The Civic Responsibility of the Media in SVG

What is the Civic Responsibility of the Media in St Vincent and the Grenadines?

The following are the comments I prepared for a St. Vincent and the Grenadines Community College panel discussion on “What is the Civic Responsibility of the media in St Vincent and the Grenadines?” at the Peace Memorial Hall in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on August 22, 2012. I was asked to speak for ten to ten to fifteen minutes on “Foreign influences: What comes into SVG, what goes out of SVG via: the Internet, social media (especially photographs); music and music videos; movies and television programmes and lifestyle images and information.” (Click here for PDF. Please check against delivery.)

What is the Civic Responsibility of the Media in St Vincent and the Grenadines?

The topic of tonight’s discussion is: “What is the Civic Responsibility of the Media in St Vincent and the Grenadines?” I have been asked to speak for ten to fifteen minutes on “Foreign influences: What comes into SVG, what goes out of SVG via: the Internet, social media (especially photographs); music and music videos; movies and television programmes and lifestyle images and information.”

The perceived or actual influence that the media exert on consumers of their content has been the subject of much academic debate and inquiry, as well as layman discussions. But amidst all the various outcome of these discourses, academics generally agree that the media, by the coverage they provide of certain developments, can cause people to think that some things are more important than others. The media, through the story they put on the front page, the size of headlines and length of stories in newspapers, and the issues covered in radio and television newscasts and other programmes, provide what Maxwell McCombs calls “salience cues” as to what is important. According to this view, when the media repeat a topic day after day, or give it enough prominence, the public tends to think that these issues are important and uses these “salience cues to organise their own agendas and decide which issues are most important”.

This is the “agenda-setting” function of the media and speaks to the “influence” element of tonight’s topic. However, I also acknowledge the various debates about the direct influence that media content supposedly has on people’s behaviour. Did the single frame of a Coca-Cola inserted into a movie really cause the viewer to buy more of the soft drink? Does violence in the media really make the viewer more violent? If so, why are not more Vincentians in jail on account of acts of violence?

A discussion of media influence must take into consideration that often-mentioned but difficult to explain concept: culture. I have always loved sociologist Talcott Parson’s “Culture is the way of life of a people.” Culture is what determines that Vincentians, on average, shower twice a day and Taiwanese once — in the night. That Taiwanese drink tea — without sugar, I might add. While Vincentians drink juice –with too much sugar, I might add.

But James Carey offers a more elaborate definition of culture, saying culture can refer to some shared attribute of a human group (such as physical environment, tools, religion, customs and practices, or their whole way of life). That is to say, when we produce something, be it a building in Kingstown — with their characteristic arches and cobblestones — a video for YouTube, a soca or calypso song, or a news story, we inadvertently incorporate elements of our culture into it.

But there is also a “political-economic aspects of the organised production of culture represented by mass media industries”. Further, ideology also plays a part, in that, “ideology of many different kinds is embodied in cultural production and how it can be ‘read’ in media texts and find some effect on an audience”.

I will speak to this more, later.

So far in the discussion, we have seen:

  1. That media can influence what people think about in that they can cause people to believe that some issues or developments are important because of the frequency with which the media focus on them.
  2. That media content inadvertently — and sometimes intentionally — contains elements of the culture of its producers.
  3. There is an economic side to media production. (And, as we are aware, politics and economics go together).

These three points bring us to two other very important concepts in the context of my presentation: Hegemony and Cultural imperialism.

Hegemony

Hegemony, in its simplest sense, means “control over” and “hegemonic control” describes a special form of control. This form of control is not based upon coercion or force, but results from successful persuasion or enculturalisation”. Essentially, it is like giving an entity — in this case, the media, or media content with a certain ideological slant — the permission to control you, the consumer of its content. This can be both scary and comforting at the same time. And since the media is generally regarded as the most powerful agent of hegemonic control, the power elite seeks to exert pressure if not control over the media, or better still, to own it.

Cultural imperialism

The cultural imperialism thesis says “authentic, traditional and local culture in many parts of the world is being battered out of existence by the indiscriminate dumping of large quantities of slick commercial and media products, mainly from the United States”. Said differently, cultural imperialism refers to the “use of political and economic power to exalt and spread the values and habits of a foreign culture at the expense of native culture”.

So what?

What does what I have said have to do with the topic, “Foreign influences: what comes into SVG, what goes out of SVG via: the Internet, social media (especially photographs); music and music videos; movies and television programmes and lifestyle images and information”?

Everything!

Most societies’ concerns about “foreign influence” communicated by the media relate to those cultural elements embedded in media that that particular society considers to be contrary to its cultural values. It is important to note, however, that as far as culture and media is concerned, that not everything that is external — geographically — is foreign — culturally.

To the specifics of tonight’s topic: the Internet and the various platforms accessed thereby are transforming the traditional ways in which people access information. In fact, the Internet has the potential to make everyone a publisher, thereby redefining the traditional role of the media and its practitioners. Everyone with a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, MySpace, hi5 account is a publisher and uses those platform to either publish or access the information that is important to them. Ask yourself, when you first heard about the death of the one-year-old infant, allegedly at the hands of his mother two Wednesdays ago, was it via radio, television, newspaper or another of the traditional media? I am pretty sure it was either via instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. In fact, when was the last time you heard a breaking news development in St. Vincent and the Grenadines from one of the traditional media forms?

One does not need to be a communications theorist to conclude, as Steven H. Chaffee and Miriam J. Metzger did in answering the question “The End of Mass Communication?” that the Internet and its platform allow for “greater quantity of information transmission and retrieval, place more control over both content creation and selection in the hands of their users, and do so with less cost to the average consumer”. But the use of these Internet platforms is rather personal and may reflect personal interest rather than national culture. For example, if you were to check the manner in which media personnel in SVG use their Facebook accounts, you are more likely to see more elements of their personalities rather than their national culture.

As it relates to music videos, movies, television programmes, and lifestyle images and programmes, all media, as I have shown earlier, reflect the culture of its producers. On the smaller scale, such as social media, the producer of the content is often an individual. But on the larger scale, it might be a group of individuals, a country or a corporation. If one is concerned about the influence of foreign media, this should be one’s focus. For media content reflects not only the culture and ideologies of its producers, but, more importantly, its owners and financiers. It is for that reason that an American film is unlikely to promote socialist ideal, sex is absent from most East Asian films, and a Vincentian song is unlikely to advocate for the decriminalisation of sexual relations among consenting adults of the same sex.

So, having discussed the situation and its cause, what are we to do about it? If we are concerned about the use of the media to infiltrate our society with foreign influences and potentially turning us into an ideological colony of the cultural imperialist, what can we do? This is where our local mass media, especially the electronic media come in. I feel that our media have failed, in many regards, to help to cement locally and disseminate for external consumption, those things that make us uniquely Vincentian. This situation exists in the face of concerns — justifiable or unjustifiable — about the influence of foreign media on our people.

When was the last time our local television outlets produced a film about Vincentians and our culture. When last did you hear a radio programme about the lives of Vincentians? Why is it that our radio stations are allowed to use public airwaves without being mandated to ensure that a certain portion of their programming must be about Vincentians, even in an age when all our radio stations are being streamed live on the Internet? Yes, I am talking about a broadcast policy here. But I am talking about a limited policy that mandates that a certain percentage of material broadcasts on local airwaves must be news or current affairs, must be material produced by or about Vincentians — be they songs, radio or television dramas, vox pop, radio diaries, or the like. I am talking about a media policy that says what kinds of programmes can be aired at what time and what products can be associated with those programmes. I cannot understand why alcoholic beverages are the main sponsors of several of our newscasts — newscasts that we encourage our children to watch or listen to. I was most taken about in 2010 when I first realised that special report in some newscasts on state owned radio were sponsored by an alcoholic beverage, with part of its jingle saying “young and old” drink that particular alcoholic drink. A broadcast policy should speak to this. But, I am not sure that the Bureau of Standards is the appropriate entity to formulate or coordinate the formulation of such a policy. But if media professionals don’t want to do it, then it will be imposed on us. And, in anticipation of the response of owners of radio stations, please be reminded that while you own the broadcast equipment, you do not own the airwaves!

In many instances, the situation, as it obtains in our local media, results from a lack of training. But it also results from the fact that persons with no genuine interest in the media, or respect for its roles and responsibilities, are media owners or managers. Further, some persons with a particular ideology, realising that owning a media entity or a media programme, is the fastest way to get that ideology across, either set up a media house, or go to a local radio station and overnight become an expert on everything, while spreading that ideology. I often find it funny, but in a serious way, when some commentators, especial on radio, say, “What is the media doing about that?” The media include you also, and not just journalists.

The situation outlined above exists even as persons trained in the media are not allowed to put into practice what they have learnt. In the media — and maybe especially in our Vincentian context — who pays the piper really calls the tune. In many instances, person so trained, especially in journalism, frustrated by these realities, leave the profession to seek either the comfort or big money of other professions within or outside the field of communications — and who can blame them? But while one might own or manage the means of production, that does not, as if by osmosis, make one a competent media practitioner.

As my former journalism colleague Inspector Hawkins Nanton, now a public relations expert for the Police, noted here a few weeks ago, it is only with some knowledge of the theories that inform the communications process that one can effectively put into practise the skills that one has learnt, even after years on the job. In the meantime, media practitioner and owners, in the absence of proper training, will continue to be puppets of political forces — partisan and otherwise — and other elements of the media, especially, public relations practitioners and lobbyists. (To add, parenthetically, a member of another country’s foreign service remarked to me recently their pleasant surprise at the fact that their press releases are published word-for-word by local and regional media. The person knows that that is not how journalism should function but is happy to get their country’s message out, exactly as they would like it.). If we look around St. Vincent and the Grenadines, most persons trained in, or with substantive experience in the media, — especially in journalism — are working in or trying to get into public relations, whether as spokespersons for corporations, propagandists for political parties, or the like. And they use their training, experience, and intimate knowledge of the media, to manipulate the untrained people at the news desks, at the expense of you, the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. But I am not one to argue with people for doing their jobs well.

So, have the media failed in their civic responsibility? To a large extent we have. Are the media being used to set personal agendas for companies and politicians? In many instances we are. Do the media raise our level of consciousness through education and spur debate on local issues? Not often in a manner that is beneficial to all our people. Is the use of social media allowing more persons to force or raise the level of debate locally? The opportunities exists but are not being effectively exploited.

Essentially, the point that I am making is that before we begin to look externally at the real or perceived influence that foreign media exert on our people, we should look within. And, as we speak about the civic responsibilities of the media, let us ask ourselves, what alternatives have our local media given? Is the media simply an industry to line people’s pockets? It cannot be. For the media is one of — if not the only — privately owned industries in SVG that enjoy constitutional protection. To whom much is given, much must be expected and demanded.

I have said much. However, I would like to end here by asking:

To the extent that media content incorporates elements of the culture of its producers, is the media merely reflecting the larger society? Should our contention, if any, be with the media or with the society in which it functions?

Thank you for your time and your attention.

References:

(Download PDF for links to reference materials)

  1. Maxwell McCombs, “Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion”, Page 2. Polity Press, U.K., 2004.
  2. Denis McQuail, “Mass Communication Theory”, Page 114. SAGE Publication Ltd., London, 2009.
  3. James D. Watson, “Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process”, Page 20. PALGRAVE, New York, 1994.
  4. John Tomlinso, “Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction”, Page 8. Great Britain, 1991.
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