Who’s Your Daddy? A Critical Look at the Canadian News Machine and the Resulting Public Discourse on Poverty

Abstract

Media is a powerful agent of socialization. Society’s perceptions of the public and private realm are shaped through tropes fed to the masses by news media. Public discourse surrounding poverty is heavily weighted on the media’s representations in the news and in television programming. To what extent does Canada’s wealthy elite have a hand in influencing these narratives, if any?

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Introduction

            In the 1993 film entitled, So I Married an Ax Murderer, Stewart Mackenzie, played by Mike Myers, has a theory about the wealthy elite. He says,

            [i]t’s a well-known fact that there’s a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world known as “the pentaverate” who run everything in the world, including the newspapers; and, meet tri-annually at a secret country club known as: “The Meadows.”[1]

 Although the purpose of the scene is to frame Stewart’s character as an imbalanced conspiracy theorist, the joke may actually be commentary about how much ideological power, those with economic power have.

            There are three types of power: ideological, economic and political. Some people have one or a combination of the three, while others hold no power whatsoever. Having access to power affords people the ability to not only be active citizens in society, but, it also gives people agency over their lives. Canada’s elite, the one percent, are privilege to them all. As such, all doors are open to them; as a result, they hold a monopoly over policy, market power and the social narrative.  They can be characterized by what is known as the three “c’s,”

            group consciousness, coherence, and conspiracy. In other words, the group knows itself to be a group with the potential for power (group consciousness); acts together (coherence); and is consistently unified and of a single purpose in its intentions (conspiracy)… if any of these is missing the group is not elite.”[2]

            Commonly held ideas surrounding gender, class, race and an individual’s worth, based on each, are most easily perpetuated and created through the use of technology. The following research paper will focus on the ideological power held by Canada’s elite and how their values and world view surrounding poverty and class structure are reflected in the news. It is my intention to resolve whether the Canadian television news media is a faithful watchdog for the average consumer or a loyal lapdog for the corporate elite?

Ideas Shape Culture

             Ideas, whether symbolic or concrete, serve to shape a society. Folkways are ideological segments of culture that are used to perpetuate and create the social narrative that function in terms of the context of geography and time of a people. Folkways are deeply rooted ideas and ways of knowing held in the social consciousness. They are very difficult to change; however, not impossible. Consequently, an ideological shift comprises of a very slow evolution process, such as in the case of Canada’s beautiful rivers. In this circumstance, the flowing water beats against the banks, which over time creates new streams and waterways. The most effective way to speed up a paradigm shift is to implement laws of governance.

            Media is another efficient tool in affecting changes to folkways; regardless of whether it is for the betterment of society or to its detriment. Media is an interface that impacts thought, information and cultural norms. Media takes many forms, including: radio, newspapers, television, film, and advertisements, for example. These forms of media have been made more accessible through the use of the internet on computers and smart phones. Denis McQuail, a communication theorist named six ways that the media could cause changes within the social consciousness. According to him,

            [t]hey may: 1) cause intended change (conversion); 2) cause unintended change; 3) cause minor change, of, for example, form or intensity of response; 4) facilitate change; 5) reinforce what already exists (no change); 6) prevent change.”[3]

This is important to note because a large majority of people in Canada have access to some form of mass media. Conversely, its effects on the consumer have been analyzed and criticized by Marxists and other radical critics.[4] The primary point of contention among them is the manner in which popular culture becomes an agent in distorting and trivializing reality. In doing so, media then has the ability to keep a population passive and apathetic. Ideology has a voice over the social narrative and shapes social realities. Swedish thinker named Goran Therborn argues that ideology dictates ‘“[w]hat exists”; “what is good”; and “what is possible.”’[5] He further goes on to say that, “[a]n ideology describes the world in a certain way; it states what is wrong, what needs to change and, most importantly, what is possible in this world, and therefore, by implication, what is impossible.”[6]

Simply put, ideas have the power to perpetuate, create and instill values that become the social norm. Furthermore, they have the ability to underpin the interests of a specific group. This is further achieved by the consumer’s feelings of hopelessness, “we will know our place and leave the important decision making to the people who know best: the people who really understand complex economics, global geopolitics, treaties, and so forth.”[7]

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Language Influences Ideas

             Although Canada has come a long way in securing the rights and freedoms of many, we are not quite there yet. The challenges to safeguarding equality for all seem unending. One specific difficultly we face, is the public perception of the poor. Commonly accepted language within our culture is a contributing factor to the current narratives and stigmas surrounding the issue of poverty in Canada. As a result, poverty is seen as an individual problem, rather than a public issue. This is regardless of the fact that there are many other systemic issues involved; like, the feminization of poverty or lack of universal childcare programming. As a consequence, the individual is labelled as “lazy,” or “deficient.” Furthermore, individuals and families that are victims of a system that is designed to perpetuate a cycle of poverty are blamed for their situation.

            Many of the tropes held by Canadians about poverty have been formed through the representation, or lack thereof, of the poor in television news journalism. News has been defined as: “information about a break from the normal flow of events, an interruption in the expected… [news] is information people need in order to make rational decisions about their lives.”[8] Journalists have the power to shape our ideas about reality. A primary example of this is how stories of the poor are framed. Most often, the poor do not exist in society. This perception is achieved by omitting information or marginalized people from the public discourse. The negative stereotypes are further solidified by only showing one face of the poor; that they are fraudulent or criminal and deserve their lower position in society.

            The language that is used in news stories further frame our understanding of poverty, and, how the public views Canada’s lower class population. Many of the negative ideas we carry are a result of the messages and language used in the news. The following are three methods in which language shapes societies ideas of poverty. The primary way in which the current narrative is perpetuated is through the use of stereotypes. Stereotypes are one-dimensional portrayals of social groups. Although the term is most often negatively received, stereotypes can also be positive. Stereotypes are used for a specific purpose in the news,

producers rely on stereotypes to present easily understood and identified character types. Even television news relies on stereotypes, because producers need to illustrate news stories with representative examples.[9]

Another method that is used to objectify and depersonalize the poor is through the use of “poor-bashing.” Poor bashing constitutes as any instance where an individual or group is

humiliated, stereotyped, discriminated against, shunned, despised, pitied, patronized, ignored, blamed, and falsely accused of being lazy, drunk, stupid, uneducated, having large families, and not looking for work.”[10]

It establishes an element of discrimination against individuals understood to be in a lower social class. The language that is used in news coverage of the poor predominantly suggests that they are inept, and therefore to blame. The third way the narrative is maintained, is through what has come to be known as “poornography.” Author Jean Swanson explains poornography in her book, Poor-Basing: The Politics of Exclusion, as an occurrence that,

happens when poor people are portrayed as sufferers, to titillate the audience, perhaps to evoke sympathy, or donations, or goodwill towards a media outlet that is collecting donations. Poornography often happens just before Christmas.[11]

These methods serve to perpetuate the belief that the poor are undeserving and lazy; or that they should clean themselves up and get a job. The way in which poverty is framed as an individual problem keeps the focus of blame on the victim rather than refocusing on the larger set of systems and institutions that keep our society highly stratified. As a result, the polarization between the classes grows exponentially allowing the wealthy elite to continue to build their capital, while the rest of societies maintain the status quo.

Effects of Media on Socializationnews

             In the book entitled, Politics, Society, and the Media: Canadian Perspectives, author Paul W. Nesbitt-Larking describes the media’s representation of individuals from the lower class as a “war on the poor.” According to him, economic, political and ideological powers are being affected by the narratives being put forth in the news.[12] In addition to Nesbitt-Larkin’s war on the poor is the stark contrast in reporting. The news is oriented toward the elite with segments focusing on business and stocks meanwhile the poor are either miss represented, or simply missing. When stories about fraud break they are framed differently depending on which class the perpetrator belongs to. For example,

[m]ere allegations of welfare fraud will be given prominent coverage with huge headlines, while stories about business people who are actually convicted of defrauding the public are ignored or buried deep inside the paper or news  program.[13]

Furthermore, the language used when presenting these types of stories sends a very clear message: accepting welfare or funds from other government top up programs is a cause for humiliation. This idea is in direct contrast to the idea that the wealthy are entitled to and deserving of corporate perks. As a result, prejudice and hate against the poor rises, while the elite maintain their influence and stature. These examples show the relevance of media’s influence over public discourse.

            Socialization is the way in which individuals learn the normative customs and rules of their society. There are many institutions that foster socialization, including, the family unit, schools and media. Behaviour is reflective of a person’s socialization. An illustration of learned behaviour is the way in which people from varying cultures eat meals. For example, some cultures use metal utensils, while others wooden sticks or simply eat with their hands. Each style is considered proper etiquette in their respective context, yet may be seen as offensive or out of place in others.

            Social learning theory is­ related to socialization and is a concept that postulates media as a “potentially powerful agent in directing human behaviour.”[14] Furthermore, it explains how people learn by modelling the actions they see in the media. In addition to this, it puts forth an explanation of how television can have an effect on socialization, and specifically, how individuals view the world and each other. Therefore the more a trope is played out or repeated in the news or on television shows, the more easily the audience will accept the idea being presented. This is why, “[a]s each electronic medium was developing over the past hundred years, virtually             the first question the public asked about it – and the first source of controversy –       was how the medium would influence behavior.”[15]

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Media and the Elite

            There are three types of media ownership in every country: public, private and non-profit. Media organizations such as CTV and Global are corporate enterprises that rely on shareholder’s investment. “Capital is the fundamental, underlying asset that allows firms to operate, develop, and grow. Capital needs to be acquired, protected, used wisely and increased if companies are to prosper.”[16]

In order for an organization to flourish and grow it must have access to resources. To that effect it must be mentioned that money always comes with strings attached;

[t]hese conditions are not neutral because they direct and constrain choices in firms and ultimately have an impact on the products or services provided. In private ownership those who provide the capital invested in the firm…may have significant influence on the firm.[17]

Furthermore, although at one time owners would have had more direct control over daily operations, this is no longer the case as, “[t]here has been a divorce between ownership and control.”[18] However, the fact that the corporation no longer sits in the boardroom does not mean that the media elite have let go of their stronghold. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that managers are also often stockholders of these organizations. Also, even if a manager does not have a vested stake in the organization, they can be fired if they do not conform to the stakeholder’s vision. In this case freedom of the press actually means freedom of the shareholders to push personal agendas. However, it is important to point out that controversial views which contradict the media elite’s vision are not always silenced, “but they do organize matters in such a way that the presentation of such views is always seen as eccentric, irrelevant, incorrect, or dangerous.”[19] Furthermore, media analysis has presented controversial data that suggests there is a link to media stakeholders having the ability to indoctrinate consumers by promoting their hegemonic values; such as, the poor being morally deficient and responsible for their place within the social strata.

            Elite theory is one approach to politics in the media and posits that there is a minority of men who control all domains of business in Canada, including media organizations. It further states that, “[t]hose men who rule society, including the media magnates, use their power and influence to manipulate the symbolic world of the media and to foist their ideas on the masses…”[20]

 Elite theory is somewhat short sighted in that it does not give the consumer the benefit of the doubt in being discerning or critical in regards to the information that they are being presented. Nevertheless, the language used to promote various agenda’s in the news is often times insidious, as a result, many people do not catch on, thereby perpetuating the status quo.

 

Conclusionhomer-media

            Frank Zingrone said, “[a]ll media translate experience into other modes of perception.”[21] The messages and ideas surrounding class, gender and race that consumers receive from television news programs are biased. These concepts are shaped by the wealthy elite who are far removed from the voices of the poor and marginalized. The language that is used in the news, serves to perpetuate narratives that keep the vast majority complacent. It is, after all, the fault of the poor for being lazy, deficient and stupid. Why would there be an uprising or request for changes in policies or programming affecting these people when it is their own fault?

            Language is a driving force in perpetuating this trope because through it, ideas are reinforced. It is for this reason that our language must change. Furthermore, unfair stereotyping, poor-bashing and poornography need to be stricken from the public discourse. Conversely, rather than blaming the victims being held within the stronghold of institutionalized poverty, news agencies should be held accountable for the words they use. This could be reflective in something as easy as making a comment on a news stations Facebook page. It seems simple but the producers do read the comments. This could cause a shift in a more positive narrative where the right people, or governments, can be truly held accountable for their failure in protecting the most marginalized members of our community.

            Media possesses ideological power that shapes and socializes societies in many ways. Through the language it uses, folkways are formed and solidified, making them difficult to eliminate. The media elite are the primary stakeholders and governing bodies in the news sector. Their hegemonic values and ways of knowing are therefore presented to the rest of society as common knowledge. Though they are not all evil and selfish people, they are protecting their own interests. This is problematic to the rest of society who live at a far greater disadvantage to them and do not profit from the same benefits, such as private education, as they do.

            A final thought is that one way to ease the media elite’s grip on the hegemonic ideologies being pushed through the news, is by limiting their shareholder power. In regulating their concentration of power, the ownership in news media will become more diverse. In creating and maintaining a more diverse tenure, organizations will have a more balanced leadership. Decisions regarding programing, producing and language will be more democratic and reflective of the greater public, as opposed to a dictatorship that serves the needs of the corporate or media elite. Furthermore, the changes that come with the positioning of diverse ownership through media representation, will translate to more equality within a society; checking another point off the very long to do list.

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[1] Fox, Robbie. So I Married an Ax Murderer. Dir. Thomas Schlamme. Perf. MikeMyers and Nancy Travis. Sony Pictures Home          Entertainment. 1993. DVD.

[2] Pg. 91 Nesbitt-Larking, Paul W. Politics, Society, and the Media: Canadian Perspectives. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001.         Print.

[3]Pg. 283 Grossberg, Lawrence. Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1998. Print.

[4] Pg. 86 Nesbitt-Larking, Paul W. Politics, Society, and the Media: Canadian Perspectives. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001.         Print.

[5] Pg. 89 Grossberg, Lawrence. Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1998. Print.

[6] Pg. 89 Grossberg, Lawrence. Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1998. Print.

[7] Pg 275 Winter, James P. Lies the Media Tell Us. Montreal: Black Rose, 2007. Print.

[8] Pg. 327 Grossberg, Lawrence. Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1998. Print.

[9] Pg 165 Perse, Elizabeth M. Media Effects and Society. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbeaum Associates, 2001. Print.

[10] Pg 2 Swanson, Jean. Poor-Bashing : The Politics of Exclusion. Toronto: Between the Lines. 2001. Print

[11] Pg 97 Swanson, Jean. Poor-Bashing : The Politics of Exclusion. Toronto: Between the Lines. 2001. Print

[12] Pg 2 “The war on the poor is taking place on three fronts;” economic (lack of jobs), political (funding cuts to government programs)               and ideological (poor-bashing) Nesbit-Larking, Paul W. Politics, Society, and the Media: Canadian Perspectives.          Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001. Print.

13 Pg 99 Swanson, Jean. Poor-Bashing : The Politics of Exclusion. Toronto: Between the Lines. 2001. Print

[14] Pg 190 Perse. Elizabeth M. Media Effects and Society. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbeaum Associates, 2001. Print

[15] Pg 278 Grossberg, Lawrence. Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1998. Print.

[16] Pg 73 Picard, Robert G. The Economics and Financing of Media Companies. 2nd ed. New York: Fordham UP, 2011. Print.

[17] Pg 73 Picard, Robert G. The Economics and Financing of Media Companies. 2nd ed. New York: Fordham UP, 2011. Print.

[18]Pg. 119 Nesbitt-Larking, Paul W. Politics, Society, and the Media: Canadian Perspectives. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001.               Print.

[19] Pg. 123 Nesbitt-Larking, Paul W. Politics, Society, and the Media: Canadian Perspectives. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001.              Print.

[20]Pg 92 Nesbitt-Larking, Paul W. Politics, Society, and the Media: Canadian Perspectives. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001. Print.

 [21] Pg 1 Zingrone, Frank. The Media Symplex: At the Edge of Meaning in the Age of Chaos. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2004. Print.


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