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How the media shapes our perceptions of reality.

Since the time the printing press and movable type was invented by Johann Gutenberg around the year 1450 AD, mass media has been busy shaping, and at times manipulating, what people perceive to be 'truth' or 'reality'. Mass media, whether by print, radio, television, or now online via the Internet, inevitably provides the raw information from which people form their basic understanding of the world around them. Without the media, our 'reality' and knowledge of events would rarely extend beyond the towns in which we lived, or that which we experienced ourselves directly.

Think about it. For the vast majority of people, we really only 'know' what is happening around the world because one or two news organizations told us so. For the most part, we have no practical way of verifying everything which is presented to us by the media, and will often assume the information to be fact.

However, even if the information is true, it still is only one perspective of the 'truth', which is that of the media organization presenting it. The limitation in this is that this myopic view of the world gives most people only a very limited, media filtered picture of the 'truth', with little opportunity to consider alternative perspectives which may also be true, and worth exploring.

Our individual opinions on a topic can be heavily influenced by the manner in which a story is presented. The presenters tone of voice, word selection, choice of questions, and their personal beliefs all can influence how their story is interpreted by the viewer, and the conclusions that the viewer may reach.

Even the order in which the news stories are presented can make a large difference in how the viewer will perceive what is of great importance, and therefore what topics to which they should pay attention. Consider, for example, the recent presidential campaign. Who decided which were the important topics for the voters to pay attention to in deciding who to vote for? Was it the individual voter, or the news media?

The mass media becomes the gate-keeper, in many ways dictating what topics people learn about, think about, and talk about. In this way, the media plays a major role in creating and shaping society's Public Opinion.

In colonial times, Benjamin Franklin's paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, served as a tool not only for informing the public of important events that had occurred, but for expressing ideas from opposing sides of issues. Franklin wrote, "when men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick." [sic]

Thomas Jefferson echoed this sentiment saying, "Let us freely hear both sides," entrusting the wisdom of American citizens to decide for themselves what they believed, and which statements were true and which were false. He believed, as John Milton did, that 'truth' would always be victorious over falsehood.

However, 'truth' is subjective to the person perceiving it. What is 'truth' to one person, is simply an 'opinion' to another. The media, it must be remembered, has a powerful influence on what an audience will perceive as the 'truth', especially when they repeat the same message enough times.

This can be illustrated by considering two of the largest media outlets in America, CNN and FOX. CNN claims that they are "the most trusted name in news", and "your need to know network". At the same time, FOX claims that they are "fair and balanced." Both these stations and their slogans can easily be refuted by those "on the other side" who would not agree with them. But for those that do agree with them, it IS the truth. Regardless of which of those two networks you might prefer, keep in mind that when they report on international news, they are both American perspectives, with an American bias. Consider for a moment how an Egyptian paper might report the same event that occurs in Iraq. One man's truth can easily be another man's propaganda.
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Author:Feliciano, Ray
Publication:The Informed Constituent (Albany, NY)
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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