Should I become a newspaper reporter? No, I can imagine myself becoming a thief someday, but I am not so inured to vice that I would treat justice and morality as merchandise the way such people do. The scandal sheets Yorozu chōhō and Niroku shinpō present themselves as paragons of virtue, but any society reformed by them would be far darker than a society left wholly unreformed. I worry too much about this to sink to their level. This is an excerpt from Behind the Prison, a short story by Japanese writer Nagai Kafū (1879-1959), as taken from Three Japanese Short Stories, Penguin Modern: 05.
The short story takes the form of an unsigned letter in response to a previous missive from someone referred to as Excellency, and depicts the glum perspective in life of the first child of an accommodated Japanese family that doesn’t quite find their place once back in their hometown after having spent several years travelling around Europe and the United States. What truly caught my eye in this challenging read was the idea of measuring the added social value, for lack of a better term, of specific media by proposing the following mental exercise: what would a society modelled after the values this medium stands for look like? Or, if given the chance, how would they reform society?
These questions might be a bit far-fetched, yet they are a practical tool for assessing the media and giving the now-clichéd “holding them accountable” another meaning -i.e., no longer just saying it but actually thinking about what practical implications the moral or ideological propositions of each medium would entail if they were to kickstart social reforms. This assessment is for each of us to make, as it is up to each of us to form an opinion on the media, going beyond deciding whether or not to read them. However, when considered as part of a broader approach to the analysis of the media, one can identify a possible trend. Communication science already gives a thorough background on the changes happening to political communication over time, detailing every shift of power in the last century.
The ages of media
The media have assumed different roles in society at different times, that is nothing new. Even speaking of the growing involvement of the public with the creation of media products sounds like a platitude by now, too. In very broad terms, the three ages of political communication are: politics influencing the media until the 60s, the influx of new technology -specifically, television- in the media until the 90s, and the professionalisation and commercialisation of the media from the 90s onwards. There is plenty of other aspects at stake, although one could single out the varying degrees to which elitism has been at play as a major indicator of power shifts -meaning specifically the transfer of relevance from the few to the many as audiences grew and, in turn, the organisation-consumer/receiver division blurred.
During the first age, messages were primarily controlled by and tailored to the needs of political elites and addressed at smaller audiences whose electoral behaviour was thus determined by the information they received. During age 2, the political horizon broadened because the parties’ grip on the new form of media was considerably less tight. This favoured more diverse, less partisan exposure opportunities, a much larger news audience, and provided the foundations for modern campaigning, with the innovation in the fields of visuals and sound to complete the transition into a more personalised coverage of politics.
The third age of media and today
Unlike the first two, the third age is characterised by a widespread professionalisation of political advocacy. In other words, the promotion of political agendas or individuals within a competitive environment, taking advantage of the advertising and entertainment capabilities of new media. Thus, the is power back in the media organisations that increasingly show signs of partisanship. For many this implies an excessive political agency of the media, a reliance on priming and agenda setting that return the audience to the information vs. electoral behaviour paradox, infotainment and the serious-satirical divide, outrageous behaviour on the part of candidates or advocates to accumulate screen time, etc. Nevertheless, this situation is far from age 1, where the media were fundamentally run by elites alone.
Today, starting a media company may be difficult but it can be done, and, in fact, it is often done. This explosion in the access to the production of media content has brought more diversity to “the Internets” (quoting all-things-savvy George W. Bush) than ever. So, in the spirit of fully embracing our possibilities and responsibilities as members of the audience, it would be nice to ask ourselves whether the sites we tend to visit offer any added social value or if “any society reformed by them would be far darker than a society left wholly unreformed.”
Cover: Antenna/Unsplash/Final editor: Kyle Hassing