Media enjoys a seemingly bidirectional relationship with the public, who both influence and are manipulated by the way news is presented. Ostensibly objective, the media attempts to present a controversial topic from different angles in order to allow readers to formulate their own opinion about the stories which are reported. Furthermore, in many democratic systems, it is the role of the media to keep the public aware of what those in positions of power are doing with their authority. Unfortunately however, news reports can be controlled and manipulated by media figures, be it from a governmental source or by their backers, causing the tone, description, and amount of coverage to form a single narrative that conforms to set of standards and is biased towards a particular view.
This notion is exemplified by the recent coverage of the beheading of Western journalists by IS militants, reported to have been used as a propaganda weapon to compensate for the military losses they are suffering due to western air strikes. Albeit gruesome, the beheadings are a way of creating an impression of victory in order to demoralize their enemies and frighten the world into submission. In this way, through the creation of stories which are dangerous to report and sickening to read, the persecution of journalists has a particular insidious impact. In addition, media representations of Government officials and political parties have a direct impact on voting behaviour and amount to huge shifts in public opinion, as highlighted through the changing perception of the outcome of the Scottish referendum based on information received via the media.
Historically, warfare around the world has generated controversy over the role of media in covering international affairs. Disputes about media coverage have led to the exposure of the juxtaposition between the political impact of reports on public opinion and the media’s concern with rapid communication of news. Furthermore, the preoccupation of states with military matters, also conflicts with the political assumptions of a full disclosure of information. The role of national agendas within national media, compounded by the denial of physical access to combat sites, has in the past rendered journalists unable to report objectively and accurately on military issues. The Vietnam War is a significant example of this notion, as a “credibility gap” was allowed to develop between the negative media coverage and the more optimistic official announcements, resulting in a growing rejection of the Government’s handling of the war.
More recently, media representations of the struggles in Iraq and Syria have resulted in introducing the British public to the radical extremism of Islamist militants, causing an increasing number of people to convert to Islam. In addition, these reports have led to a polarization of opinions about Islam, and other religious beliefs, which alienates both atheists and non-radical devout Muslims in the UK.
The media has a direct impact on the values we hold, the beliefs we harbour and the decisions we make. We must remember, therefore, that the information presented to us is subject to a number of filters, under the control of a “gatekeeper” who regulates the flow of information. When “gatekeepers” exercise values such as transparency and honesty, the result is targeted and objective information, otherwise gatekeeping can be used for personal gain and can result in the distortion of public perception.