How 'mainstream media' lost its meaning

12 Jul 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
How 'mainstream media' lost its meaning

The battle for the term mainstream media has been lost and is no longer capable of rehabilitation, writes Raymond Snoddy. So what does that mean for journalism?

The meaning of words change with sometimes explosive implications if you haven’t kept up.

The “N” word is now so toxic that it cannot be repeated even to illustrate the dangers and folly of using such a word in the first place. And so it is that a previously perfectly respectable Tory MP could instantly lose the Conservative whip for casually, unthinkingly, using an out-dated metaphor to suggest a flaw in Brexit policy - if that concept is not a problematic oxymoron.

The list of words that have long since moved from commonplace to unacceptable include a children’s toy that was linked to marmalade well before Paddington arrived on these shores.

'Amazing' has been so overused by the judges on TV talent shows that no self-respecting sentient human being can ever utter the word again.

Now the “M” word has travelled a long way down the road of becoming at least pejorative, if not an outright term of abuse - even more so when it is dismissively reduced to the acronym MSM.

The term mainstream media - in the main - used to stand for something that was central, substantial, representing moderate opinion, an important cultural creation of democratic societies. There has always been a left-wing Chomsky narrative that the role of mainstream media under capitalism was to legitimise inequality.

But this is something very different and feeds into the trust in MSM - or rather the lack of it.

As Wikipedia has it: “the term mainstream media has been widely used in conversation and the blogosphere, often in oppositional, pejorative, or dismissive senses, in discussion of the mass media and media bias.”

For perhaps understandable reasons the mainstream media has got it in the neck from Grenfell survivors. As Ishmahil Blagrove, coordinator at Justice 4 Grenfell put it - the mainstream media was somehow “facilitating” the current situation facing the local community.

“You are the mouthpiece of this government. You are the people who make this possible. You are the ones who validate it. You are just as culpable,” he said in a rant that was picked up by social media.

And then there are the pop stars who really should avoid entering the political domain, accusing the media of being part of the plot to minimise the number of dead in the block to manipulate the public’s expectations.

The facts are that these dead are difficult to identify and it seems to be extremely difficult to know actually how many people were in the block at the time of the fire.

It’s difficult to look for fairness and reason in the midst of visceral anger but the curious thing is that the fault, if any, lies in the increasing financial weakness of the MSM rather than its overweening power and arrogance.

We will never know, but it is more than a possibility that properly staffed local newspapers of blessed memory just might have picked up and emphasised the safety concerns of Grenfell residents before the disaster and that would in turn have fed into the larger world of mainstream media.

It is a truism to point out that those who dislike what they see as the MSM, now have the endless capacity to communicate via social media directly, whatever the validity of their views.

Fuelled by everything from Trump to Brexit, an online phenomenon that ought to be liberating is actually fuelling a primeval impatience and a coarsening of public discourse.

Politicians are threatened in their constituencies by online trollers and in turn are slipping into abuse of television journalists who ask awkward questions.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in a recent study did however find an interesting contrast between relative levels of trust for the MSM in the UK and the US.

Perhaps influenced by failures to predict either Brexit or the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the Reuters Institute found a significant fall in the percentage of Britons who believe the news can be trusted.

Over 12 months it fell from 50 per cent to 43 per cent with the under 35-year-olds marked disbelievers. However, only 18 per cent trusted social media to separate facts from falsehoods compared to 43 per cent for the newsbrands.

Overall the UK was only 17th out of 36 countries in terms of trust, a surprisingly low position given the range and sophistication of the UK media industry.

By way of contrast, since the election of President Trump, amid the proliferation of fake news and false accusations, Americans have rekindled some faith in the process of professional journalism - but only all the way up to 38 per cent.

Astonishingly in terms of trust in the US the MSM comes in 28th of 36 countries, although 53 per cent of Americans trust the news sources they use themselves.

In the world of public service broadcasting the European Broadcasting Union has also recently highlighted the threat to the finances of Europe’s PSBs coming from the political right who wanted to see reduced licence fees because of their “liberal bias.”

The mainstream media has to make its case over and over again for the importance and accuracy of its work, and make sure of that accuracy, despite the fewer and fewer journalists being asked to produce more and more stories against the clock.

The battle to shore up finances has to be fought on many fronts not least against the “tech” giants to get fair recompense for their editorial.

More than 2,000 news organisations in the US and Canada have come together in the News Media Alliance to redress the size imbalance and negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook.

For that they will need exemptions from American anti-trust legislation.

European publishers' associations will also have to redouble their efforts in a similar vein. While the financial skirmishes rage, attention will have to be given to language and terminology.

The battle for the term mainstream media may have been lost and MSM is a term no longer capable of rehabilitation. We may have to circle the wagons around newsbrands and give the term an extra lift, even though it has always seemed clunky.

It does at least convey news delivery across all platforms and is now preferable to mainstream media - a term that should now be left to the detractors of the media to play with.

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