The media play a massive role in our Western society and in deed in many areas of the world. We take for granted the notion that the news will be told to us at regular times through means of our television or through the choice of news papers available for us to purchase. Even to the point that we can choose what type of news paper we read. Whether it be a respected paper such as The Times or a tabloid such as The Sun. So have we always had this excess of media in our lives? For in today’s society it is hard to get away from.
The first mass audience was reached through means of our televisions which first became available in the 30’s, however throughout world war two the development was put on hold. The television made it possible for people to become entertained and informed in their own home. It also allowed the broadcasters to reach a mass audience with little effort. This idea held huge possibilities and the power of television was realised. The masses could be reached easily and this would enable us as consumers to be informed about world events and start the nation’s ‘love’ of the news.
Living in today’s society years on, it would be impossible to imagine not having accessibility to the news whether it be local or world events. But the question now posed is if this is a negative desire? In an ideal situation the news would be available to everyone and would give a real and true interpretation of the event in question, but it is very debateable to whether this happens any of the time; This is the argument of Baudrillard and others such as Thomas and Marx and it leads them to believe that the media as it stands now within society has too many negative aspects to be considered a positive thing.
As highlighted in the title question it is the idea of what is real and what truth is that poses the problem. In today’s culture we are not often offered the original. By this I mean that a lot of things which we experience are not first hand, with all that the media and our consumer orientated society offers us it is hard to find the true experience. Something that happens on the other side of the world can be made to feel more real than a local issue in the local news paper because of our constant exposure to the world’s events through television and newspapers.
In this essay I will look into Baudrillard’s reasons for his accusations regarding the media, using his theories relating to the media in past and current events. In the title question Baudrillard highlights the two objectives that he feels the media should portray, the real and the truth. In order to comment on whether the real and the truth are portrayed in the media it is important to establish is what meant by these two words. The idea that something is real would give the impression that, it happened, in some sense and the event which happened influenced people and caused a reaction.
The media do not report on events that do not happen, so does this make them all real? It is suggested by Cubitt that our perception of what is real is in fact dictated by the media. We see the news on our televisions as images that are pieced together by the media to create a ‘story’, which is in a sense real but may not have happened in the exact way in which we are presented with. Cubitt uses the example of the Titanic and its media attention, the sinking event was portrayed he believes as a ‘sceptical’ not for the horror that it was.
He states that this is the melodramatic nature of the media the real is not presented but a version that has the effect required by the media. He commented on the coverage of the disaster as being regarded as a spectacle; “The spectacle is capitally accumulated until it becomes an image” By this I feel Cubitt means the true importance of the event was overthrown by the desires of the media to report their view of events. In this case and many others the event was real, it happened, but the real story may not have been told in a way that best portrays it, as this is not the media’s main objective.
So can this argument be generalised to all areas of the media? Thompson believed that many aspects of our lives hold surreal aspects and most events that take place are then shown differently by the media, making them an interpretation of the truth and not the truth. He referred to this as mediated experiences, events that are distanced, the experience we have of an event through the media differs greatly from the actual event. This causes a clash of context for the viewer and all experiences then lose their originality. Thompson felt that in extreme cases mediated experiences and life experiences can be confused.
And therefore leading to an effect on how we see reality. An example he uses is from Woolley who described an experience as a witness to a train crash. At the time and in the confusion he was unsure about the experience and it was not until later when he saw the event on the television news that he was able to give a name to what he had seen. This shows that the media play a massive role in the way we view experiences and label them. The truth was witnessed by the onlooker but he needed the media version to make sense of his experience, even though the version he needed was not real in the true sense of the word.
Baudrillard agreed with Thompson on this point and felt that this is a negative aspect of the media and that it made us as consumers confused about what is true life and hence what is real. In order to argue and highlight this point he used the example of the media coverage of the Gulf War. There was much media coverage of the episode and this enabled us to see the events which took place on our televisions. But the images we were shown by the media were heavily edited; Baudrillard refers to this as the media making the war into a ‘dimension of cinema’.
It became so surreal that even the men and women involved in the conflict were unsure of the real situation and only aware of the media version. A pilot in this war was quoted as saying “it was just like the movies” proving the point that reality is easily lost when the truth and what is real are so unclear. Another pilot when asked if the war was justified seamed unsure of the question and replied “the less you see of the real world the more control you have over your aircraft”. This again shows that Baudrillard’s opinion holds some truth the media can play a huge role in the masses perception of the truth.
So the question then becomes whether the media do this on purpose? In the opinion of Baudrillard and the other theorists mentioned as well as thinkers such as Marx, this is the sole determinate of the media; to confuse the masses and control the way in which we as consumers view what is true and what is real. By not being in touch with what is real it is hard to hold a valid opinion on a subject, and hence act on something that is important. In order to question this view we can look at the ways in which the media react to recent events.
An important recent event that showed the media’s ambiguity was the war in Iraq. The mass population of the United Kingdom was against the invasion of Iraq and when the war officially started there was massive media coverage, we were told by the media that we as viewers could gain a real insight into the war and that it’s reality would be shown in all it’s horror. But was this the case with conflicts even within the media, news paper The Sun printed tabloids with expressions such as “Support our Boys” where papers such as The Independent took a more left wing approach and did not support the war.
There was not a news bulleton that did not mention the war or a news paper without a story, but how much of this was true? The images we were shown did portray the horror to some extent; the loss of life, whole towns and villages destroyed, the helplessness of the Iraqi people but with all this we never fully aware of the full situation. We can only question what had been edited and what was propaganda. War and propaganda have always gone together hand in hand in our history we must only look to the horrors of Nazi Germany to be reminded of its consequences. This may be the reason for the public call for justification of the war even now.
The government has been questioned by the media about it’s integrity during these events and we are now offered independent television programs about the ‘truth’ regarding Iraq. Although this ‘truth’ is presented to us through the media it is still a questionable source of information. We live in a world that enables us to learn about things and experience cultures and events from the comfort of our own homes though the media coverage. This fact alone can not be seen as a negative. It is always positive to learn about the world in which we live and how things affect our societies and in deed our world.
It is not our acquisition of news that poses the problem for Baudrillard, just that if we are to be exposed to world events then we should be able to view them in a manner that does not change the original event or creates a new fabricated event, he is quoted as saying: “It is not that the media can show us an event it is that they can completely change it” It does not seem that is was the case with any of the examples given in this essay and in deed any issue within the media. Even different news papers will tell the same story in a different way using chosen photographs to back up their view of event or their take of the situation.
A recent example of this is in the lead up the American election, a picture was printed of John Kerry, Bush’s main contender, showing Kerry in collaboration with a member of the opposition. The photography was printed and a lot of media attention given to it, it was later proven to be a fixed picture and the event never happened. But this has hindered his campaign as some people will believe what they see in the news paper. This highlights the fact that the media have a responsibility to the masses to pint the truth as their word does make a difference to the way in which situations and experiences are perceived.
This also distresses Baudrillard as such a responsibility should not be taken as lightly as it seems the media take it. There are few things that can make a difference to the way a large group of people view a subject but the media does have this power and it should not be abused. To say that the media’s only purpose is to disable the truth and hide what is real is a harsh statement from the French socialist. His arguments were to some extent true as this essay shows the media are not always concerned with portraying the whole truth, or in fact what is the true experience or situation.
But it is important to recognise that without any media then we would not be informed about things that are important to our world. If there were no newspapers or television we would have little information on current affairs, and this would leave us hindered as a society. We must take into account the fact that not all that is in the news is the real event and that there is always another side to the same story as illustrated in the differences between news papers but also the difference of opinion of nations towards the same event such as the war in Iraq.
If we only have one side of the story our opinions are bound to be bias and this was Baudrillard’s fear that we are informed in the wrong way. But in today’s society it is a little easier to find conflicting views on the same subject. We must as a society be aware that not all is the way it is shown on television or written about in the paper. If we keep this in mind then the media can not keep the truth from us, just inform us on a subject that we can then form our own opinion on.