Control of information is power, and with power comes responsibility. The mainstream media wields a huge amount of power worldwide. This power is a matter of life and death–it can be used both to preserve life and to take it away.
Examples of mis-use, often un-intentional, of power by the media, resulting in the loss of human life:
The media can have profound implications on people’s behavior, including matters of life and death. One example is the way media coverage of suicides can drive people to commit suicide after they are exposed to the news coverage. Psychological explanations include a straightforward social imitation (monkey see monkey do) effect, validation of people’s beliefs that suicide is acceptable, and giving people concrete methods or ideas of how to commit suicide. Systematic reviews have found overwhelming evidence verifying that this effect is real and results in a loss of human life. [Source 1, 2, 3] In cases like this, an action that may seem neutral, such as covering an event, can have a measurable effect, in terms of loss of human life.
Another issue, also a matter of life and death, is media coverage of gang violence in inner cities. One of the primary motivations behind gang violence is to gain a reputation–which is central in gang recruitment. The simple preventive measure of refraining from naming gangs in news coverage can be effective at limiting the influence of gangs. When combined with other techniques, it has been effective at greatly reducing gang violence. [Source]
In cases like these, there is only one valid conclusion: that great caution must be taken by the media to ensure that their coverage of events does not result in a loss of human life. The drive to cover breaking news must necessarily be tempered and balanced with a cautious, self-imposed restraint, driven by a commitment to protect human life.
How is this related to the “Koran Burnings”?
In keeping with the spirit of this post, I will not name the group nor the leader who is behind the recent controversy of “Koran Burnings”. Suffice it to say, news has plastered the media in recent days about a group of people planning to burn Korans, and you can research it yourself to check facts if you so desire. The group involved has a membership of no more than 50 people. The group and event have received massive amounts of media attention, and, predictably, this has been followed by a surge in anti-American sentiment among Muslim extremists.
General Petraeus has condemned the “Koran Burnings” because he argues that it could endanger American troops under his command. This is an issue, like the examples of suicide and gang violence given above, that could result in a loss of human life.
The group in question is tiny; I could easily motivate far more than 50 people to attend an event here in my small town of under 30,000 people. The degree of media attention that this group has received seems hugely out of proportion. Giving this fringe group media coverage empowers them. It thus is an example of irresponsible behavior.
In today’s world, many people with a legitimate, constructive message struggle for media attention. Businesses, religious organizations, social movements, and other entities and initiatives all vie for attention, and many of them fail to influence the world in major ways–in many cases, good ideas are lost in the shuffle of life, mainly because they never reached a critical mass and could not rise above the countless other voices. Rather than picking up a negative, hateful message and pushing it into the mainstream through giving it widespread coverage, the media could be picking up on any number of positive, constructive messages and giving them coverage instead.
In situations like this, loss of human life could be prevented if the media would exercise restraint:
America is a large country, and, thankfully, enjoys the benefits of constitutionally protected free speech. But the media has a choice of what events to cover, whom to listen to, and whom to write about. Why did anyone listen to this man and his tiny, hateful group? Why did anyone publish an article about it? Why did high profile people begin discussing him?
The proper response of society to a group like this is to ignore them, and to give them as little of a voice as possible. Why? These people’s belief system is entirely irrational; it’s likely that the people in the congregation have psychological troubles that have nothing to do with Islam, and are falling into hate as a way to avoid dealing with whatever true issues they need to sort out. Or, to put it in other words, they’re crazy–possibly suffering from diagnosable mental disorders. In our society, we ignore crazy, ranting people on the street, because we know that their thought processes are entirely irrational and that what comes out of their mouth has little meaning. If the mainstream media and average American citizens had approached this group with the same attitude–that they were simply crazy and not worth listening to, there would be no new controversy and no additional risk to American troops.
How can you help?
- If you work for the media in any capacity, make a conscious commitment to ignore, rather than draw attention to hateful and extremist views, individuals, and organizations. When you do mention an extremist, do not identify them by name, but rather, identify them only as “an extremist” or a (nameless) fringe group. Make sure to cover extremism in a way that is minimally empowering to the extremists. Also, make sure to cover extremism in a way that emphasizes the flaws in extremists thinking (usually black-and-white thinking, and crass generalizations about groups of people). Covering extremists in what looks like a “neutral” way is passing a value judgement because it gives a tacit endorsement that their views are legitimate.
- (For anyone) Let news media outlets know about your feelings on this issue, through letters to the editor, and through contacting editors.
- (For anyone) Refrain from passing on and talking about sensationalistic media articles that show irresponsibility by being too empowering of extremists. Turn off television or radio shows if they are giving coverage to extremists in an empowering way. If people frowned on such news stories, the media would be forced to abandon such practices due to practical and economic concerns.