its negative characteristics are exemplified in its inability to transmit tacit knowledge, manipulation of large groups of people through its outlets, biasness and its inability to act as peoples’ watchdog to wrongs happening in the society while on the positive, media acts as the watchdog on social and environmental enlightener and as a gatekeeper to societal virtues. Evidences adduced herein suggests that, in reality, the show of media systems frequently fall far short of lofty desires, with important costs for the workings of the civic sphere and the general society. Whereas the media has faltered in many instances in its core coverage roles, it is also important to note that it has continue to maintain a positive relationship with both social and environmental issues facing the society.
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