Media: Influence, Power and Reliability. What can we trust?

Medias : influence, pouvoir et fiabilité
Media: Influence, Power and Reliability (Lecomte, 2012)

In 2009 I made the interesting discovery that a lot of people find my website by asking questions about media: Do the media tell the truth? Do they manipulate us? What is their influence? Can we believe journalists? How can we accurately evaluate information? These and other questions reveal the theme of the book – the desire to know more – so I wrote Media: Influence, Power, and Reliability.

The first part of my book answers these questions. It explains why the information in the media is not always reliable, and how it works.

The first chapter is about propaganda (especially during the WWI and WWII) and political communication. It shows that communication is key for politicians, according to their campaign expenditures (e.g. in the US, in Belgium or in France). It also introduces some criteria to evaluate the reliability of the information: Who’s the author? What are the characteristics of the content? After that, the book gives an overview of some relationships between media and politics (e.g. in Europe: S. Berlusconi, N. Sarkozy, and elsewhere: China, North Korea).

The second chapter explains how mass media works: how journalists select the information and the effects of this selection (e.g. McCombs, Shaw, 1972) and how they shape the content. It also reveals stereotypes (e.g. racial, gender, ethnic) and ideologies found in the media, even in some productions that can seem insignificant (e.g. in US comics, music videos).

The third chapter is about the links between mass media and the economy. It describes how advertising works. That leads to critical theories and the concepts of « Cultural Industries » (Adorno and Horkheimer), « alienation » or « habitus » (Bourdieu). The audience is a target. In 2004, TF1 (the first TV channel in France) CEO Patrick Le Lay said that his job was to sell « available human brain time » to Coca-Cola. The consequences are numerous: spectacularization, race for scoops resulting in limited fact checking, entertainment, story telling, and so on.

In the end, the first part of Media: influence, power and reliability asks « If information can be so biased, what can we trust? Are lies a problem if nobody believes them? »

The second part of the book analyzes people’s beliefs and how they use the media. If we want to understand the media, we have to understand our own relationship to the media, and this book teaches us that.

The first chapter of this second part shows that these beliefs are sometimes paradoxical. Sometimes they aren’t based only on rational criteria (e.g. some conspiracy theories). It seems that there is a trend to be suspicious about media, politics, economy, or even society in the broad sense. In the end, we see that these opinions are mostly based on sociological and emotional issues. Lazarsfeld (1944) shows that our feeling of belonging to a party or a community influences our choices. Cohen (2003) also shows « the dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs ». As journalists select and shape the information, people also choose, interpret, and memorize information with their own biases. Sometimes, their practices differ from what they say: when you ask people if they prefer « quality papers » or reality shows, they rarely say that they prefer reality shows, but statistically that’s what they watch the most. This can be explained by the fact that there are psychological and social dimensions that shape how people rationalize their habits.

The second chapter of the second part is about the construction of the messages of the media. Peers play an active role in the way an individual selects, interprets or shares the information. I also introduce some tools to evaluate the reliability of information on the Internet.

The last part of the book is an invitation to continue to analyze the media and the way we perceive the information using other tools and theories.