It seems fitting that, the week after Rupert Murdoch’s resignation as Chair of Fox News and News Corp, I find myself at the Responsible Media Forum’s 11th Annual Mirror or Movers Conference “dedicated to investigating, debating and challenging the impacts of media content on society and the environment”.
It would be hard to understate the significant contribution Murdoch has made to shaping the media landscape we see today; some might call him the leading architect. There are already countless articles poring over his legacy and exploring what his departure might mean for the future of the sector. There is also much agreement that, under the leadership of Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, who takes the reins of the family empire, not much will change. But it can. And it must.
The cultural footprint of the mainstream media is immense; and the power and influence of those at the helm is unmatched. The departure of Rupert Murdoch will unlikely leave a vacuum, but taking stock of his 70 year legacy and looking at how the media has changed these past decades, and society with it, should give pause for thought. This is an opportunity for those within the industry to reconsider the direction it could take if more people recognised the vast responsibility that comes with being the ‘mirrors’ and ‘movers’ of society at large and took that responsibility more seriously. At the Mirrors or Movers conference, Laura Bates, founder of the everyday sexism project, offered some insight into how she thinks the media perpetuates the status quo when it comes to gender-based violence, attributing it to three main things:
- That misogyny is so embedded within our systems that it is almost rendered invisible and is simply replicated;
- The personal agenda and bias of some of those in power within the media, such as editors and owners and;
- The pursuit of ‘eyeballs’, which Laura saw as the main reason the media maintains the status quo of cultural misogyny – because there is a deeply ingrained culture within the mainstream media whereby ‘saying the controversial thing’, or ‘stoking the fire’, leads to greater reader or viewership and engagement – the ‘holy grail’ for media professionals.
In this instance Laura was specifically talking about how and why the media contributes to a culture of gender based violence, but I also think to some extent these three factors can be applied to the elevation of extrinsic values (things like power, wealth and social status) in the media; because:
- Extrinsic values have been so elevated in the mainstream that there is now a self-reinforcing feedback loop where we strengthen extrinsic values; they become normalised and dominant, and, in the media’s case, they create content which reinforces these values.
- Elevating extrinsic values in the media serves the agenda of many of those who hold wealth and power and want to maintain that.
- Even if it’s subconscious, there is a belief within the mainstream media – a ‘perception gap’ – that most people prioritise extrinsic values over more intrinsic values ((things like equality, justice and unity with nature). Similar to the old adage ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, many within the media may believe they are giving the public what they want by elevating extrinsic values within their content – that they are a ‘mirror’ reflecting back what society really values.
Altering the agenda of those in whose interests it is to maintain the status quo is a mighty challenge, but there’s certainly something that can be done by media professionals to break the extrinsic value feedback loop. As US philosopher Michael Sandal said of values: “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.” Emphasising intrinsic values would replace the current extrinsic value feedback loop, having the effect of exercising and strengthening intrinsic values in wider mainstream culture.
Those working in the mainstream media can also question the unspoken assumption that extrinsic values are what makes the large majority of people tick.
The media as mirror
We know from our research into the perception gap that many people, not just media professionals, (wrongly) assume that others place greater emphasis on extrinsic values than on intrinsic values. This misperception is ultimately detrimental to a person’s wellbeing and reduces the chance of them engaging in civic participation. I venture that, in its current state, the majority of the mainstream media serves only to widen that perception gap and exacerbate this problem. It’s imperative to address this, not only to improve the wellbeing of all living beings, but also because, if we want to meet the monumental challenges that we face on this planet – not only in the present, but in the years ahead – we desperately need greater civic participation, and for people to realise that we share more values in common than we might think. It’s time for the mainstream media to step up and adequately reflect the fact that many of us do prioritise intrinsic values over the extrinsic values the mainstream seems to think we prefer.
The media as mover
If anything can offer a glimmer of hope for a different mainstream media in these times, it’s sitting in a room full of people who are, broadly, in agreement that they have a responsibility to produce content that has a positive impact on society. There wasn’t much explicit talk of values at the Mirrors or Movers conference, but underneath it all this is what was being discussed; how to steward a media that both holds up a mirror to society of the values it foregrounds, but also encourages it to be better; in order to address the multiple crises we face on this planet, to strive for equality and social justice, to protect and restore our home. I saw glimpses of what could be when people like panellist Jennifer Estaris, Game Director at ustwo games advocated for the need to go beyond creating content with a focus on encouraging consumer behaviour change, and away from extrinsically motivating and rewarding people for doing so, to a focus on widespread systems change.
The Responsible Media Forum talks about six impact modes; six ways that the media reflects and moves society (see picture below). At their Mirrors and Movers conference, Sally Mills, Head of Sustainability at the BBC suggested the addition of a seventh mode; the media as a futurist, telling stories that bring our potential futures to life. I believe that not only is this essential to the dismantling of systems of oppression that are harming us all, but also to co-creating systems that are life-giving, sustainable, equitable and fair. An important part of making this happen would be to build a mainstream media industry with intrinsic values at its core.
This work is the focus of Common Cause Foundation’s Values in the Media project; working to support people working across the media to recognise their agency in terms of shaping the cultural values waters we swim in, as well as identifying ways their work could help strengthen intrinsic values and might also help close the ‘values perception gap. If you’d like to find out more, please get in touch with Elsie: email@example.com.