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Media Democracy

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  1. Media Democracy How the U. S. Press System Works… Why It Failed on the Iraq War What Citizens Can Do When It Fails Lance Bennett, Director Center for Communication and Civic Engagement University of Washington

  2. Media in American Democracy • Ideally, public opinion: • is independent of pressures from government & business • so that public may influence government & business • But the leading opinion-shaping institutions -- news organizations – are often dependent: • on government for information • on business/advertising for profits (for private media) • Which results inproblems for independent public opinion: • opinion is often shaped via public relations from government and business elites -- because they have best access to news media and other info. channels

  3. The U.S. Press System • High private ownership – commercial media • Strong journalism norm of politically balanced (objective) reporting • Results: • official viewpoints become authoritative (objective) reference on stories • homogeneous reporting of politics across mainstream news

  4. A Simple Model of the Press and American Democracy • Journalistic norm of objectivity/neutrality means that most news is shaped by government authorities • Voices and views in the news are INDEXED – referenced – to the degree of conflict in government policy circles • High conflict/opposition in government => more diverse voices & information enter the news • Low conflict in government => fewer voices and ideas in the news • even if evidence from credible sources challenges government positions • even if strong public opposition exists in society

  5. Range of Voices and Ideas in Newsvaries with government policy conflict • Diverse: Abortion -- taxes – religion • high policy conflict in government => more groups & ideas represented in news • Limited: Iraq War debate in 2002-2003 • dominated by Bush administration claims • weapons of mass destruction & 9/11 - Al Qaeda connections to Saddam • Democrats took a pass • Result: Independent information challenging these claims was not given strong emphasis in the news

  6. Even mentions of the protest movement were linked to moments of elite opposition “Polls show that a substantial portion of the electorate is unconvinced of the need for an immediate war…A grass roots antiwar movement is beginning to make itself heard. Some Democrats are starting to warn assertively against a “rush to war,” as Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts put it.” --TheNew York Times, Jan 26, 2003 But the Democrats decided that the war was a poor election issue

  7. And so, the war was told as a Hollywood story written by the Bush media team….. ….A fantasy of American triumph against the evil Saddam… …..with the Iraqi people awaiting their liberation with flowers and democracy

  8. After the war, leading papers admitted problems with their coverage Published on Thursday, August 12, 2004 by the Agence France Presse

  9. Washington Post Reporters and Editors Look Back "The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?" In retrospect, said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., "we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. …That was a mistake on my part." "the voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones," Downie said. "We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."

  10. The New York Times Looks Back FROM THE EDITORS The Times and Iraq Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq. We have examined the failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq's weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international terrorists…. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves... … we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.Published: May 26, 2004

  11. Despite this self-criticism…indexing predicts that the same news pattern will happen again …when the same conditions exist in government • NEXT CASE: • The treatment of prisoners in Iraq • There was strong evidence that the Bush administration developed an informal policy of torture – that was applied in Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba – a policy that: • violated international and national laws • was inflicted on innocent civilians wrongly arrested • created an international image disaster –undermining claims to democracy--inviting comparisons to Saddam

  12. With all the photos, memos, human rights reports…. How did the U.S. press frame the story? A: based on administration claims that Abu Ghraib was an unfortunate case of abuse at low levels of command OR B: based on evidence that torture practices were authorized - (with a legal rationale developed by the White House and adapted by the Defense Department for use in prisons) • Which frame was dominant? • Key condition: In an election year, the Democrats decided not to accuse the administration of supporting torture • Prediction: Press reports would emphasize abuse – and minimize the evidence of torture • Test: – content analysis of the newspaper that led the story – Washington Post – and 10 other national papers

  13. Primary news frames used to describe Abu Ghraib. Washington Post, April 1, 2004 – September 29, 2004 These data are based on the first label used in each article. Numbers in parentheses are the counts for each cell; percentages are not rounded.

  14. The first or the second frame. Washington Post, April 1, 2004 – September 29, 2004 These labels were used as either the first or second label in each article. Numbers in parentheses are the counts for each cell; percentages are not rounded.

  15. News and Editorial (opinion) Frames: “abuse,” “torture” and other names for what happened at Abu Ghraib. National newspaper sample, April 1, 2004 – January 19, 2005

  16. News Story Frames: “abuse,” “torture” and other names for what happened at Abu Ghraib. National newspaper sample, April 1, 2004 – January 19, 2005

  17. Torture did become a news frame in one chapter of the story… • The White House memos: • that defined torture narrowly as acts leading to death or organ failure – • and said that terrorism made the Geneva convention obsolete • The White House SPIN: the memos were only ideas -- not put into practice • later investigations linked them to interrogation procedures in Cuba/Iraq • The Senate confirmation hearings for White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General raised questions about his role in the group that developed the memos • Both Republicans and Democrats wanted Gonzales to say that he did not support torture – • he said he did not support torture – he is now the US Attorney General BUT, when news reports explained why this mattered, Abu Ghraib was mentioned as involving the ABUSE of prisoners

  18. Conclusions • Leading US news organizations cannot sustain critical reporting without support from within government • If government sources for critical stories do not exist, government is left to police itself • When the US democracy most needs an independent, critical public voice, the American press often cannot provide it

  19. What Citizens Can Do • Develop better information • Be the media – help produce information • Join a news/action network • Support the media reform movement

  20. 1. Develop better information • Aggregate the world of news on your desktop • download a news aggregator • Blogs got you down? • tame the blogosphere aggregate them too! • Get inside the spin • discover journalism about journalism ( • Chart events along with other citizens • Center for Media and Democracy (source watch)

  21. 2. Be the media – produce information • Citizen journalism • Join sourcewatch and help construct the big picture • Read common times and create your own news channel with your political network • Watch One World TV – become a reporter • Read more about citizen journalism and see if you think it makes sense

  22. 3. Join news/action networks • • Free Republic • BBC Action Networkmore • Chuck Muth • American Family Association

  23. 4. Support the media reform movement • • • Support CCCE (

  24. Center for Communication & Civic Engagement Lance Bennett, Director Information ~ Technology ~ Community @