Are Commercial Current Affairs Programs ‘Dumbing Down’ Public Discourse in Australia?

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Are commercial current affairs programs ‘dumbing down’ public discourse in Australia?

Written by Callum Boaden

Television is the most widely used mass media form in Australia and in the world’ (Flew & Harrington 2010, p. 155).

Introduction
There has been much speculation about the increasing diminishment of television news audiences and the rising prevalence of Internet news consumers. Despite the claims that the Internet will one day overthrow the dominance of television, presently it remains as the ‘most consumed form of journalism’ (Cushion 2012, p. 5). The power and influence that television exerts over our lives as Errington and Miragliotta argue is due to its ‘ubiquity, the limited obstacles to access and usage, the high level of intimacy with the viewer and its large scale reach’ rendering it ‘one of the most powerful media’ (2011, p. 44). Given the pervasiveness of television in our everyday lives and its dominant role in telling people the news; we should examine how effectively the mass media serve the public interest by informing the population of the important issues outside of their immediate personal experience.

Commentators and politicians alike have raised concerns regarding the practices of contemporary media organizations, particularly within broadcast journalism. Over the past decade many people have claimed to have observed a perceived decline in quality journalism, especially through the medium of television. Just last year on the 28th December, the Federal Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke at the Woodford Folk Festival on this issue. He claimed that journalists and broadcasters are not respecting the public interest, rather ‘they are treating them with contempt’ by ‘dumbing down’ important political issues into ‘one-liners’ and ‘sound bites’ (NewsOnABC 2012). If these observations are in fact the case within Australia’s contemporary media landscape then a critical examination of the process that underlies this phenomenon should be undertaken to test their validity. This is even more pertinent when we take into account what Henningham believes is that ‘most people trust the news on television more than that of other media’ (1988 p. 1). This invites a critique of the performance of television broadcasters in providing news and current affairs to the public. Thus opening op a particular line of inquiry: are commercial current affairs programs ‘dumbing down’ public discourse in Australia? Nguyen defines the phrase ‘dumbing down’ as ‘the increasing prevalence of entertainment-orientated news and the marginalization and triviaisation of public affairs’ and believes it to be a ‘perennial problem of many…advanced democracies of the world (2012 p. 706).

Theoretical Foundation
Agenda-setting theory, first propounded by McCombs and Shaw (1972) can provide insights into how the mass media prioritize and highlight particular issues that have the potential to influence people’s understanding of the world outside of their immediate personal experience. Beyond focusing audience’s attention on particular issues, media play a central role in influencing ‘our understanding and perspective on the topics in the news’ (McCombs & Valenzuela 2007: 47). This demonstrates that there is a direct link between an audience’s absorption and interpretation of information received through the medium of television and the impact on our society’s articulation of certain issues. McCombs and Valenzuela (2007) outline the main components of the media agenda that consist of ‘objects’ and ‘attributes’. An ‘object’ could be defined as a political issue, public figure or any topic that is the focus of attention. These ‘objects’ are made up of ‘attributes’, that are characteristics and traits that describe and define an object. Each of these components vary in salience, although whatever attributes are given the most credence will determine what ‘members of the public have in mind when they think and...
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