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The Media: Reflecting or Shaping the Culture?


Over the past week or so I have been watching with some interest the public reaction to a publicity stunt conducted by one of the morning radio shows here in Sydney. This particular programme has a history of stunts that are designed to both entertain and shock its audience. The details of this most recent stunt are unimportant for the purposes of this article.


However, given the public reaction of condemnation (which seems to be almost unanimous), I find myself pondering the question, "Does the media simply reflect public values and ethics or does it, to some significant degree, actually shape them?" I suspect that the answer is, "both".


In this particular case, the culprits engineered a stunt that they knew would push the boundaries of acceptable decency. But the reaction of condemnation caught them entirely by surprise. My guess is that they failed to realize that our society is more conservative than they expected.


From the point of view of the society or culture generally, I believe that the programme and, in particular, the stunt itself acted as something of a mirror and we didn't like what we saw. That stunt crossed a line and we cried out, "Enough is enough!"


That 'line' which marks out what is acceptable and what is not acceptable is anything but clear in today's society. Yet there was a time (wasn't there?) when the line was sharp, clear and unmistakable. We talked about issues and values in terms of black and white, true or false, right or wrong. While we may not be able to see the line clearly these days, we have an innate sense when it has been crossed. That's what happened this last week.


We may not be able to tell ourselves exactly where that line is with regard to this radio stunt but we just know that what happened was wrong. In that sense, the media reflected values that it thought were now part of our Aussie culture and value systems.


But in another sense, this same media pushed the boundaries of values and, in so doing, was contributing to the shape of our culture. The power of the mass media to inform (reflect) is a great gift to us all - if it informs truthfully and objectively. But the power of that same media to influence (shape) is almost terrifying. In the hands of manipulative owners (be they media barons or political parties), the media has the power to control whole nations if they so choose.


To be honest, if there is one area in our society about which I am particularly cynical, it is the area of the media. I just don't trust the media. I don't trust them to be accurate as they report a particular story. I don't trust them to be objective and simply give us the facts without having to slant them in some specific direction of interpretation.


Over the years I've observed that, in any story where I have known the details first hand, the media has never got all the facts right. That might be because of sloppy, careless reporting. But it might also be because those reporting have their own prejudices and agendas as they try to shape our thinking, our beliefs and our behaviour.


The lesson? Just because something is reported on the TV news or appears in a newspaper does not mean that we have been given all the facts or that the particular story has been reported objectively. We often challenge people for being too critical. However, the media is one area where I would encourage us all to be more critical!

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