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Can a State-Controlled Media Be More Truthful Than An Independent One?

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George Gerbner was one of the earliest researchers to study how television affected the public. He believed that TV shows were communicating a lie about how awful life is. Not one show. All of them put together.

If anyone knew that the world could be tough, George Gerbner knew. He had fled Hungary in 1939, trying to escape fascism. In 1943 he returned, a soldier, blowing up bridges for the Allies. His brigade was reduced by over three-quarters by the end of the European war. This was not a man who saw the world through rose-tinted glasses.

So when he was shocked by the picture of the world that he saw on television, it wasn't just naïveté. Gerbner had spent the fifties getting a doctorate in communications, and was one of the first researchers to look at how television shaped the public consciousness. In 1968, he started talking about what he thought tv was doing to people's picture of the world. The modern public was suffering from "Mean World Syndrome."


Sure, life was hard, but looking at the television made it seem a lot harder than it actually was. People who spent a great deal of time watching television, he found, had an inaccurate picture of the world. They felt that violence, corruption, and danger were more widespread than they were in reality. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Gerbner found that the fictional world on television was short of women, except when it came to murder victims, where women far outnumbered men. The same applied to minorities, except for young, poor, men, who tended to be the villains. Other than villainy, poor people didn't have much to do on screen. Anyone who wasn't middle-class or higher simply wasn't on tv unless they were about to stab someone to death.


Gerbner believed that the violence and fear-mongering on television wasn't just an expression of the lowest common denominator of popular taste, it was a method of social control. It made people fearful, easily manipulated, and dependent on authority. They saw a scary world, they believed it, and they reacted accordingly.


If Gerbner is correct, this is a society-wide problem. There is no single television show, news program, or reality show, that is source of public misconceptions about the world. The grouping of all of them together is the problem. People may be able to sue a show for slander, or criticize a show for misleading information, but there is no real way to fight against the media in general selecting stories - fiction and nonfiction - that paint a threatening picture of the world. It is a kind of meta-lie that can't be corrected.

Or can it? This would probably not earn Gerbner's approval, but if the aggregate media is telling a lie, should there be some aggregate response? If people are so entirely off in their view of the dangers of crime, or of certain segments of society, or of natural disasters, is there good in forcing the media to change? Should governments force media outlets to inform the public in such a way that people who consume media will have a more accurate view of the world, instead of a less accurate view of it? Should there be meta-laws to combat the meta-lie?


Obviously, this opens the door to propaganda, and stifles free speech. Even if such laws were enacted, it's doubtful that they would actually work. There's always an underground paper. There are always banned books in circulation. I don't think it's a good idea. But I have to wonder, is there good in restricting speech, if you know the speech you are restricting communicates a lie?

[Via The Atlantic, University of Texas.]