How the media increases (in)security

GIANCARLO BOSETTI

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NATIONAL and global news outlets, in the press, on-line and on television, select information in a manner answering economic and professional criteria that depend on the nature of mass communication means and not just the cynicism of journalists and editors. These criteria usually make the world look worse than it actually is. The first in line are news programmes, so high-speed that one could better describe them as turbo-news, in which, inevitably, disagreements, clashes, conflicts and crime prevail over calm news about integration, well-being and normality. Bad news inevitably drives away the good news. There is nothing new in this and the phenomenon has not prevented democracy and peace from prospering in Europe and I believe it will not prevent this from happening in Asia as well. One coexists better with the defects of a free press than with those of a soporific press enslaved by an authoritarian political power.

That said, however, what is relatively new in the western media is the emphasis on hatred, resentment, dramatic forms of frustration and the radicalization of conflict (both political and intra-cultural), expressed in communications and in the language of politics and that of the media reporting the news. Let us take one among many recent examples: the incredible and deformed debate about the ‘so-called’ mosque at Ground Zero in New York. I underscore ‘so-called’ because, it was not a mosque that was to be built near where the Twin Towers once stood, but instead a social centre in a multi-story building with a gymnasium, a swimming pool, an auditorium and other facilities that included a prayer centre two blocks away from Ground Zero, in a city in which from one block to another, culture, folklore and religion can change radically, for example between Little Italy and China Town.

There already is a mosque nearby, but no one mentions it because in the United States a mosque, just like a Buddhist temple or a synagogue, is a normal thing and not newsworthy. But this time, a plan to create a cultural centre named after Cordoba became an opportunity for inciting hatred and sparking trouble. Christian preacher Franklin Graham believes, ‘Muslims will now consider the World Trade Centre "Islamic Territory",’ (Alexander Stille, 9 September, La Repubblica). Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in contrast, supported the Islamic Centre and defended it eloquently, speaking of religious freedom, its plurality and variety, of the spirit of openness that was attacked on 9/11. ‘It would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.’

 

The American election campaign for Congress has been dominated by this issue. President Obama also defended religious freedom, albeit hesitating to support the Islamic Centre in itself. Nevertheless, a growing percentage of Americans, almost 20 per cent among independents and almost one third of Republicans believe he is a Muslim. Alongside there are fanatical preachers who want to declare new holy wars, and there is also a minister in Florida who now and again threatens to burn the Koran in front of TV cameras, just to heat matters up, in spite of entreaties from General Petraeus, who knows the harm such a performance would cause, and has actually caused, in the Middle Eastern strategic arena.

But what is said at meetings held by American ‘tea parties’ is only one of many examples of the overall incitement of souls and radicalization in political speech. One could, for example, quote Geert Wilders, now leading the third largest Dutch political party, who proposes that Islamic immigrants should be paid to return to their countries, since they are allegedly the ‘Trojan horse’ used for the Islamization of Europe, just like other increasingly popular parties representing xenophobic radicalism in Europe.

This is not simply anti-Islamic ferment, but that of politicians seeking their fortune by investing in the fear of immigrants, be they Romanians, Poles, Africans or citizens of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Faced with a difficult governing agenda, aging populations and the need to replace the void arising from very low birth rates, in the presence of an economic crisis and close to zero growth, it becomes easier for demagogic politics to hide the truth (there is no money to finance public services, schools and social aid) and take refuge in cheap xenophobic rhetoric. It also works well with a frightened and neurotic public opinion.

In summary, the seriousness of objective problems – now more intractable than ever in the Mediterranean area with a tide of migrants, refugees, boat-people leaving from North Africa towards Europe – alongside extreme political polarization and the tendency of mass media to generate powerful feelings, results in news that has a negative effect exasperating cultural conflicts.

 

Stereotyping is an ancient phenomenon in human communications. We make progress but are never immune from it. Every time a horrific crime is committed, a young girl is raped and murdered, and for a few days the person responsible is not apprehended, we all hold our breath. If it is then discovered within Europe that the person is Albanian, Romanian or Moroccan, one must fear an emotional mass reaction. If instead it is discovered that the man is a Belgian neighbour in the suburbs of Brussels, or an uncle living upstairs in Toronto, there is a collective sigh of relief. In the first case the crime is blamed on ‘difference’, while in the second it is human nature that is blamed.

To stereotypes, the media has now added a tendency of oversimplification, to fragment and decontextualize news, which is almost unavoidable seeing the speed and superficiality of most televised news.

The explosive rapidity with which news has to be telecast has added to rising radicalism and political extremism. Polarization between friends and enemies characterizes news. In part this is due to the structural and economic crisis experienced by journalism in general. Reflective, in-depth, well-considered and ‘plain’ news is losing ground to more cursory methods aimed at winning readers and viewers. Bias is a rising ingredient in this competition, as are sensationalism, vulgar language, insults hurled at opponents and the systematic courting of a partisan audience.

Internet technology with the vast development of blogs, social networks, all kinds of one-to-one and many-to-many communications software, has increased groups’ self-selection processes. The so-called self-mass communication (Manuel Castells) provides us with precious and liberating new opportunities (especially in oppressive regimes or where other means of communication are lacking, as evident in the role of blogs and social networks in the democratic change underway in Tunisia and Egypt) but also contains traps in affluent societies. It economically weakens quality journalism, the traditional pillar of western democracies and causes the fragmentation of society’s communicative life.

 

The tendency to establish relationships between individuals sharing interests and cultural and political preferences, while beneficial, also results in a tendency to only communicate with those sharing the same ideas, thereby strengthening their beliefs and therefore exaggerating and increasing the likelihood of mistakes (Cass Sunstein, On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, Macmillan Publishers, 2009; Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford University Press, 2009). Hence, a significant encouragement for partisanship and cultivating prejudice. In democratic life, the public sphere gives its best when one can compare different positions concerning choices to be made. The internet instead tends to gather together homogeneous positions and often helps reduce opportunities for a reasonable debate between those with differing ideas. The tendency is for genuine public debate to become increasingly rare.

 

In this context the various cultural, ethnic and religious diversities become easy victims, the raw material and the target of populist politics. We have powerful forces in the media working to destroy the deliberative process, the public debate on the agenda for things to be done and they tend to exploit the fear of differences, to spread insecurity and pave the way for the creation of a populist consensus. Even within a strong democratic system such as the French, Sarkozy’s idea of deporting Romas en masse resulted in a French public debate a few levels below the democratic standard.

Alarm and insecurity prevent one from addressing the difficult issue of integration for the poorer and alienated part of the population for what it is, and as established by the European Union projects such as, ‘Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-15’. The result has been an unprecedented conflict between France and the European Commission. While the ‘responsible’ elite should emphasize the difficulties encountered, the costs and the need for non-partisan commitment on the more difficult objectives in hard times, what more frequently happens is that a desperate elite plays the fear card (and above all fear of cultural differences) to gain consensus. French legislation on the Islamic veil and the Swiss referendum on minarets are in part a result of this climate of fear.

 

Such a situation, with democratic systems accentuating the short-term view for many reasons, should impel us to consider the importance of initiatives originating outside the political circuit of parties in the stricter sense and sponsor a more reflective, mediated and less partisan attitude. This can be achieved through:

* The work of autonomous cultural centres, associations, foundations and magazines;

* The introduction of debating techniques, focus groups and deliberative polls to be valorized through an independent media;

* The promotion of well structured and independent journalism with requisite knowledge of problems, able to avoid the traps created by rhetoric and cultural stereotypes, capable of sensitizing local audiences to an awareness of other realities in a framework of inter-cultural dialogue and knowledge;

* The creation of global centres for monitoring media quality in addressing cultural differences;

* The organization of global debates, competitions and award presentations for the best achievements in the media regarding cultural relations.

For the moment there is no global public sphere and no planetary public opinion. They are both divided by national and local differences. In many countries, the worst of all evils, a lack of freedom, even prevents the existence of real national public opinion. We have, however, learned that local phenomena can have global consequences. It is thus important in a nascent global public sphere marked by conflict to be committed to lowering the temperature and containing the damage. That might help the transition towards a new, and better, season.

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