Dunne Speaks: The Danger Of Trusting Superficial Media
The unravelling of Britain’s Royal Family being brought about by the continuing revelations from Prince Harry about his upbringing and the way the “firm” reacted to his new wife and son continue to attract attention around the world. It seems to matter not whether one is a monarchist or republican – natural prurience is keeping enough people lapping up the stories for media outlets to keep seeking more and more from the disgruntled but seemingly eagerly obliging Prince to keep the gossip alive.
Whatever else one may think about it, the issue raises the interesting question of the extent of the public’s right to know personal details about the lives of those in prominent public positions. The general rule-of-thumb so far has been that the public right to know extends only as far as those details impact upon the person’s ability to carry out the functions required by their position.
Short of that, as Prince Harry’s case demonstrates, the public is often subjected to all manner of trivial and silly details about a public figure’s private life, their likes and dislikes and much other nonsense via magazines and soft media stories in some strange act of national titillation. Over the last year or so, this ritual has reached new heights, or probably more accurately, plumbed new depths. For many it is just harmless, trivial fun, to be taken with a grain of salt, scoffed at over morning coffee, and then put aside.
But, aside from the coffee table diversions, there is a more serious and concerning point about all this banality. New research by international media monitoring firm Isentia based on thousands of media reports about leaders and leadership in the past year shows that what the media say about leaders and their leadership is not only critical to their popularity, but more importantly, their perceived trustworthiness and effectiveness. In other words, perception rather than performance has now become the key to evaluating effectiveness.
To make things even more bizarre, many other surveys are currently recording declining trust in news media credibility. So, we have this extraordinary situation where the public seems to lap up every detail about our public figures’ private lives, however trivial, fatuous or salacious, as solid fact that the news media they distrust dishes up. Yet, weirdly, they then base their assessments of these public figures’ trustworthiness and effectiveness on this information!
It is a situation ripe for political exploitation and manipulation, whereby “soft and nice” stories about community and national political and other leaders are offered by their media managers to media outlets, with the dual expectation in return that not only will the stories be published, but also that their warmth will influence the way the media portrays their person in other more challenging situations. We have seen many examples of this over the last couple of years.
There is another more worrying aspect to all this. Given declining trust in media credibility, what confidence can we have that the media will look beyond the froth when it comes to serious stories about the way our leaders are doing their jobs. Does the false intimacy all the soft stories engender mean that the media is no longer willing to probe more deeply than the superficial when harder issues arise about what our leaders have been up to?
We are often told a fearless and unfettered news media is an important democratic safeguard. Although the relationship between politicians and the media has always been symbiotic, for obvious reasons, it has generally been considered that each should hold to its own corner. But is that still true, given the Isentia findings, or has the media now become the politicians’ captive plaything, incapable of running critical stories that might negatively impact on public perception? If so, what implications does that have for an open society’s right to know the evidence, as well as to be critically informed?
As recent events in New Zealand and elsewhere confirm, the obsession with soft and trivial stories is becoming too overwhelming – in an age of so many other choices people are increasingly turning to media that run the stories they like. Those stories, rather than the facts behind them, often become the new truth that contorts public perception and opinion accordingly. The distinction between hard news, which can sometimes be unpleasant and challenging, and soft stories presenting people in the best light to shape favourable public impressions of them is becoming significantly blurred.
However, a properly informed electorate remains the key to a functioning democracy. The news media still has a vital role in ensuring that people have full, meaningful and accurate information on which to base their political preferences, especially at election time, or even at times of great national crisis. For that reason alone, countering the increasing focus on trivia at the expense of what matters and the media pliancy that can give rise to, is posing a serious challenge all open and democratic societies need to confront.