Cultural filters and blind spots in media
Everyone perceives reality through a filter, as if wearing tinted glasses. This applies to media outlets as well. Therefore, whenever one sees or hears anything in the media, one must ask questions. Who exactly is the source of this information? What does one know about them? What kind of cultural bias do they have?
There are at least three filtering processes involved: (1) the perception of reality by a source of information; (2) the way that source communicates information to you; and (3) the perception of that information by yourself.
The main issue is that we constantly consume English-language content produced mostly by Contest culture media. As a result, there is a lot of filtering going on, with a high probability of distortion—not only purely cultural but also because there might be vested interests at stake.
So, what are the typical distortion filters at work in different cultures regarding how their media perceive and broadcast information to the world? This paper will describe some of them and add an aspect that is sometimes overlooked: the blind spots that can be found in media. That is to say: the cultural bias that is most often quite unconscious in media because most people from those specific cultures tend to be quite unaware of it, even when they might be aware of other biases that might be regularly discussed in that culture.
Contest Cultures; Cultural Bias; Mainstream Media; Social Networks.
The Pope visits Cuba.
A joke trailing back to the 1960s tells how a fictitious papal visit to Cuba was reported differently by different media vehicles. It illustrates how the same facts can often be reported very differently depending on the different biases embedded in media.
As the story went, Fidel Castro and the Pope took a break from their formal meetings and official duties in front of the press and went for a walk on the beach. Media representatives watched from a distance.
To everyone’s amazement, at a certain moment, Fidel Castro went into the sea and actually walked on water as if he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ!
The next day, this fantastic event was reported by different newspapers.
The local Havana News ran a headline: FIDEL WALKS ON WATER!
The Vatican Herald ran a different headline: THE POPE CONVERTS FIDEL CASTRO AND TEACHES HIM TO WALK ON WATER!
Yet in Miami, the anti-Castro Cuban Times announced: CASTRO CAN’T SWIM!
The end of impartiality
The age of mass communication heralded by Marshall McLuhan (1) in the 1960s has continued to expand aggressively and globally with no deacceleration in sight.
At first, the news media aimed to objectively report what was going on and remain impartial. For example, Ted Turner’s CNN followed the credo that “the news should be the star of the show, not the newscaster. (2) Long after Turner left the organization he developed to become a global standard, this principle was still in force. However, most of the news media all over the world continued to struggle with their finances. It is an open secret that most, if not all, news media were structurally not viable from a commercial/financial point of view. They regularly needed a significant influx of capital to remain afloat.
Traditionally speaking, journalists make terrible managers. They can investigate and write very well, but they are awful at managing people, finances, and just plain management.
Then Rupert Murdoch (3) came along. His media empire grew to become a global force in English-speaking media. Apparently, here was a company that could be financially viable and commercially successful in an industry where almost nobody was capable of doing that.
Many reasons can be quoted to explain Murdoch’s success. However, for the purpose of this paper, one aspect deserves our attention because it had a ripple effect that heavily influenced other media outlets: the way Fox News (a Murdoch organization) used values and emotions to increase their audience ratings, throwing caution and impartiality to the wind.
Fox decided to make the newscasters the stars instead of the news, reversing Turner’s principle. And rather than simply reporting the facts, they focused on broadcasting the newscaster’s opinion about what was happening. This quickly escalated to influencing the very choices of what to report and how to report it. Fox News had an agenda, and that permeated all their broadcasting.
In the case of Fox, the agenda was openly conservative and right-wing. Seeing its ratings plummet, CNN decided to also forgo Turner’s principles and move towards becoming Fox’s progressive, left-wing counterpart. CNN’s newscasters became the stars, leaving the facts on the sidelines, and the reporting became a reflection of their own values agenda.
In 2023, media literacy means being able to acknowledge that media is no longer impartial. Perhaps it never was. To some extent, media always reflected, unconsciously, the values of its national cultures. McLuhan, by the way, warned everybody by coining the phrase “the media is the message.” In other words: the content has been shaped by the media’s biases, so tread carefully. Nowadays, this has just been taken to the max (or closer to it).
Contest Culture bias in global media
The BBC used to enjoy a reputation for impartial and objective reporting. It also adhered to the norm of highlighting the news rather than the newscaster. It is moving slowly towards the American model of turning the news into a show to increase its audience. It has also left impartiality behind and pursues its own political agenda choosing what to report and how to report it in ways consistent with its own values.
This has been clear as of late by observing how the BBC has changed its manner of reporting anything involving China and Russia. Contest Cultures (see 4) are characterized by the confrontation of two opposing forces; this includes a tendency to view the world as such: wherever one looks (through Contest Culture lenses), one sees conflict and confrontation between two opposing forces. Consistent with that outlook, there is a tendency to see an enemy whenever one looks at the global stage. The “are you with us, or against us” mentality permeates the media originating in the Contest Cultures.
Not only TV but also outlets originally born as printed matter vehicles (The Economist, The New York Times, and many others) tend to write about China and/or Russia, casting them as threats or enemies, and this has been the case for years before the war in Ukraine. During the Trump administration, even the European Union was cast as an enemy of American interests for a while. The choice of words is important, especially in individualist cultures that put more emphasis on content than on format: it is one thing to describe other nations as competitors, adversaries, or even opponents; it is much more serious when these nations are referred to as enemies.
The Economist (a magazine) has created a newsletter about China called “Drum Tower.” (5) They subtitled it ambitiously as “What the world makes of China—and what China makes of the world.” The blind spot here is that the editors of The Economist fail to recognize that they are writing about what they, the editors, make of China, with their strong British bias, and not what the world thinks. Also, they are writing about their interpretation of what China thinks, not what the real Chinese think. It won’t come as a surprise that very few, if any, of the items in the newsletter are written by Chinese journalists or even by any journalists who are not British.
The Contest Culture blind spot is firmly in place: the editors fail to perceive their cultural bias; they believe their outlook is the right one and disregard anything different.
Contest Culture media bias is especially worrisome because it is prevalent in English language media, which is globally dominant. Even this article is written in English, I am quite aware of the restrictions entailed by using Shakespeare’s language. That is bad enough because international English is, in many ways, a rather poor language to express nuance (needed a French term for that…) and subtleties (again…), but it gets worse. English limits our ability to communicate and carries with it English values like all languages have their own cultural values. So, for instance, we end up using all kinds of references to weapons when we write about shooting pictures and films or when we describe the aim of what we are trying to convey. (6)
In her book Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism, Sharyl Attkisson (7) recounts numerous cases of biased journalism when her editors told her to write pieces expressing their (the editor’s) opinions about issues rather than objective facts. Unfortunately, in this day and age, biases have been normalized in Contest Culture media: people in media don’t even regard it as a problem, except for a few idealists here and there who still raise their voices (seldom heard) against it.
It is no wonder that mainstream media has lost its credibility and has been losing its audience to bloggers on social media. In search of bigger audiences, mainstream news media have turned news into entertainment and newscasters into celebrities that emphasize their own values and emotions. These newscasters have tried to position themselves as “closer to the average spectator.” However, they have lost their credibility as “impartial voices of reason;” and have encouraged, through their behavior, the average person to conclude that “anybody can do this like these guys are doing it, including me!” So, why listen to mainstream news media if they no longer seek to report the truth but rather simply express their opinions like the people I meet on the street?
Hence the rise of social networks as news media broadcasting entities, where anybody can play the role of reporter, news anchor and political commentator, filled with cultural bias and not the least bit concerned about it. This is stressed to the maximum in Contest Cultures, characterized by assertiveness, a telling and selling communication style, and standing up for your beliefs against criticism.
Still, mainstream media is not dead in Contest Cultures, and it continues to have the broadest global reach. Therefore, it is important to recognize the cultural bias embedded in the messages it broadcasts. The bias includes:
Polarization as a default outlook: the tendency to describe everything as a fight between two opposing forces.
Life as a competition: the idea that everyone is competing to win.
Winners and losers as the outcome of life: if you are not “number one” at every competition, you will be branded as a loser and despised by all.
Short-term perspective: focusing on the immediate impact of what is happening. In other words: impact this week, this month, and this quarter. Thinking of “long-term” as anything beyond three months.
Measurable results as the desired outcome. If it can’t be measured, it is not important.
Economic growth, measured by GDP, as the ultimate standard of prosperity and the ultimate goal of any society.
The (mistaken) implications are many. For example, is it really that important to know every month who is the richest person on the planet? Should we really care about which nation has the highest figures in Gross Domestic Product? Do we need to choose the Best Picture of the year, rather than just which are the top ten? Should there even be such a contest? Should we have contests about art? Why should we have so many competitions about anything?
Media literacy means asking yourself every time you are faced with information: what is the source? What is the cultural bias affecting the source? How can I reinterpret this information, considering the context and my own cultural bias?
Looking at Contest Culture media sources, it is essential to understand Contest Cultures’ core values and how that affects the content and format of the information they broadcast. This is true not only for mainstream news media, but for all media originated by anyone in a Contest Culture.
Different cultures, different bias
Contest Culture news media vehicles are not the only ones sporting bias. All media vehicles are affected by their own cultural bias anywhere in the world. The bias is different, yet it is still there.
Solar System cultures include France, Spain, and Italy, each with its own tradition of news media transcending their national borders. None as wide-reaching as the British and American media, but still having some notorious news organizations such as Le Monde, El País and Il Corriere Della Sera, respected internationally.
The French cultural bias in mainstream news media is represented by a tendency to over-intellectualize everything. It is certainly interesting to delve deeper into news subjects and offer a more profound description of what is going on; however, one can get too much of a good thing when news anchors regularly spend considerable time describing the concepts behind what is happening, usually with a very elaborate vocabulary. It seems important to demonstrate to the audience that you are also quite knowledgeable on the reported subject, no matter how technical. There is also the assumption that your audience is quite interested in the theoretical concepts behind the news.
To a lesser extent, this is also observed in Spanish and Italian broadcasting. However, the fact remains that in these three cultures, the media typically uses twice as many words to describe the same facts compared to Contest Culture media reporting in English. Solar System media outlets also tend to put more time and effort into describing the context before coming to the core issue they report.
In Well-oiled Machine Cultures, the bias tends to be about Uncertainty Avoidance and the need to maintain order in the world. This leads news media from those cultures to amplify whatever is perceived as a threat to existing customs, behavior patterns and institutions. As a result, headlines heralding dramatic change tend to exaggerate what is happening. The proposed solutions, of course, tend to involve more research, planning and structuring that experts should lead to coping with impending change.
In Network Cultures, news media tends to highlight the point of view of the less fortunate. Headlines often are dedicated to the victims of war, geological tragedies, hurricanes, or of shortcomings in government policies. A fair amount of attention tends to be dedicated to criticism (of anyone or any institution). The bias in that is that the dominant sides of a competition or happening tend to get less attention than what might be regarded as their fair share in other cultures. For example: when the results of tight elections were announced, the Dutch media had more pictures of those who lost than the winning sides.
In Social Pyramid and Family Cultures, there is a tendency to use expressions that reflect hierarchy in the way facts are described, somewhat akin to the weapons figures of speech used in Contest Cultures. Examples: rather than stating “Team A played better than Team B,” news media are more likely to say that “Team A imposed their game over Team B.” Rather than state that “Madam C was a success at the party,” news media in Social Pyramid and Family cultures are more likely to say that “madam C overwhelmed everyone at the party.” When Parliament passes new legislation, it is often described as “being imposed by Parliament.” In all these expressions, hierarchy and power distance are stressed.
Language reflects cultural values and language used by news media tends to do that even more so. In its attempts to appeal intensely to its audience, news media will try very hard to reflect community values in their vocabulary. For a trained eye, it is not difficult to spot how media choose words, consciously or more often unconsciously, that reflect and reinforce the core values of their culture.
A universal bias: “journalism likes blood.”
Journalists know that items reporting perceived threats get more attention in all cultures. Luiz Felipe Pondé, a Brazilian journalist himself, has often used the expression “journalism likes blood.” (8) He has explained that when news editors spot something that will be perceived as a threat by their audience, they immediately place such topics to the forefront of their broadcasting, knowing that people will naturally give it their utmost attention. It is a matter linked to survival instincts: we are all interested in gaining knowledge about anything that might threaten our existence to avoid it.
Knowing that perceived threats will get the public’s attention, media editors feature them prominently to improve their audience ratings and sell more advertisements, their most important source of revenue. What may differ from culture to culture is precisely what kind of news items are perceived as threats. Each culture will amplify different things according to its core values. Media literacy means knowing enough about the values of the media sources to filter out the cultural bias embedded in them.
Hope in Finland
All is not lost. In Finland, teachers are helping teenagers to spot fake news in the media as part of their reading & interpretation skills development at school (9). Teachers present different articles to students in class and ask them to discuss and respond to questions such as: “What’s the article’s purpose? How and when was it written? What are the author’s central claims?”
One can only hope that new generations will learn at home and school from an early age to recognize the biases existing in media and avoid spreading misinformation everywhere.
(1) McLuhan, Marshall – Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man – Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
(3) Once described by Ted Turner as “the most dangerous man in the world)
(4) Wursten Huib (2019) The 7Mental Images of National Culture. Leading and Managing in a globalized World. AMAZON Books ISBN: 9781687633347
In this book Culture clusters are proposed with different “rules of the game”. See below:
(5) Drum Tower – What the world makes of China and what China makes of the world – A newsletter by The Economist. https://view.e.economist.com/?qs=9d7028f867ccdd20f67b81601a07f941b7dfde8148d4d12e8cb0009d8f5bf235b74a6daf14edb9b22e7980640d2852a9d32fa4a07c659bc48ee79c1d34e038a40b916c16f415085038bea39e6dae1272
(6) Guns in America: a loaded relationship – NPR – 2013. https://www.npr.org/2013/03/19/174767346/gun-metaphors-deeply-embedded-in-english-language
(7) Attkisson, Sharyl – Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism, – Harper, 2020
(8) Pondé, Luiz Felipe – Linhas Cruzadas – TV Cultura, Brazil, 22 October, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfoqPjVbHrM
(9) How Finland is Teaching a Generation to Spot Misinformation – New York Times, January 10, 2023.