Over the past two years there have been two stories that raise the question of the role of the media in framing events.
In the summer of 2010 the pastor of a small Florida church proposed to publicly burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9-11. The church, known for its anti-Islam and anti-gay views, had not received much attention until a short article appeared on a site called Religion News Service in July. From there it was gradually picked up by other, bigger, news sites, eventually being picked up by the international media, which in turn help stir up riots and escalated things still further. The pastor, Terry Jones, was being interviewed by print and broadcast media.
It raised serious questions about the role of media in reporting stories. The executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller, was quoted in his paper as saying, “The freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.” In this had the general media chosen to ignore the story, there would not have been riots, lives would not have been put at risk and American reputation would not have suffered damage.
A year after this story, in July, 2011, the media were all abuzz again. This time it was over Carmageddon, which would result from the 53 hour closure of a 16 kilometer stretch of highway (Interstate 405) in the Los Angeles area. According to the media the shutdown of America’s busiest highway would result in complete and utter traffic chaos from the mother of all traffic jams. And what happened? Traffic in the Los Angeles area actually declined by 65% during this period.
It nicely illustrates the media’s (and society’s) obsession with cars. And it shows in the language used by the media: trains chug, cars are vehicles, public transit and passenger rail are heavily subsidized, no one considers the massive subsidies given to the automobile, roads and highways get investment, rail is obsolete, while cars are considered a necessity. Given this it’s no wonder that the media can only picture catastrophe with the shutdown of a major highway.
These two stories nicely illustrate how the media can take a small story and blow it WAY out of proportion: the first with very serious consequences, the second providing comic relief and a window into the North American obsession with cars.
In a future post I’ll talk about how the media has taken BIG stories and blown them WAY under proportion.