Mediated views

The day after the hostage crisis involving tourists from Hong Kong ended in tragedy, nearly everyone who had anything to say on the incident became an instant specialist on police matters, hostage situations, weaponry, governance, diplomacy, law, psychology, communications, mass media coverage, etc.  Name it: everyone knew what should have been done under the circumstances.  The citizen-expert had only one question to ask: Who is to blame?

What we have here, I think, is a series of unexpected and unfortunate outcomes in search of causes.  Not as obvious are the unexamined prejudices – racial, political, personal, class, organizational, etc. – that have been activated, all searching for confirmation.  The net result of all this has been an explosion of judgments, condemnations, and calls for accountability, resignation, dismissal, and reparation based on a limited appreciation of the “facts.”

This is not peculiar to us Filipinos, though we do suffer from a tendency to think the worst of ourselves. This is just how the mass media reflects reality everywhere.  The preference for disruptive and conflictful events is inherent to the system of the mass media.  What is newsworthy is the bizarre, the unexpected, and the scandalous.  On the other hand, the normal, the ordinary, the routinary, and the overall consistency of everyday life merit little if any attention.

Let me say it differently, without minimizing the gravity of last Monday’s tragedy, where eight innocent human beings died needlessly and in a very traumatic way.  It is important to point out that on all the other days of the year, current and past, tourists have come to our country, typically enjoyed our people’s hospitality, felt safe during their stay, and went home with only positive memories of their visit. In short, except for this single tragic incident, we know how to take care of our tourists.  But this isn’t worth reporting.

This kind of selectiveness is not maliciously motivated.  It’s just the way the mass media works. “Unrest is preferred to peace,” said Niklas Luhmann in his study of the modern mass media, “for reasons to do with the media designers’ professional skills.” The problem is that the media do not control the meanings that its mass audiences give to the information they receive.  We may often wish that media outfits would be more judicious or “responsible” in their reporting of events, or more sensitive to the possible effects of the information and utterances they make their viewers see and hear. This self-awareness could certainly be sharpened by the reiteration of ethical codes of professional practice.  But, it is important to keep in mind, that the partial nature of the view of reality that media projects is something that cannot be entirely avoided.

That is why the live coverage of an ongoing incident is always a precarious and risky business.  Live television picks and projects images it can no longer take back.  These are instantly seized upon by viewers and incorporated into their own existing framework of meanings.  The opportunity to put these in context, and thus, somehow limit their meanings is crucially foregone by live reporting.

Treated to a blow-by-blow account of an unfolding situation, the public, as so often happens, begins to believe it has thereby acquired a factual and complete grasp of the events.  Under these circumstances, we tend to judge impulsively and moralize quickly.  The more difficult task of carefully understanding how an event happened, of establishing a compact relationship to the facts, does not concern us.  We rely almost completely on the mass media for our definitions of reality, forgetting that media’s way of seeing and reporting is driven by its own necessities.

This period of criticism and dissension will soon pass however. It will be followed, says Luhmann, by a frenzy of moral preaching.  “Morality needs the obviously scandalous in order to have occasion to rejuvenate itself; it needs the mass media and, specifically, television.”  Having illumined only one side of reality — i.e. “where the action is” – the mass media, writes Luhmann in his book “The reality of the mass media,” tries to balance this by voicing, in “tones of regretful loss,” the moral lessons to be learned.  In such ways does the mass media play the role of agent of moral renewal, a function that used to be the mandate of “sages, priests, the nobility,” and other distinguished individuals in pre-modern society.

In one sense, the moralizing is unavoidable.  It is through the mass media that society observes itself.  And through such self-observation, “society stimulates itself into constant innovation.”  But moral judgments have a limited value in guiding societal transformation.  They tend to obviate the need to adequately understand the conditions that make existing arrangements the way they are.  They focus too much on changing people, rather than identifying alternative structures.

We know that governance hasn’t been our strongest suit as a nation.  In the last four decades we have had difficulty stabilizing our political life and providing enough jobs at home for our people. The deployment of millions of our people as guest workers in affluent countries under conditions sometimes akin to modern slavery is not a source of pride for us. But we are far from being a failed state. The sooner we stop drawing perverse satisfaction from engaging in national self-laceration by judging ourselves on the basis of a single incident, the easier it will be to change our society.