The value of news in modern society

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MODERN society differs from previous ones in that knowledge has increased phenomenally. There are various institutions that exist to promote the generation and dissemination of information.

The commonly held assumption is that newspapers, radios and television channels are the primary purveyors of news. Very few people would expect magazines or textbooks to distribute news.

News as a type of knowledge refers to that temporary or perishable information pertaining to aspects of reality which is shaped by the sociocultural and political discourse that predominate a particular place or period of time.

There are many schools of thought that shape the generation and dissemination of news. The news media industry worldwide is dominated by giant oligopolistic media houses or firms that seek to promote the interests of nation states of those who own and operate the media houses. Generally speaking, the media of the contemporary world is shaped by the dominant neo-liberal intellectual and cultural discourse which is fostered by the developed predominantly Western countries.

There also seems to be a widespread belief that for news to be news and saleable it has to be negative. For instance, if a person who was regarded as a hero in society like a community leader, a prominent socialite, a television personality or a sports star falls from grace; mainstream news media usually pounce on this.

Questions that arise because of this phenomenon are: Does society have a strong appetite for the very same negative things which are loathed by the greater majority? What role has the media played over time in promoting the perception that news is negative information about something or someone?

To what extent is it possible to refocus the common perception that scandals and negative information about people and institutions is more of news than positive developments in contemporary society like the construction of a dam in Kezi or the building of a hospital in Gwanda?

There is no discounting the fact that we live in a world with many challenges and people expect their role models to have behaviour, character and conduct which are beyond reproach.

This expectation is rooted in the belief that those that the society affords more space, resources and opportunities have to give more to society by way of mentoring, inspiring and encouraging the weak and underprivileged. If such personalities are found to be doing the opposite of what they ought to be doing, the media as the fourth estate or the eyes and ears of society normally shouts upon the roof-tops the ineptitudes or failures.

The media plays a major role in creating or inventing super stars in sports, religion, politics, business and other spheres of human activity. That is what some tabloids, magazines and some television channels in developed countries thrive on.

One opinion leader once argued that if the media in the United States does not vote for you, you cannot become president. This view is given credence by the fact that the media plays a crucial role in shaping people’s opinions and perceptions of reality.

Reality is always in a state of flux and too dynamic to such an extent that resources are needed to unpack the simple and complex things happening around us.

Since those who create normally have the ability to destroy, the media also feels compelled to expose (read destroy) any mortal that fails to measure up to the lofty ideals of society.

In Zimbabwe there are places that are never meaningful reported in the mainstream news media because of the wrong perception that they are socioeconomically insignificant. The stories that are usually churned out about such places are normally weird hearsay stories which form the mainstay of gossip news outlets.

The time has come for the media to revisit its dominant business model. The belief that people have an insatiable demand for negative information has to be revisited. While misdemeanours may need to be heralded and chronicled to serve as lessons for future generations on the do’s and don’ts of society, the current media discourse also needs to counter balance negative reporting of human activities by equally celebrating the good that happens in the world around us.

Of course no one expects the media as the fourth estate to hero worship prominent people or dominant institutions in society. Nevertheless the good that people do must be equally celebrated.

It is quite reasonable to believe that if courts can be enlisted to facilitate the creation of a television channel to churn out constant reportage on the frailties of one person, channels can also be created to celebrate the lofty achievements of many unsung heroes and heroines and those who rise from the gutter — most to the uppermost in society.

But the question is: In the predominant contemporary media discourse who or which institution is willing to invest large sums of money to highlight the good or best that is happening around us?

 Ian Ndlovu is an economics lecturer based at the National University of Science and Technology. His research interests cover business, development, economic and e-commerce issues. He writes in his personal capacity.