In our journalism schools the students learn different theories of the media. This is good, because a journalist should know there is not one correct view of the media, but it is possible to hold different, contradictory, views of the media, that are al valid. However one important theory is often left out, which deprives our future journalists of an important way to look at their occupation: the Propaganda Model of the media, developed by Herman and Chomsky.
The Propaganda Model describes how the Main stream Media in the USA functioned in 1988 when the book “Manufacturing consent” was published. There is an updated version from 2008 with an updated foreword and an updated post script. This updates the text somewhat, but it is not essential to my point here. I am trying to apply the Propaganda Model of the media to the Malawian situation now.
The Propaganda Model describes five filters through which the news goes before it is published.
- the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;
- advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;
- the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;
- “flak” as a means of disciplining the media;
- anticommunism as a national religion and control mechanism.
Some of these apply to Malawi 2017, others need some adjustment.
Let’s look at them one by one:
- Ownership of the media has a clear influence on the editorial content. The public broadcaster is heavily influenced by the ruling party. On the other hand the private media tend to have a more liberal look on society, as one would expect from a profit based enterprise. They are promoting a liberal democracy with rule of law. The reporting is heavily biased towards politicians, who are often criticized for corruption, nepotism and such. Conversely many politicians have criticized the private media for being unpatriotic, biased, politically motivated and such.
- Advertising is a typically capitalist business: it promotes products to increase sales. Also in Malawi there are a lot of government sponsored advertisements. Advertising brings in most of the revenue for print media (mostly the two dailies) and all for the private broadcast media and the few internet publications that are not politically financed. . The public broadcasters are financed mainly from tax money through the ruling party, which gives a very different kind of bias. The business sections of the newspapers are strongly influenced by advertisers, who get preferential treatment for coverage in the newspapers. Also, capitalist advertisers would not want to advertise in a medium that is strongly critical of capitalism. This is clear in the US as shown by Herman and Chomsky. I do not have numbers available for the Malawian media.
- The reliance on information provided by government, business and experts funded by these is clear in Malawi. The coverage of news is heavily biased towards politics. Often journalists rely on transport provided by organizers of an event covered, and there are persistent rumours of “checkbook journalism” where the subject pays for the coverage. Because of strong budget constraints in the Malawian media often the funds are not available for independent research, especially when travel is required. This biases the news towards the financially strong in society. In Malawi this also includes NGOs, who provide journalists with opportunities to cover the news they find important.
- “Flak” in this case means lambasting of the media by government, business, business or government financed “think tanks” and such. In Malawi the media seems to be unimpressed with government lambasting, but does rely heavily on government or university experts. This is specifically prominent in economic and political reporting. This means other trends in thinking than those promoted by government or universities are mostly excluded from the news.
- Anti-communism is not very applicable in the 21st century, since communism as a world power is non-existent. In the US it has been replaced by the ”war on terror”. We notice this mostly in international news that is almost completely copied from international press agencies like BBC and Reuters. A clear exception is the reporting from IPS which sometimes is published in Malawi, and does not have this bias.
All in all, our news is strongly filtered in one direction, which means that it is difficult for the electorate (and the population as a whole) to form a sound opinion on matters of policy. This undercuts the quality of our democracy. We need wider news coverage with less filtering.