Media Manipulation and Its Adverse Effects on Society, an English Research Paper, by Honora M. Bowen

Honora Bowen

Eng – 103

6 December 2015

 

Media Manipulation and Its Adverse Affects On Society

 

Media has played an important role in mass communication for decades. From newspapers to television, radio, and now the internet, we have enabled ourselves to readily transmit or receive news and entertainment at the blink of an eye. But has our ability as a society to discern facts from fiction dissipated with the rise of new technology? What are the long term effects of the media on the world population as a whole if what we see, read, and hear is deliberately misleading us? As media continues to be meticulously manipulated while simultaneously increasing in popularity and usability, people are facing some potentially serious consequences.

Particularly in the last decade, with the rise of social media hubs such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and various websites that allow internet piracy and free downloads of television shows and movies, we have shifted to a time where most information is free and accessible, privacy is nearly nonexistent, and the fine line between reality and fiction is repeatedly blurred.

The technology available to ordinary citizens enables the manipulation of truth, which is then spread as fact. There is often no independent corroboration of the facts in the rush to get the information out there. Information flows so quickly and in such huge quantities that all kinds of internet users — individuals, corporate executives, government officials, media editors, and television producers — have difficulty keeping up effectively (Mintz).

 

Have you ever heard the phrase, “ask Google?” We have entered an age where almost anything in writing can be found via the internet–but how accurate is it all? The fact is, anybody can post a blog or article these days, regardless of their credentials. Although this can be seen as a good thing (freedom of information, freedom of speech, etc), it also means that the average internet surfer is likely to be mislead during any query they enter into their search bar. One instance of this is when a person turns to Wikipedia for an answer. Though what they read may be correct, it can also be edited by anybody else who comes across the page on the internet. So what we see as truth or fact is actually a collaboration of different opinions, none of which are cross-checked.

Major news channels use candidly attractive spokespeople to gossip about reality show actors-turned-politicians while sipping from carefully placed Starbucks cups and getting financial endorsements. It is nearly impossible to watch anything on television without being bombarded with advertisements for pharmaceuticals and fast-food products riddled with chemicals, followed by commercials for products which supposedly cancel out the harmful (but never mentioned) side-effects of poor diets. We promote obesity by promoting outrageously high-fat and calorie foods, told that we need to be thin and attractive, and are offered more pharmaceuticals for our now overloaded minds which crave the things that kill us. Even the most educational programming is chock-full of commercials, and every commercial tries to sell something–an idea, a product, a mindset. It is difficult to imagine how a person who spends substantial amounts of time exposed to constant advertisements on television and contrived news sources could not be somehow mislead by it all.

To an outsider, America (as a microcosm of the world population) may well look like it is on its way to embodying the characteristics of the futuristic garbage planet in Judge and Cohen’s movie Idiocracy, a comedy where everyone watches the television, stupid people have taken over the planet, and the world’s President is a former wrestling champion who believes a Gatorade-like sugary drink called Brawndo is good for the dying plants because it has electrolytes: “what plants crave” (Judge, 2003). Reality shows, the new trend in television entertainment, abound with naked or obnoxious people in awkward and risky situations, are designed to create entertainment from “real” situations using manipulative editing and dramatic storytelling, leaving the viewer with the impression that they have watched “reality” but often hiding the meticulously edited truth behind the scenes.

While alluding to the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Professor Edward D. Miller of the College of Staten Island, City University of New York says “the social possibilities, as Williams puts it, are left underexamined, while exhibitionist moments are shot in close-up, involving the audience in the emotions of the scene but not in the political dynamics of the event” (Miller). He quotes Williams’ theory that art begets art and technology begets technology: “The adaptation of received forms to the new technology has led in a number of cases to significant changes and to some real qualitative differences” (Miller). Hence, if today’s media will shape tomorrow’s, the extent of manipulative editing in the guise of reality may very well lead to an era of misinformation.

This misinformation era, however, is not accidental. Behind every advertisement is a carefully analyzed plan of action and often a political agenda. Miller points out that the US Army is one of the reality show Survivor’s biggest sponsors. Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid, another survivalist reality show, uses the premise that it is a social experiment. So, we must wonder not only why shows are edited in certain ways but what is the initial message its primary sponsors are intending to portray. Reality survival show contestants often boast of their newfound personal insights throughout their raw experiences of suffering, an uncanny similarity to the idea that someone in the US Army will, too, become heroic through their suffering and survival instincts (Miller). “‘There’s a pioneer spirit that exists in these types of shows, a sense of being the master of your own destiny when you’re in a survival situation, that people really find appealing,’ says Brian Catalina, an executive producer of Ultimate Survival Alaska. ‘That’s a part of our cultural DNA that we’re not that far removed from’”(Peisner).

What the viewer sees when watching a reality television show, despite it being called “reality,” is the edited side of things. They are oblivious to the other hundreds, if not thousands of hours of footage that occurred in between the 20 to 40 minutes of episode time. Scenes are edited with techniques such as worst-side shooting, causal deletion, nonlinear events shown out of context, cherry-picked quotes, and dramatic soundtracks (Manipulative Editing).

 

Instead of offering diversity, these shows will put forward ideal types as everyday people. Moreover, whereas contestants or participants may not be actors (and hence always acting as if they were their real true and always authentic selves), editing will turn interactions and confessions into montaged performances, showing how hours of dull footage can be edited into dramatic sequences. In these sequences, not all aspects of the story are included, nor will all viewers find themselves in the characters on screen.” (Miller)

 

Actors are perceived as real-life people because they are playing the part of themselves, but viewers are rendered unable to comprehend what they see as dramaticized because they believe they are watching reality. Essentially, the viewer sees an idealized version of a real person in a real situation that has been edited into an entirely new story. While the actor/ reality show participant may have been genuinely suffering while filming, their reasons for suffering often are not honestly portrayed. For instance, as with worst-side shooting and nonlinear editing, a person could be caught on film in the middle of an argument but the entire argument could be omitted so as to just see the person reacting to the other person, making them look irrational. If the person they are talking to has their back turned to the camera, their words could be muted and an entirely different scenario could be portrayed to the viewer, vilifying the seemingly reactionary person on camera. The viewer sees a situation which they believe is real, unknowing of the carefully executed editing used to create a fictional story from real circumstances.  As a result, public figures are made from fake circumstances using real people, and viewers are further misinformed about reality.

Simultaneously, as the new millennia progressed Hollywood, we saw the arrival of new myths, new heros, and stories that focused on fantasy and idealism rather than social or political commentary. Directors rarely make strong social statements because this would narrow their viewership, and they need as many supporters as possible in order to create the profits they desire (Mast and Kawin). So, if profits are the ultimate deciding factor in what directors put their efforts into, networks do not want to make bold political statements that would offend viewers, and politicians are willing to pay for advertising time, then clearly what we see on television is not only deliberate, it is financed by the few who can actually afford it, primarily the “one percent,” or the government.

In an anonymous and empirical survey of forty-seven people, conducted by the author of this paper (Bowen), when asked to use a scale of zero to ten (ten being most accurate) to rate their perceptions of various kinds of media portrayal accuracies, 38.31% of respondents answered that they believed that people portrayed on reality shows were portrayed with an accuracy of six to ten. Over 25% of respondents rated reality show personas as portrayed with a rated five accuracy and the remaining respondents rated portrayals as a zero to four accuracy. Thus, more than half of the respondents believe that reality show personas are at least fifty percent accurate in their portrayals (Public’s Perception of Media Accuracy). If this were used as a representation of the entire population, one might say that at least fifty percent of people believe at least fifty percent of what they see on television. If what is portrayed on television is not 100% accurate (which it is not), then the majority of the population is effectively being mislead.

One particular genre within reality television that has recently been put under the magnifying glass is that of “survival.” As networks strive to continue to push the envelope by creating increasingly dangerous and exciting television, production methods are starting to be questioned by not only the viewers but the actors or participants as well. Cody Lundin of Discovery Channel’s “Dual Survivor” says he was fired for refusing to partake in dangerous activities that his producer thought would be entertaining, and that “dealing with people who have no experience in [his] profession who are making a show on survival skills” puts viewers at risk (Peisner). Bear Grylls of the survival show “Man Vs. Wild” says, “The truth is, good survival requires you take no risks, stay put, make yourself safe, wait for rescue. But that’s boring TV” (Peisner). Hence, “survival entertainment,” as Lundin prefers to call the survival reality television genre, is not directed at teaching the public how to actually survive in life-threatening situations; rather, it is directed at ratings while possibly inspiring people to put themselves in life-threatening situations (Peisner). False situations are portrayed as real and educational, without long-term consideration towards the viewers who are being led to believe that the highly edited and dangerous scenarios are doable for them, or even safe at all. But it is not educational reality television at all, it is propaganda. It is a form of brainwashing which promotes the corporate mentality, directed at the entire population and orchestrated by the corporations and entities which fund the programs and networks themselves.

Even as the show is a fantasy about adapting to primitive life and becoming a native in a strange environment, it is an allegory about the individual in the corporate world. Such a person will eat a rat if he or she must. The viewer is given a simplistic reading of Darwin, one that justifies ruthless and selfish behavior.

 

Corporate ideology and its utilization of survival of the fittest have created a bizarre synergy… (Miller)

 

When taking into consideration that, if values such as the US Military’s motto “be all you can be” are being promoted through reality shows about survival of the fittest, while the shows are actually being funded by the US Military itself, it makes sense that this is deliberate. Large portions of the population can simultaneously be inspired to go on reckless adventures while obtaining unrealistic ideals of what it would be like to survive with close to nothing, all because they saw “real” people on a reality television show. As Miller says about Survivor, “participants argue that the challenge of the show has made them stronger and clearer about their place in the world…almost a golden product placement for one of the sponsors, the US Army, which suggests that a stint in the army is also about personal growth and giving a young recruit a leg up and not about defending global US interests” (Miller).

In another empirical survey, Bowen asked four other reality show participants from Discovery Channel’s show Naked and Afraid to rate how accurately they believed they were portrayed on television. One respondent answered “two,” another answered with “three,” and the other two answered with “five.” The same numbers were given when asked how accurately they believed other public figures are portrayed on television. Hence, of the four Naked and Afraid contestants, not including the author of this paper, an average of 3.75 out of a scale of zero to ten resulted in regards to their perceptions of how people are portrayed on television. When asked four separate questions regarding sense of health and well-being prior to and after filming, during the airing of their show on television, and after the airing of their show on television, every person responded with a decreased sense of health and well being as time progressed. The average sense of health and well-being prior to participating in a reality show, on a scale of 0 to 10, was 8.75, dropping to 7.75 after filming, 6.25 while their shows were being aired, and then slightly increasing to a plateau of 6.5% after their respective airings ceased. Hence, of four people who participated in the show Naked and Afraid, the average sense of health and well-being dropped by 22.5% after participating in a reality show, watching it air on television, and allowing time to pass (Public Figure and Media Perception Accuracy). For whatever each individual’s reasons were (health problems related to starving while filming Naked and Afraid, or being portrayed–or inaccurately portrayed–on television), each of the four surveyed reality show participants listed a long term decrease in overall sense of health and well-being after participation in the show.

Let us look at the types of manipulative editing techniques which were mentioned above: causal deletion, worst-side shooting, nonlinear events which are shown out of context, cherry-picked quotes, and dramatic soundtracks. In the case of causal deletion, editors can deny information or accentuate the negative (Manipulative Editing). Denial of information can occur when an action is portrayed as sudden when in actuality it was the result of multiple other instances or conversations which are omitted completely. This shortens the storyline so that it fits the allotted air time, but misleads the viewer because they no longer are privy to the actual reasoning behind the actions that are shown. Accentuation of the negative is when the producers and editors decide to only show the negative moments of a situation or person’s actions which were caught on camera (Manipulative Editing). If a person tends to become over-reactive when under stress, but is sweet and kind 99% of the time, it is likely that only the reactive moments will be shown because these are the dramatic moments which tend to make reality television interesting. Therefore, an entirely new persona is shown on television, one that may appear to be unpleasant 100% of the time, because only the negative aspects of their personality are shown. This is also an example of worst-side shooting.

Nonlinear events being shown out of context is a simple technique that allows the editor to truly cut-and-paste a storyline. In the case of Naked and Afraid, two contestants are placed in a remote location to survive naked and with limited survival tools for three weeks. Three weeks of camera time equates to a total of 10,080 minutes. The actual episode contains only 42 minutes, many of which are repeated scenes and stock footage of wildlife, so it would not be difficult to portray multiple scenes with vital soundbites or events in a nonlinear way. Contestants are often interviewed with pointed questions and asked to rephrase them in certain ways, so the reality show is actually shot for the purpose of creating a stockpile of footage which can be used in any way. A person may say, “I am so mad at that other person” during an on-the-fly interview on day 20, but the clip could be shown to occur on day 10 because it creates drama when immediately following an entirely unrelated scene. The viewer has no way of knowing there is a discrepancy in linear time, except perhaps if they notice that the contestant looks like they somehow gained weight while starving between day 10 and day 20.

Another technique that is often used in television is that of using voice-overs. Contestants or actors from any given show may be asked to participate in an off-scene voice recording session in which they repeat certain lines multiple times. Sometimes these lines are things that were actually said while filming and were not adequately caught with the sound recording equipment. However, while in a studio and doing voice-overs, it is easy enough to ask the person speaking to use different kinds of vocal inflections, thus adding to the tableau of sound bites which can later be integrated into the television program. If the actor who is speaking has their back turned, hiding their mouth from the camera, it is possible that the words being said are not ever actually said in that moment. Or, a person could be speaking with their back turned from the camera and their words could be muted, making it look like they are not speaking at all. With all of these editing techniques, cherry-picking lines is not very difficult to do.

Dramatic soundtracks and sound effects are integrated into nearly everything on television today. Pretend that you are watching a scene in which a person is about to reel something in from a river on a fishing line. You might hear a variety of music accompanying this scene. If the editors choose to play a light-hearted bluegrass or country song, the result would be that the anticipation of whatever is being caught has come with a sense of relief or joy. But if a darker tune, perhaps an epic piece from a classical composer like Wagner, for instance, is played, the scene would then be associated with fear or excitement over something which could be dangerous. Is the fisherman about to catch a catfish or a shark? The music can make you think either about what you are seeing. Dramatic sound bites can also be paired with scenes in a way so that the viewer associates the two things with each other (Manipulative Editing). For instance, if a person is talking about the beauty of the place they are in and the camera shows a scenic panorama, the viewer may think that what they are seeing is a beautiful place. If a person is talking about the danger of the place they are in and the scene actually portrays stock footage of a grizzly bear or anaconda, the emphasis of danger is shown through the wildlife. This can also be used to create public perceptions of public figures. In the final episode of Naked and Afraid XL, wherein twelve contestants reunite in Los Angeles after attempting to survive naked in the Orinoco Basin of Colombia for 40 days, this technique was used. Towards the end of the reunion episode, called “Dirty Dozen Return,” one contestant says, “Be prepared to confront ALL your demons,” as the camera zooms in on the author of this paper’s face, which happened to be giving a certain look that might be perceived as looming or negative (Garfinkle, “Naked and Afraid XL: Dirty Dozen Return”). When in actuality, the moment that is shown on the contestant’s face was not actually captured while the other contestant was speaking, it was a deliberate cut-and-paste of her facial expression, paired with the spoken words, taken from ten hours of studio footage. This may have been because the show deliberately vilified the author of this paper in their portrayal of her in response to her throwing her partners’ tools in a river, which had resulted in her getting kicked off the show.

Unfortunately, the editing techniques which have been mentioned (and there are many more) can be applied to anything on television–not just reality shows. When the four surveyed reality show participants from Naked and Afraid were asked how accurately they believed the news is portrayed on media, they responded with “zero, two, three, and five,” resulting in an average of 2.5 on a scale of zero to ten. When the forty-seven non-participants of any reality show were asked the same question, two respondents skipped the question while the remaining 45 respondents averaged 2.22 on the same scale of zero to ten (Public’s Perception of Media Accuracy). So while it may be clear that a public figure who has experienced manipulative editing personally may have a more discerning perspective over reality portrayals than the average viewer, it seems that most people are aware of the manipulation which occurs in the news, regardless of personal experience in the Hollywood industry.

Because there is no cross-checking of information before anything gets aired on television, what results is often an intentional and misleading portrayal of news in a way that deliberately promotes the Republican agenda, funded by the Republican party. Jon Stewart (the ex-host of The Daily Show) says, politicians with big money can set the media agenda by controlling it. As Trier, editor of the Media Literacy department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote, “in the 2007 interview, Stewart echoed his view that mainstream media was being (or was allowing itself to be) manipulated by presidential administrations” (Trier).  As mainstream news channels such as Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel no longer have to portray the news in an accurate manner, people are becoming increasingly dependent on comedy shows such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report on Comedy Central for their information. Such shows, which focus on the fallacies of Republican-funded mass media, make it a point to clarify these fallacies but while keeping the comedic appearance of satire. Because it is delivered as satire, Comedy Central has–ironically– found a way to point out the truth without getting sued by the politicians it makes fun of; in turn, viewers see “comedy” and interpret it as they wish. So, even if these satirical news shows are delivering fact over fiction, they can not actually come out and say this directly, because they are not an actual “news” channel.

In his article “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism,” Baym says that the boundaries between news and entertainment, and between public affairs and pop culture, have become difficult if not impossible to discern. At the intersection of those borders sits The Daily Show With Jon Stewart…although the program often is dismissed as being “fake” news, its significance for political communication may run much deeper” (Baym). In a cross-sectional study of The Daily Show and Colbert Report viewers which focused on avoidance and motivation behaviors behind watching the show, results “suggest[ed] high levels of political interest, attention, and knowledge among viewers (Young & Tisinger, 2006). Additional research indicates high levels of internal political efficacy among [The Daily Show] viewers and low trust in political institutions (Baumgartner & Morris, 2006).” (Young) So, as the media continues to manipulate the truth for viewers and viewers slowly become more skeptical, satire increasingly becomes a truer version of the news than the news which claims to be true.

We can also take a look at the agricultural industry and its effects on obesity for more examples of media manipulation and its negative effects on society. In the documentary Fed Up, they discuss how the US government played a large part in omitting daily sugar recommendations on nutritional labels because of the increase in use of refined sugar in food and dairy products. The “got milk?” campaign is shown to have been created for profit and not actually for health benefits. The American Medical Association worked directly with the Bush administration in deliberately omitting health recommendations for sugar because they were making so much money on obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases that they decided it was in their better interest to mislead Americans into poor dietary habits (Fed Up). Meanwhile, because of the low-fat and fat-free health fads which arose in the last few decades, extra milk fat was made into cheese products and redistributed through processed and fast foods (so that it was not wasted). These processed and fast foods are not regulated by the FDA with the same rigor as unprocessed and natural foods and often contain extremely unhealthy and unrealistic levels of sodium, sugar, fat, and calories. This leads consumers towards an incredibly unhealthy dietary concept. And all of these things are advertised on television.

Take McDonald’s as an example, which lists the nutritional facts for their foods online. One Bacon Clubhouse Burger contains 740 calories, 370 which are from fat (64% of the recommended daily value based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet). This one single burger also contains 62% of the recommended daily sodium intake, 41% of the recommended daily cholesterol intake, and fourteen grams of sugar, more than half the sugar of what is recommended per day (McDonald’s USA Nutrition Facts for Popular Menu Items). If a person were to combine medium french fries and a medium Coca Cola with their Bacon Clubhouse Burger, they would add a sickening 540 calories, an additional 24% of the daily recommended value of fat, and 55 grams of sugar. One medium-sized Bacon Clubhouse Burger Value Meal therefore contains 1,280 calories, 88% of the daily recommended value of fat, and 70% of their sodium intake. This same meal contains 69 grams of sugar– a whopping 276% of the recommended daily value (McDonald’s USA Nutrition Facts for Popular Menu Items). If a person increased their meal to a large or extra large value meal, they would probably exceed all of their dietary recommendations for the day in just one meal alone.

The recommended daily intake of sugar is 25 grams, or less than 10% of one’s total energy consumption, according to the World Health Organization (Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children). But, this is not listed on nutritional labels because most processed foods contain such high levels of sugar that the FDA would have to relist their entire food pyramid recommendations in order to create a balance for the sugar levels that we already are used to consuming. Additionally, most food companies (the majority which are owned under the umbrella companies Monsanto and Phillip Morris–the owner of Marlboro cigarettes and Kraft Foods) would have to create new recipes for all of their unhealthily sugary food products. One might wonder why this has not occurred yet. According to the World Health Organization, “increasing or decreasing free sugars is associated with parallel changes in body weight, and the relationship is present regardless of the level of intake of free sugars. The excess body weight associated with free sugars intake results from excess energy intake” (Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children). In an age when obesity is an increasing concern, “More than 2 in 3 adults are considered to be overweight or obese,” and “about one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese,” we have to wonder why this major omission of nutritional information continues in our society (Overweight and Obesity Statistics). According to the World Health Organization:

After extensive discussions, it was decided that excess weight gain and dental caries should be the key outcomes of concern in relation to free sugars intake. Risk of developing type 2 diabetes and CVD is often mediated through the effects of overweight and obesity, among other risk factors. Therefore, measures aimed at reducing overweight and obesity are likely to also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and CVD, and the complications associated with those diseases (“Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children”).

 

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases states that “Since the early 1960s, the prevalence of obesity among adults more than doubled, increasing from 13.4 to 35.7 percent in U.S. adults age 20 and older” (Overweight and Obesity Statistics). Furthermore, a myriad of health problems have been directly associated to being overweight, beyond CVD and diabetes. According to the World Health Organization:

Raised BMI is a major risk factor for noncommunicable diseases such as:

  • cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), which were the leading cause of death in 2012;
  • diabetes;
  • musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis – a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints);
  • some cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon).

The risk for these noncommunicable diseases increases, with an increase in BMI.

Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. But in addition to increased future risks, obese children experience breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early markers of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects. (Obesity and overweight).

 

In conclusion, the effects of media manipulation on society as a whole are so vast that we may not be currently comprehending the whole picture. But, if we know that media manipulation has an adverse effect on those who participate in the making of reality shows, leads viewers towards dangerous situations without educating them properly, twists the truth so that it deliberately propagates specific political agendas through news and entertainment programs alike, and promotes obesity and related disease through unhealthy promotional advertising, why are we continuing to allow ourselves to lose touch with reality? At what point do we stand up and demand reform–or, will we just sit idly by and allow ourselves and each other to continue to be brainwashed every time we turn on the television? It seems as though the powers that be, those who can afford to pay for production and advertising, are not looking out for the general welfare of society as a whole. Contrarily, we have allowed for corporations to become more important than people because we allow them to direct our attention towards the things that make them more money while at the expense of our health, knowledge, and integrity. While on one hand we are evolutionarily progressing towards the expansion of knowledge through our scientific pursuits as a species, we may also be regressing in our ability as a species to discern facts from fiction.

It is my hope that we turn our attention towards this issue and proactively take back our right to information–our right to accurate information, to be exact. Perhaps we could reform reality television so that a disclaimer might always be shown, explaining that what we are seeing is actually entertainment. We could follow Cody Lundin’s phrasing and call survival reality shows “survival entertainment.” The simple wording that we use may be all that needs to change. We could call the news what it is–news opinion, entertainment, or Republican entertainment. We could call reality television what it is–reality entertainment. When a network says a thing is fact and has no meter with which to measure its accuracy, we are allowing that network to lie to us. We are allowing television programming to literally program us. As the great jazz musician Miles Davis once wrote, “knowledge is freedom, and ignorance is slavery” (Davis, 1989). Let us, as human beings who all deserve to be free, put a stop to the media’s enslavement of our minds. Let us seek out truth in everything.

 

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