Impact of Media Images Can Undermine Democracy

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 5, 2015 | Go to article overview

Impact of Media Images Can Undermine Democracy


Byline: Lou Caton For The Register-Guard

Thinking of the public's reaction to the reporting of events including the Ebola scare and Islamic State beheadings has prompted me to consider a troubling aspect of democracy in such affairs. News stories within a democracy often contain something disconcerting that I call "image politics." It is a politics that frequently devolves into mass reactions to images or perceptions that then influence policy decisions in an irrational way.

A Sept. 14 Commentary article by Daniel Altman commenting on this phenomenon focused on the clout of the image - the visual impact - that persuades both the public and our politicians. Altman noted that "...we delegate to the media ... (whatever) will draw our attention." He recognizes that news stories appear only because they have "the potential to be more popular." That popularity arises not usually from analysis or clear thinking, but more often from the sensation of the visuals; subsequently, these powerful images create an emotional response that often distorts rationality.

The implication is that such visuals may undermine democracy. Sensational images, like beheadings and hazmat-suited Ebola doctors, can unduly influence public opinion. Why? Because we are a government of the people - the "demos" rules.

For example, in another article, Rosa Brooks (Commentary, Sept. 21) states that when "59 percent of Americans think that the Islamic State poses a very serious threat to the vital interests of the United States," then the president needs to do something. No matter if this "threat" is actually true or not (it probably isn't).

Or with Ebola, if enough people want a ban on flights out of West Africa, even if such a ban makes no medical sense, politicians will follow, and many did. In a democracy, the people - that is, the images that influence the people - rule.

Even though it may seem like a stretch, our Eugene City Hall controversy unfolded similarly. Of course, on a continuum, the City Hall is a long distance from the gravity of the Islamic State, yet both swirled around images.

Two opposing impressions of City Hall confronted the public: one of a dismantled building, and the other of a repurposed one. The facts seemed to go either way; the impressions, on the other hand, were clear. Either the perception (think image) of a "tear-down" or one of a "renovation" kept coming up. …

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