Media Beat
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Published by Seattle Times, Oct. 29, 1994

Talking Back To The Media: Break The Passivity Habit

Does this sound familiar?

You turn on a news broadcast, or pick up a newspaper or magazine, and your blood begins to boil. Pretty soon, you're gnashing teeth in enraged silence or swearing out loud about the idiocies and biases of mass media.

Getting angry is often a valid response to the news and the outlets that bring it to us. Unfortunately, two common pitfalls prevent most people from responding in a creative way: We're usually too passive.Or, if we get over that hazard, we may become too aggressive.

Rather than communicating directly to journalists, many of us are apt to feel too intimidated. After all, those behind the cameras and microphones and newsroom computers are important professionals. Maybe we shouldn't waste their time.


Some of the most egregious inanities and imbalances of news media persist because viewers, listeners and readers are too deferential. They don't talk back to the news media that are talking at them every day.

As a result, the news industry can be surprisingly isolated from "customers" who seethe in silence or grumble to themselves.

Quite a few folks have the idea that strongly challenging the mainstream media is disrespectful of the First Amendment. Actually, the opposite is the case. When we speak up and speak out, we're enlivening the First Amendment by making use of free-speech rights. Those rights belong to everybody, not just media managers.

The remedy to passive media consumption is active media communication. Pick up the telephone or a pen, or get in front of a keyboard. Provide reporters and editors with the views and information they seem to lack.

Maybe you want to send in a letter to the editor. Or maybe you'd prefer to engage in more private dialogue with specific reporters and editors. Either way, you're moving forward instead of stewing in your own adrenal juices.

If you don't feel that news outlets are being responsive to your concerns, mobilize an existing community group - or organize a new one - to voice those concerns.

But if you've overcome the passivity barrier, don't fall into the trap of stereotyping mainstream journalists; they're not monolithic any more than your neighbors or co-workers are. Avoid the mistake of assuming that all media employees agree with the editorial policies of management.

Sometimes, people get so outraged at what comes off the press and over the airwaves that they become their own worst enemies. Screaming at a newsroom employee is rarely persuasive. Neither is sending a thick document and demanding that a reporter read it right away and repent.

And, it's wrong to call for censorship of viewpoints you deplore; it's much better to urge the inclusion of new, balancing viewpoints. We need more - not fewer - voices.

Being assertive can open a world of constructive "media activism." For example:

— If you support equality for women and you regularly watch a TV news panel show, you might want to contact the program's producers to ask why they're having so much trouble including feminist women as panelists. Likewise, if you notice exclusion or scarcity of racial minorities on media forums, raise the issue.

— If you believe that newspaper opinion pages give plenty of space to crusaders for unfettered "free enterprise" but not to those who champion the environment or consumer protection or labor rights, let editors know that you want to see greater diversity.

— You might ask your local PBS television station why it airs several business and finance shows but no consumer program. Or ask your daily why the paper has a business section but no labor section.

— Offer specific suggestions for how news coverage and opinion forums could improve. Provide the names, phone numbers and backgrounds of sources and commentators who deserve a hearing.

— Remember that your goal is not to persuade a media professional that your views are the correct ones. The point to emphasize is that a broad spectrum of outlooks is essential to healthy media discourse.

Mass media have not heard enough from thoughtful individuals demanding tough journalism and wide-ranging discussion of issues. Instead, too often, they've heard clamoring from well-organized hyper-conservative groups that seem more intent on impeding independent journalism than encouraging it.

The public suffers from undue deference to news outlets. Media institutions will never be reliable suppliers of news and views without the constant vigilance of the people they claim to serve.

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