Don has a PhD in educational psychology and taught college classes for more than thirty years. He was once a news director at a radio station.
The media are often portrayed as key sources of information about current events, and indeed do inform much of the time. Many of us watch the newscasts and read newspapers to get some sense of what is happening in the world. The tone of voice and body language of reporters, and especially news anchors, underscore the supposed importance of what is reported.
But what is conveyed is skewed to favor certain areas of the world over others, and certain issues over others. For example, when was the last time you heard a news report on the Central African Republic, which has been in chaos for years? When did you receive an update on children that starve to death every ten seconds throughout the world? These stories do not produce the excitement associated with sexual encounters of politicians and victimization of athletes, even though the millions of children involved are clearly as important. If you count bodies, children are vastly more important. The news we read and see is chosen with ratings and sales in mind. Objectivity (or at least supposed objectivity) died with Walter Cronkite decades ago. Today’s newscasts have more in common with tabloids and entertainment than classic journalism.
There is a hidden curriculum of the media, a covert message that is behind the newscasts and newspapers. That message is: “What is reported is important because the media reported it.” In sociology there is a phrase that conveys this at its extreme: the “media event.” A media event is something that becomes news only because it is reported by the media. Otherwise that event would not have been news. Because the media covers the event, what is not news becomes news.
It is also important to note that stories which make people upset or at least concerned about some issue will “sell” whereas other news will be buried or ignored. Thus there is the disturbing tendency to use here-say and rumor. Exploitation of latent assumptions about groups of people are not uncommon. While racism and sexism may be denounced (if fashionable) other biases may be used to increase the popularity of a story.
But thus far we have considered only one level of the hidden curriculum. When the media report on registrants, too often a subtle second message is conveyed. For example there is the implication that those on the registry reoffend, a common assumption of the public, even though most do not reoffend. The myth of “stranger danger” is unsupported by research, but may be alluded to by reporters. Thus false ideas remain unchallenged by the media, as this might make some stories less sensationalized.
Perhaps my own case can be used to illustrate the hidden curriculum of the media to an extreme, as mine was a high profile case in one of the five largest cities in the United States. My lawyer informed me that the media took special interest in what they reported because I worked at a religious school. A story about religion and sex will sell. News stories about me were the top headlines for several days in national newspapers from that city, and I was the lead story on all of the television newscasts. I still find it hard to believe the story was more important than anything else in the country (or world) on those days!
It seemed that every news release from the prosecutors’ office was mined by the media for incriminating evidence, then supplemented by details from the internet (often quoted out of context) and interviews with students (none of whom do I recall ever taking my classes). The shock on students’ faces spoke a message much clearer than their statements about not knowing me. They faithfully reported what they had heard on the news, when they spoke to the media!
Coverage almost always featured a photograph taken during my arrest which made me look like a hardened criminal. There were dozens of good photographs online that could have been used, but instead every news outlet chose the horrific shots taken as part of the jail admission process.
Consistently I was described as looking at 500 or more images of child pornography. This was what the arresting detective stated in his report, a detail passed on to the media by the prosecutor. Several years later at the sentencing trial that detective admitted he did not see any images on my computer. That admission was, of course, never reported by the media. The story was old news by that point anyway. Also ignored by the media was the fact that the image to which I pled guilty was described in court as nudity with nothing sexual. Researchers state that nude images are almost never prosecuted. That fact was never mentioned by the media.
Also missing from media reports was any mention of a forensics report or testimony by forensics about what was on the confiscated computers. That was a significant omission because there was no such report or testimony. Why? It seems there was nothing to report, a fact I had maintained throughout the case. In court it was admitted that the repulsive sexual images the judge was forced to view, came from the police database, not my computers. But the prosecutor insisted that my equipment be withheld and never returned. DVD players and BluRay players, as well as computers without images of children, could not be used as evidence against me. But I never saw them again.
The media did find a web page that quoted me as saying I loved children. By innuendo this was used to imply I meant more than caring about children in the normal sense. Of course the details of the web page were omitted, which highlighted my work on the spiritual nature of children. But that work was mentioned in a headline on another day to underscore my supposed hypocrisy.
The religious media were even more anxious to paint me as an enemy. They were the only media to call me a “monster.” Only a few months before my arrest, I had given them interviews about my work, so I hoped they would be above the tactics of the regular press. I thought I might at least be interviewed. I asked many times. I was ignored just as many times.
The media also convey another hidden message. Any news item that uses the word “sex” is inevitably about some wrong that has been committed, and often by someone who is a registrant or who seems to be a good candidate for the registry. When did you last hear a news item about sex in a positive frame? It is ironic that a rather Puritanical view of sex—almost always associated with evil—is the mainstay of newscasts, punctuated by commercials that can be highly sexualized.
Public opinion is usually against registrants before any story about them hits the news. But stories are generally crafted to confirm prejudices against registrants. It is very rare that a newscaster will challenge the biases of the public. Broadcasters intuitively realize that to do so will probably cost them their audience. In contrast, the uglier the picture of registrants that is presented, the more it will be believed and the more popular it will be. This may seem to be objective truth to the newscaster and public alike. But neither is likely to have any idea of what life is like for registrants.
While many believe the media cannot be trusted to tell the truth, for some reason that distrust turns to full belief (not far from unquestioning religious belief) when newscasters speak of registrants. Obviously this is not a rational response, as those who produce the news are either to be trusted or they are not. But in the minds of many citizens, the news is bifurcated into the truth (that which speaks of what is extreme and dangerous) and exaggeration or fabrication (when the viewer does not agree because of contrary biases). There is uniformity in the opinions voiced about registrants; they are the degraded scapegoat that must be forced to die in the isolation of the wilderness, and if they do not die, they will be taken to a location where years of people’s lives are sacrificed: a place called prison. The wilderness continues for many years to come in the world of restrictions and regulations registrants face.
Why is the media so hostile? Why assemble pieces of information to make the person charged automatically look guilty? Why does the general public see registrants in a degrading and judgmental manner? Prejudice plays a major part. But for the media, there is a more basic reason: money. More newspapers sold means more money for the company. The more television news stories are watched, the higher the rates for advertising. This could be considered selling your soul. But the price of a soul has apparently declined, so soul-selling it is almost standard procedure these days. I have no problem with people making a profit, but I do have a problem with making a profit by making decent people look evil. I also object to having a trial and conviction in the realm of public opinion before the case even goes to court. Demonizing and dismissing people as subhuman is the covert message, and the general public clearly gets that message. That this is done to make money makes it even more diabolical.