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“The first typical reaction of an individual to the news is likely to be a desire to repeat it to someone. This makes a conversation, arouses further comment, and perhaps starts a discussion… The clash of opinions […] terminates in some sort of consensus or collective opinion- what we call public opinion. It is upon the interpretation of present events, i.e., news, that public opinion rests”[1]

This quote is very clear when stating that public opinion rests mainly on news media. But who is watching over the media? Does any reader check if the information in the newspaper is biased or partial? What would happen if it was?

These are all questions I keep asking myself everyday when I read the different headlines of Clarín. Clarín Media Group is the largest media company in Argentina and it  has been against the government ever since the passing of the Audiovisual Communication Services Law (better known as Media Law) in 2013. The Media Law was quite controversial and turned a loving relationship between the government and Clarín Media Group into one of hatred. The Law basically tried to regulate and control major media outlets (like, and especially, Clarín) by promoting decentralization of media with the goal to boost competition, democratization and universal use of new information technologies and communication.

clarin

Clarín Media Group defines itself as the major and largest argentine media company and the leader in market cable television, internet access, printing, producing and distributing content. Its newspaper (Diario Clarin) has the highest circulation in Latin America and the second in Spanish language worldwide. The Company is also a benchmark for Argentine advertisers. It has the largest market share in most segments of the advertising market. All of these things make Clarin Media Group the dominant company in the media marketplace.

Having said this, it is clear to everyone that the Law was mainly conceived and passed by the Congress in order to decentralize Clarin and force it to sell part of its assets like TV channels, radio stations, etc. Among other things, the Law states that a media group can have up to 10 national radio stations or up to 10 TV channels. Clarin obviously was exceeding this amount of licenses permitted so it had to sell some of them. The deadline for doing so has already passed, and after a lot of discussion, the government granted the media group with the opportunity to do the selling by themselves, choosing what to sell or not, instead of the Estate expropriating the licenses. Clarin then sold several TV channels and radio stations. But as they say, everything comes with a price. Even though the group doesn’t have the very same concentration of media it used to have, it still has the biggest audience (either readers of the newspaper, TV watchers or/and radio listeners). The media group knows that, regardless of the content or headlines, they’re heard, watched and taken seriously. Taking advantage of this, Clarin now constantly tries to deteriorate CFK and the whole government’s image. It’s not that they tell lies, but rather they choose very selectively the facts, twist some of them and/or put a major emphasis on them to make the government look bad.

But apart from the speaker, it takes an audience to receive the message and pass it on, and that audience is argentine civil society. We believe and like to trust Clarín because most of us are against the government for several reasons. As the psychology theory of cognitive dissonance explains, when inconsistency (dissonance) produced by conflicting ideas is experienced in our minds, we tend to become psychologically uncomfortable and we are motivated to try to reduce this dissonance either by looking for approval or information that confirms what we want to believe, and/or avoid situations and information that are likely to increase our discomfort. For example, if someone smokes and knows that smoking is unhealthy and causes lung cancer, that person may feel psychologically uncomfortable because of the tension produced by the dissonance (difference) between what he knows and how he actually behaves. Applying that to reading the newspaper or watching the news, we can say we actually look for information that will coincide with our way of thinking and how we act. That will bring us comfort because in some sort of way, a “trustworthy” source is telling us that CFK is a “bad president”, and that her “government couldn’t be worse”; it’s not only in our minds, it’s out there, in the headlines.

Clarin knows that people are mostly in disgust with the government and the president; added to this, the audience that consume their media usually trust them “blindly”, without even being aware of it. So the problem is that people don’t always realize that what they’re reading may be biased or partial, and when they also stop reading other newspapers or watching other news channel apart from those that share their point of view. Clarin audience is mostly comprised by ordinary citizens who work every day, don’t have much time to get informed, they usually read the newspaper on the subway or check the news in Facebook or Twitter. They’re not well known for being scholars, academics or people well formed in politics, economics, etc. Most probably they consume Clarin media as their main, and sometimes only, source of news.

In this analysis I would like to contrast this case with the first model of media and public opinion described in The Space of opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere. This model states that “rational citizens gather information from the news media and then deliberate with others about matters of common concern”[2]. I strongly believe this can’t always apply to reality. In this case, Clarin audience is far from this ideal. This model also suggests that the role of media in the process of opinion formation is to merely provide “the informational infrastructure that supports individual decision making”. I think that nowadays, New Long Journalism (Barnhurst:2003)[3] has taken over journalism practices and news reporting, and now the role of media is more related to interpretating facts and providing news analysis rather than providing the facts. Citizens don’t make decisions completely independently from media after reading or watching the news. I think there’s always a limitation in the opinion formation process that is owed to journalists expressing their opinions as expert sources and interpretating instead or simply reporting. Depending on where citizens get their information from there may be variations with other sources. The ideal thing to do if we all were rational information-seeking citizens would be to turn to different media sources to try to have a more objective and impartial view on things. But this is rarely the case among Clarin audience and that’s what makes their editorial line so dangerous for opinion formation processes. Interpretating facts mainly in a negative tone towards the president and the government may be a good thing for democracy sometimes as this last decade media in Argentina has been acting more as a watchdog by exposing crimes being committed by politicians and officeholders. However, there are other times when news are so biased that they jeopardize citizen participation in democracy. This is mainly because journalists interpretate things and draw conclusions in ways that not always coincide with what’s really happening. When citizens like Clarin audience, don’t seek information in different sources and limit themselves to mostly one same source, and this source is sometimes partial, this deviates citizens’ thinking and their world vision, thus influencing their decisions and behaviors based on “facts” that may not be quite accurate. Audiences like these will always “see” I think things through the eyes of the journalists they trust, and this power journalists have must be taken seriously.

So the questions I ask myself know are who is really in charge of public opinion? Is it Habermaas’ circle of highly educated people who have rational discussions and reach consensus? Are journalists playing this role now that they’re conceived as expert sources? What would Habermaas think about them? Does public opinion formation depend only on journalists and their visions? Is that democratic? I look forward then to tackling some of these questions in further blog posts.

Even when there are plenty of trustworthy sources of information where citizens can turn to, is usually the very same group of people that do this and sadly this group is a minority in Argentina (and in most parts of the world). To my view, all of us as citizens and consumers of the media should be concerned about this and try to expand our horizons and pursue the ideal of the rational information-seeking citizen.

 

[1]Park, Robert. 1940. “News as a Form of Knowledge: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge.” American Journal of Sociology 45(5): 669–686. (Extracted from Jacobs, Ronald N. and Townsley, Eleanor. 2011. The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere. Oxford Scholarship Online. Page 10)

[2] Jacobs, Ronald N. and Townsley, Eleanor. 2011. The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere. Oxford Scholarship Online. Page 8.

[3] Barnhurst, Kevin G.  2003. The Makers of Meaning: National Public Radio and the New Long Journalism. Political Communciation.

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