Understanding the Media

The understanding of a work of fiction, or any work of art, depends on the recipient's understanding of hidden allusions, genre expectations, the language or artistic devices used, and the historical and art-historical characteristics of the period. But reception is also influenced by whether the recipient can relate the work to his or her own experiences, life situation, conflicts, whether he or she has someone to talk to about the experience, or even simply by the mood in which the experience takes place. This is no different with information for public orientation. Someone who knows nothing about the way the electoral system works will have a very different picture of the outcome of an election than someone who knows more or less about the process, by which casting a vote becomes a parliamentary mandate. Anyone who does not know what the European Commission is supposed to do, is easily convinced that the main objective of the Brussels bureaucrats is the abolition of nation states. Especially, if this is stated by a politician or an expert who is considered credible by the host for whatever reason, preferably on a media channel considered credible by the host. If, on the other hand, the recipient also learns of a different viewpoint through other channels, which are also considered credible, and if the recipient's personal environment is more nuanced in its perception of the European Commission, then there is a chance that he or she will be able to form a more complex picture for themselves.

Theories of Impact

There are many conflicting theories about the impact of the media on the public, and how the public uses the media for its own purposes. One of these theories, supported by empirical research, is the Stuart Hall's coding/decoding theory. According to this, the recipient may relate to the content by accepting the preferred primary meaning implied by the content producer, or by contesting this primary meaning, accepting some elements and rejecting other, or by rejecting the primary meaning altogether. The media, thus, offer possibilities for interpretation, but ultimately it is the audience members who shape the meaning of the content. With this in mind, is it the media's task to accurately represent reality, and can it do so at all? One of the greatest figures in the media studies, Denis McQuail, argues that we cannot expect the media to objectively represent reality as such, in its entirety. It is precisely by presenting unusual events and people, by simplifying and redefining what happens in reality, that the media capture the audience's attention.

Consuming Information

This is also true for the news consumed in the course of information. We tend to think of news consumption as a purely rational activity: we inform ourselves, in order to know more about the "world", and thus participate in democratic social discourse. Of course, news consumption has such a function, without which a democratic society cannot exist. But the news consumption is very similar to utilizing entertainment-related content. The news also evokes emotions, some of its characters are positive, while other are the negative "protagonists". Regular news consumption engages the audience in a complex story, just like the TV series do. In addition, the news consumption has a very strong role in reinforcing a sense of belonging to a group: how one relates to individual news characters, and even to the individual media that report the news, is a crucial part of group identity. In particular, the social media have brought out this emotion-based, identity-forming role of the news, reinforcing the fan-community character of each political camp. Some leading politicians and political sites have built just as strong fan communities around themselves as the stars of popular culture.
The more emotion-driven the consumption of the news, the stronger the role of group affiliation, and the more impressionable the audience becomes. All in all, the way in which a politician or a political fraction is portrayed becomes more important than the veracity of the news. The information-spreading "messenger" becomes more important than the content itself, whether it is based on truth or fiction. This fan-like consumption of the news makes the public increasingly dismissive of information that criticises a politician or a political fraction. Information bubbles are created, which adopt a narrative that is positive for the group even if the group members are otherwise aware that the information reinforcing the narrative is untrue. In this news consumption environment, fake news is a perfectly legitimate means of group cohesion.

About the Author: Mertek Media Monitor, a Hungary-based civil organization and workshop, committed to opinion and press freedom. Its aim is to evaluate the impact of media laws and other media policy decisions, and to publish the results on international level.

If you want to be able to act against such group dynamics as described in the article above, the first step could be to broaden your horizon and deepen your knowledge in the field of countering disinformation. This can be done, for example, by joining our self-paced online course on media literacy and countering disinformation that is coming soon (!!!) to our platform. During the course, you will gain a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind the fake news and will become a more objective news consumer. The course is free of charge and you will get a certificate of completion once you finish it. Stay tuned for further updates regarding our self-paced courses. Their launch is happening soon, so be the first one to join them and don't let the biased news get you!

Background illustration: Photo by meo from Pexels / Pexels license