The Plight of the Marginalised in the Media

In Western society there are many minority groups whose ideals, values and issues are largely ignored and at times feared or ridiculed by the greater public. The media as a reflection of society is required to provide representation for these people when they cannot find it anywhere else. There is a failure by the media to empower the marginalised, by examining the structures which prohibit equal representation, it is possible to see why.

The media as an ideal should not only perform the important role of informing the public but should allow the public as a whole to develop interest based on the available information and furthermore stimulate participation in political and societal debate. The most famous conceptualisation of this ideal is Habermas’ fourth estate. Hackett cites Curran as explaining how the media space ought to be utilised. He insists that it should be open to ‘discussion free of domination’ with ‘equality of participation’ which would bring about agendas to be absorbed and acted upon by policy makers (Hackett 2005, 89). The diversity of participation by a wide number of people is a key pillar in Habermas’ theory. Baker in Hackett explained that more just policies with a wider social consensus can occur through a media which is universally accessible and inclusive (2005, 89). Without interaction and vertical communication between the government and the public the perception of an open political system cannot occur. Bucy and Gregson suggest that this can lead to lack of political legitimacy and in turn cause those minority members of society without a media voice to become ultimately disengaged from participation (2001, 361).

In real life terms, the fourth estate ideal rarely occurs. The empowerment of minority agendas cannot arise as the media reflects issues drawn only from the dominant voices in society. This problematic tendency stems from the way news and information is sourced. Society is bureaucratically structured and media consumers tend to trust only those news sources which have credibility and authority (Allan 2004, 63). Tiffin reminds us that only a very small amount of news is directly observed by journalists who therefore must rely on various sources to announce the public agenda (1989, 32). Gans (2004, 317) explains that 99 per cent of people do not become news sources, leaving a small amount of people to speak on behalf of the population. As mentioned earlier, credibility is expected in a news source which has led to a journalistic reliance on ‘beats’- institutions and officials from where acceptable news content can be obtained such as the courts, police reports and government figures (Sigal, 2004, 301). These institutions can manipulate the media in the way they frame the information they supply, leaving little space for the marginalised (Tiffen 1989, 32).

The problem of under-representation goes further as issues become public, with diverse opinion rarely seen in the mainstream media. The first interpretation of an issue which is seen as fit to debate is often given by someone who is a professional in a particular field or otherwise of note in society. Hall et al. in 1978 named the person or organisation given this role as the ‘primary definer’ (Allan 2004, 65). Allan cites Schlesinger and Tumbler (1994) when explaining that while the initial interpretation shapes the coming debate, often it is discredited or attacked by other authority figures or even the media. Yet it seldom occurs that this criticism is stimulated from the ‘other’ in society. Most commonly debates are played out by elites through the media in representation of one or two dominant, prevailing ideologies (Allan 2004, 66-67). The organisational hierarchy of news sources leaves little room for minority opinion or representation.

Many of the issues that affect those not considered in the majority of the population are disregarded as irrelevant or even suspicious. Allan cites Hallin’s theory of three separate circles of information that exist in the media to explain the lack of culturally diverse agendas. The first is the ‘sphere of consensus’ which consists of all beliefs, practises and ideologies that are treated as objective, unchallenged knowledge (Allan 2004, 63). Hallin’s second circle is the ‘sphere of legitimate controversy’ which includes all that that has been deemed socially acceptable to debate (Allan 2004, 63-64). The final circle is the ‘sphere of deviance’, where many of those who feel unrepresented in society find their opinions. Hallin explains that the purpose of this circle is to limit acceptable political conflict and the topics and views that fall in this category are deemed unworthy of public debate (Allan 2004, 64).

Allan explains that the categories proposed by Hallin have fluid boundaries and it is possible, with enough support an idea can move from the sphere of deviance into the sphere of legitimate controversy (2004, 64). However even if these issues are able to break into mainstream public consciousness it is rare that commentary from minorities and the people directly involved is sourced. For example Hartley explains that indigenous people are rarely given the chance to suggest solutions to problems concerning them, let alone bring up other issues overlooked by the media (Allan 2004, 149). According to Lewis and Wahl-Jorgensen up to forty per cent of public opinion in the US and UK print media is inferred by journalists who often make sweeping statements on supposed public consensus (2005, 102-103). They suggest that media proprietors and editors often disregard serious public sentiment with only five per cent of public opinion references dealing with social or political change (Lewis & Wahl-Jergensen 2005, 105 & 107). Sonwalkar believes that many journalists under the strain of tight deadlines, lack of resources and editorial pressure do not consciously omit marginalised voices but include content grounded in what they feel is important (2005, 262). Based on this it could be said that a major obstacle to the inclusion of minority voices in the media may be the lack of diversity in the newsroom. However as asserted by Haynes (2007, 171) those journalists who do fit into a minority are expected to speak on behalf of whole communities including those of which they may be unfamiliar with. Haynes makes a very important point when she states that much of the western media is based on the assumption of a patriarchal, Christian, heterosexual, white audience (2007, 172).Therefore making it a marketing risk to delve into the sphere of deviance and give voice to those outside the expected demographic. She explains that often this goes further and has led to the repeated negative portrayal of the ‘other’ in the media (Haynes 2007, 172).

The powerless in society can enjoy representation in the media if an issue concerning them becomes topical within the acceptable frames of mainstream news. However as mentioned previously often these groups do not enjoy a direct route to the press and are usually spoken for on behalf of them or just as commonly spoken about without being given their own voice. Through media discourse many marginalised groups find themselves attached with a negative stigma. Sonwalkar explains that much media discourse is centred on the key binary of ‘Us versus Them’ (2005, 263). This could be conceptualised as ‘Us’ as the equivalent of the sphere of consensus while ‘Them’ is all of that which lies within the sphere of deviance. This rational simplifies many issues into the black and white spectrum or even more worryingly into good or bad. The Us versus Them discourse has been extended to many marginalised groups in Australia, prominently being used to describe the indigenous, Muslim communities and most recently refugees and asylum seekers. Due to this discourse these groups are often portrayed negatively and as a burden or risk to mainstream society. Guedes-Bailey and Harindranath explain that the Australian media discusses refugees in terms that automatically conjure racial difference as well framing them as illegal and un-Australian (2005, 276). A point made by Jakubowicz in reference to the importance of having indigenous voices in the Australia media so as to avoid myths and misrepresentation from escalating could be extended to all minority groups (Banerjee & Osuri 2000, 213). However the western media is of a reactionary nature, only covering burgeoning issues once they reach a certain level of acceptance in society rather than giving voice to and championing those societal groups without representation.

It is apt to utilize the dual Black Panther and civil rights movement of the 1960s as a case study for the representation and empowerment of marginalised groups. Rhodes (2005) explains that while segregation was slowly being outlawed, during the beginning of the Black Panther movement in the early 60s the opinions and the plight of African Americans for equality were largely ignored by the media. Though the Black Panthers pioneered the way for black representation they were later demonised as militant radicals while more acceptable societal figures took up the plight, including whites (Rhodes 2005, 36). Before the civil rights movement, coverage of black racial issues always incurred an air of ‘inferential racism’, with the participants often portrayed as the ‘other’, even in positive stories (Rhodes 2005, 34). The Black Panthers were able to gain early television coverage due to their use of strong visuals but more importantly due to their participation in the acceptable realm of electoral politics while running a well constructed discourse of equality for all (Rhodes 2005, 32). The television coverage and growing public interest caused many newspapers to begin reporting on racial issues with a binary divide, describing the Black Panthers as bringing justice or the group as a lawless danger (Rhodes 2005, 32). African American journalists handled the stories for many news organisations but due to the segregated nature of many newsrooms, the white newspapers often covered the issues without the insight of a black voice (Rhodes 2005, 37). Due to the undeniable nature of the need for equality, the movement rose to be accepted in the mainstream. Despite itself, the media did play a role in the civil rights movement but only once the issue had grown to be irreversible.

Up until this point most of the references to the media in this essay have been in relation to those organisations with major influence over the public. However there does exist an alternative media which acts as a forum for the underrepresented. Haynes (2007, 168-169) explains that groups continuously excluded from the public sphere withdraw into their own community discourse. This is where the opportunity for alternative media can arise. Often these projects are set up to give voice to issues and values dismissed by the mainstream but seen as important by certain groups, allowing them to ‘realign’ the balance of coverage (Keeble 2005, 63). Yet while they may work to air alternative voices, can it be said they provide true empowerment? Much of the public are unaware or actively ignore the media produced by the marginalised. With the rise of the web and the increasingly fractured nature of information consumption however, it may be time for a better informed public.

The crucial aspect of the internet’s ability for empowerment is the ease in which anyone can become a media producer. The most cited example of this is through blogs. As explained by Connell anyone who has access to the right tools has the ability to be a publisher, which he says could lead to the democratisation of the media landscape (Stuart 2006). Bucy and Gregson believe that internet participation by minorities can break down the barriers set in place by the professional system and allow direct communication between the public and the powerful (2001, 357 & 369). However it’s easy to overestimate the power of blogging. Much like the fourth estate it would be idealistic to believe that it can bring truly democratic media (Rundle 2005, 93). As Young (2011) explains, while there may be a greater diversity in content providers, much of the public still turn to the traditional and trusted news organisations for their information, albeit through online sources.

There is no doubt that the web is a great provider for communication and connection, though it remains to be seen whether blogs can become sufficient sources of information for the public. There are methods of communication other than blogging available to the marginalised however. Mehra, Merkel and Bishop (2004) cite the mailing list created by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT) at the University of Illinois as a fairly typical example of this. Through the mailing list the community was able to organise protests and support groups as well as providing a wide range of information (Mehra, Merkel & Bishop 2004, 789). The rise of social networking has been well documented with both the ‘Arab Uprising’ and London riots of 2012 linked to modern communication technologies such as Twitter. Yet, we live in a world still transitioning from the old media and while there may opportunity online to increase the scope of the minority voice we are yet to know whether or not this means empowerment for those not recognised by the mainstream media.

For people on the outside of society, finding representation has been an arduous task which in the majority of cases has not reaped any benefits. The media’s focus on acceptable debate due to the fear of isolating its audience is one that sits comfortably with the powerful few who are able to dictate content. It is therefore up to the marginalised to empower themselves through the creation of alternative media. There is a possibility that new technologies can bring minority issues to a wider audience but for the moment we are well and truly living through a trial period.

Bibliography:

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Allan, S. 2006. Online News: Journalism and the internet, Open University Press, Berkshire.

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