That Infectious Panic

The term ‘moral panic’ is defined as an “instance of public anxiety” which can further serve as a threat to the behavourial norms and expectations existing in society. So when relating this Oxford definition back to the mass media, a ‘moral panic’ can be somewhat sensationalised in the public eye and therefore “fan public indignation” towards a certain “deviancy”, as Jock Young states in this publication. The ‘tabooed’ subject of the sexualisation of children in the media is a topic that generates much debate towards defining the lines between art and child pornography. Ergo, when such public anxieties are born, the media has the ability to ‘feed-the-fear’ so to say in order to intensify this ‘moral panic.’

Referring to the sexualisation of children in the media as being a cultural ‘trend’ definitely stresses the presence of a looming ‘moral panic.’ Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze quite thoroughly outline how the media’s impact on the sexualisation of children has become “increasingly influential” in their paper Corporate Paedophilia. They argue that if “public avoidance” continues on this topic, the “trend towards increasing sexualisation of children is also likely to continue.” Thus, the media’s influence on a topic such as the sexualisation of children is the trigger that provokes a moral panic.

As you can see below, this ad campaign by French clothing line Cadeaux created much controversy in 2011. The girls in the campaign were described as being “highly sexualisedas they were presented in, “both mature and provocative clothing and poses” which even began to point fingers towards child pornography.

Photographs from 2011 Cadeaux Magazine Issue, image via https://cinzee.wordpress.com/tag/fashion-editorial/

Photographs from 2011 Cadeaux Magazine Issue, image via
https://cinzee.wordpress.com/tag/fashion-editorial/

But despite this initial impression, other people did not seem to feel quite so repulsed. The anonymous blogger behind ‘Beautifully Invisible’ gives a valid opinion on these photographs. “These girls were clearly (in my opinion) styled to look like they were playing dress up in their mother’s clothing. I mean, what young girl doesn’t do that when she is growing up?” Upon reading her verdict, I must admit it did make me reconsider my first perception of the image. However, if your opinion was that of ‘girl-losing-innocence’ like mine, then we are seeing just how this public anxiety over this issue is initially conceived through controversial ad campaigns.

I happened to come across perhaps some rather uplifting photographs that I will share with you. Taken by photographer and mother Kate T. Parker, her message of “strong is the new pretty” sees her creatively challenge how young girls should be portrayed, or in this case, photographed. As stated in this article, Kate took these photographs of her daughters to show girls “who are not empowered by their looks,” but who are instead, living their “fullest, most fearless lives.”

Photographs by Kate T. Parker, image via bustle.com

Photograph by Kate T. Parker, image via bustle.com

Photograph by Kate T. Parker, image via bustle.com

Photograph by Kate T. Parker, image via bustle.com

The question of what can be considered art or child pornography is definitely a debate that may never see an end. As seen in the media, controversial images can precipitate a ‘moral panic’ especially when involving childhood innocence. And so, by ‘feeding-the-fear’ through sensationalising such incidences, it is not strenuous to see how the media can be the roots of hatching moral panics within the public eye.

The Public is (not) Public

When considering the public sphere in the media, it can be somewhat of an illusion to believe that the information that we willingly welcome is not mediated. Habermas’ theory that the public sphere is “a network of communicating information and points of view,” only applied to a fraction of the population, which brings into debate if the public sphere can ever truly be ‘public.’ The foundations of this concept that emerged in the 18th century meant that an “open discussion of all issues of general concern” could be subject to communal debate. However, just as James Deane describes in his chapter Media, democracy and the public sphere, what we see nowadays is the “erosion of the public sphere” which has been instigated by the supremacy of such elements in the media.

The public sphere’s structure as mentioned by Douglas Kellner, reflects the features of capitalist societies. As he states, “public opinion was formed by dominant elites and thus represented for the most part their particularly private interests.” So quite frankly, the public sphere was not so ‘public’ after all. I mean, the fact that this form of ‘social transformation’ was only exclusive for the elite, means that certain groups were “excluded.” But, in saying this Habermas did argue that he in fact was outlining an ‘ideal’ picture of the bourgeois public sphere and not a ‘normative’ vision.

Members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, Theodor Adorno and Mark Horkheimer discuss the association of the public sphere and the media with clarity as referred to in Kellner’s study. He states that their “analysis of the culture industry” considers how “giant corporations have taken over the public sphere” and as a result, have converted it into one of “manipulative consumption and passivity.” In other words, what was first thought to be the rational discussion of ideas and concerns has evolved into the “manufactured opinion of polls or media experts.”

Looking at such shows such as Q&A or Insight really do bring into attention how mediated information is instigating a mediated public sphere. As described on the Insight SBS website, it is “a discussion forum focusing on a single issue with the participation of a studio audience.” Like Habermas’ idealization, this form of ‘public debate’ is limited to specific viewers, for all television companies have the power to determine what they can unveil to the audience. Furthermore, they are able to select which opinions are heard and which ones are not. Just as Habermas’ theory “excluded the poor and women,” and consisted of “educated and literate” males, content in the media is being “shaped by the demands of advertisers and sponsors who pay for the newly liberalized media” with an intense “focus on profitability” as Deane points out.

So at the end of the day, the notion that the public sphere is fair-minded is sadly a little shadier than one might initially suspect. As can be seen in today’s increasingly competitive media market, the presence of mediated information is what leads to a mediated public sphere. I hope that what you take away from this is the simple acknowledgment that certain corporations can control the public sphere in the media. Thus, through an awareness of this, you can improve your receptivity to the information you accumulate.

Utilising Your Power of Choice(s)

Within the game of media ownership, it is necessary to consider the origins of an opinion. The idealisation of the media being unbiased and purely objective is an unattainable reality, as everybody has their own verdict. However, when this personal verdict is amplified on a large scale, it is fitting to query the validity of what we are consuming as being impartial material. The competitors in the mass media market have the ability to inflict upon us, ideologies that have been conjured to persuade our judgment to ultimately provoke a collective perspective. So, in order to avoid this prevailing form of partiality, it is vital to comprehend the framework of media ownership and how you can be unknowingly affected by it.

Despite whether you’re consciously aware of the mastery that comes with media ownership, I have no doubt that you have heard of the name Rupert Murdoch. Head of News Corporation and founder of the Fox Broadcasting Company, Murdoch’s possession of major media establishments certainly highlights the impressiveness of an unsatisfied hunger for power. Additionally, he controls satellite operator BSkyB, owns four national newspapers as well as social website MySpace. He also holds presence in assorted, “publishing, film, television and newspaper interests across the world,” as described in The Politics of Media. The fact that Murdoch holds such supremacy over global media distribution, is founded on the concept that media ownership is of significance when it comes to consumption. Ergo, media ownership where concentrated, is encouraging such corporations or private owners to gain “unaccountable political and economic power” as they are “able to deploy their market power to act as influential cultural gatekeepers.”

The Bulletin magazine in 2006, named Murdoch the most influential Australian. Now lets ponder on this for a minute, as it is not everyday that a media guru is named the most noteworthy Australian. From receiving this title, it definitively portrays Murdoch’s ownership over media platforms as being somewhat godly. And from Murdoch’s extensive reputation, it isn’t hard to see how the Murdoch Empire can serve the interest of those in power.

A major incident in which Murdoch was under fire for biased publications was that of the 2013 federal election. As stated in this article, Prime Minister (at the time) Kevin Rudd had accused his newspapers as “campaigning for a change of government.” As a result, editors of notable newspapers were written to in order to “stress the need” of distinguishing “news from editorial opinion.” The Sydney Daily Telegraph, Melbourne Herald Sun and the Brisbane Courier-Mail had begun what seemed like “scores of anti-Labour front-page items” which seemed content on degrading Kevin Rudd as seen below. Here, we can see how foremost media corporations can attempt to prevail individual opinion with serious magnitude.

The 2013 'Biased' Federal Election Campaigns in the Sydney Telegraph, image via theconversation.com

The 2013 ‘Biased’ Federal Election Campaigns in the Daily Telegraph, image via theconversation.com

Always be aware of the bias. But, do not let this knowledge make you abandon your preferred news corporations. I do not care if you follow Seven News or The Australian. As long as they aren’t your only source of information, your boat is still floating. Learn to immerse yourself in divergent types of media coverage. That way not only do you have one opinion up your sleeve, but many.

Victim of the Visual

There are no facts, only interpretations.”

If you take that statement by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and apply it to every advertisement, sign or image you see, it can become patent as to why ‘readings’ of visuals can impose a stance of superiority. Your interpretation can be completely different to my interpretation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that either opinion is inaccurate or justified. Our opinions are never truly exclusive, as there are seven billion other minds out there that offer varying explanations and standpoints. Nevertheless, it is the power of these interpretations that sees the collective acceptance of a message be stimulated.

In order to appropriately identify the message of a sign or image, the theory of ‘semiotics’ is required. This theory created by Ferdinand de Saussure, sees the signifier and signified aspects of an image reliant upon a person’s own knowledge and perspective regarding the message being portrayed. Therefore, the image or sign as de Saussure describes, can be analytically divided in parts by recognising the denotations and applying this knowledge to decipher the connotation.

Ingredients to make a connotation

There are certain ingredients in conveying a connotation.

Study the image above. Now you might be wondering why I am referring to an image of a delectable dessert… but I assure you it is all to prove a basic point and not to make your stomach grumble. The denotation of this image is of course the cupcake and candle, as these are the most conspicuous features of the image. Through the association of these two ‘symbolic’ representations, we are then compelled to lean towards the concept of perhaps a birthday, or more specifically, a girl’s birthday as suggested by the colour. Ergo, this is how the connotation of an image is constructed.

By living in a westernised culture, our interpretations are determined by our ideologies and interactions within society. The fact that the majority of us would of had some exposure to devouring a cupcake on our birthday, shows us that our final interpretation is reliant upon our familiarity with the subject of the image. Blowing out that candle not only granted us a wish, but it also implanted a collective visualisation of what a birthday should look like.

It is expected that many people see the media industry to exploit particular characteristics of a representation to alter the truth. As Ann Marie Barry describes in her novel, such actions can appear “truly sinister” and can further threaten the “whole superstructure of society.” As you can see in the image below, the idea that the media is spoon-feeding us daily tales of deception is quite a common one. However, it would be more appropriate to say that the media can direct our interpretation down a certain path from their intention. Ergo, it is the author’s intent that escorts the viewer to accept their opinion of truth on the subject being depicted.

Consume and comprehend the message.

Consumption vs comprehension.

Don’t be that guy sitting in the chair. Instead, be the guy who’s aware of the countless connotations. Just because something is black and white to you, doesn’t mean it’s the same for the next person. Allow yourself to distinguish the cogent attributes that contribute to the composition of a representation. Allow yourself to appreciate the multitude of meanings it may have.

Don’t be the victim of the visual. Instead, be the well-informed interpreter.

The Blame Game

For people like you and me, it is given that an acknowledgement must be made towards the sovereignty that the media holds. Everyone obviously realises that living in the twenty-first century means that the media holds some worth in your life. But because of this ‘in-your-face’ presence it seems to have, people tend to think that this directly dictates our behavioural habits and more specifically, our ‘aggression’ that manifests from watching violent media.

As Richard Felson writes astutely in his review, technological developments have “dramatically increased the availability of violent entertainment.” Ergo, violence is a popular form of entertainment as we can frequently see in big blockbuster movies and crime shows that raid our television. He also mentions that through seeing an increase of violent crime, some scholars claimed that there was a “causal connection” between the cause and effect of such occurrences. However, this “causal connection” is not enough to blame it solely on the media.

To solve this theory, Professor Steven Messner used his expertise in crime and sociology to see if there was in fact, a “causal connection”. He examined the audience size estimates based off violent television shows in the US and compared the results to areas with high crime rates. The results were quite surprising satisfying. They were “contrary to expectations” as mentioned in this paper, which led to Messner speculating that perhaps the more we watch violent television, the less likely we are going to trifle with aberrant behaviour.

The common argument that surrounds this debate is the susceptibility of children to media violence. Referring to Bandura’s ‘BoBo Doll’ experiment, I see this as being about as pointless as the ‘g’ in sovereign. According to Felson, Bandura claimed that television “distorts knowledge” and provokes an aggressive response. But putting a child in a room and telling them to imitate violent actions is not going to prove this. Show me the logic, please.

The apparent ‘bombardment’ of evidence surrounding the causality of media violence and crime is not so overwhelming, amusingly enough. As psychology professor Jonathan Freedman answers, the evidence is not anything that’ll make you set your television on fire. He concludes that either there is “no effect of television violence on aggression” or that if there is, it is “vanishingly small.” So quite frankly, the “research” and “experiments” that attempt to blame childhood aggression appear to be quite dodgy. This is since most participants in such research including children, upon realising the objective of the researcher, comply with the intent of the experiment, thus making it not authentic. For as Freedman aptly remarks, a Bobo doll is made to be hit, just as a “soccer ball is made to be kicked.”

Remember, the facts speak for themselves. Violence as seen through the media is not making us primitive, people. Rather, it is an endless checklist of other possibilities including background, genetic composition, education, relationships and so on. After all, your relationship with the media directly depends upon your interaction within it. In reality, media effects are minor on an individual. So as long as we keep our mindfulness about it, don’t blame the media for motivating people’s mistakes.