By Thamar Jones
The AIDS epidemic. Poverty. Job creation. Re-skilling the workforce. A lack of quality education. Belize/Guatemala border resolution. Whose job is it to solve these problems?
We all know the answer: The government… duh! How do we know this? Before you start searching for your own answers, the media, believe it or not, have already planted theirs in your mind.
News media set the public agenda every day by telling us what is important to know and how to think about it. When it comes to national challenges such as poverty, unemployment and crime, the media often play a decisive role in defining both the problem and responsibility.
Don’t believe me? When was the last time you got hot and bothered over the Guats encroaching in Belizean waters? Was it maybe around the same time that Channel 5 and Channel 7 last took their cameras down south, and went probing in the Sarstoon with Wil Maheia?
I’d be willing to wager that you did not wake up this morning angered that Guatemalans were up before sunrise today hauling fish and conch from our marine reserves. Why? Because the media did not tell you to be upset.
The media also tells you with whom to be upset when this happens: (A certain Minister of Foreign Affairs… (which I’ve always found ironic, since in my mind, the mandate of a foreign minister is to build relationships with other countries (not wage war with them (but that’s a whole other topic)).
The above is just one example of how attribution of responsibility in media reporting should not be underestimated, as it suggests the source of problems and who should fix them, shapes the public discourse and opinions about issues, and subsequently influences national policy approaches to public concerns.
In talking about Poverty in the U.S., University of South Carolina professor Sei-Hill Kim and his colleagues discuss how printed and broadcast media presented both causes of and solutions to poverty in America. They found that the news media tend to attribute poverty to social causes (e.g., bad economy, ineffective government, lack of support for education, etc.) more than personal factors (e.g., lack of education, broken families, high risk personal choices, etc.). To reduce poverty, the media also more frequently prioritizes societal-level solutions over personal-level solutions.
Like American media, Belizean media blame our social problems on systematic forces more than personal factors, leading the public to demand action from the government and social institutions and not accepting any personal responsibility for their circumstances.
Furthermore, the media in Belize thrives on stories with underlying Government versus The People themes, as they make much more salacious headliners. But this can be damaging to society because it leaves citizens with a feeling of disconnect, unease, and mistrust of the system. Where this mindset abounds, you will find a society of people with a sense of defeat with an unwillingness to follow even the systems that are designed to uplift their quality of life.
The thing is, we make our government, meaning that our government is made up of men and women that were born and bred right here in Belize. They were educated in Belizean schools, up to a certain point at least. They were raised by Belizean mothers and fathers; I would like to think they were raised with a Belizean value system… not Czechoslovakian not Martian but Belizean. They are corrupted? That then reveals that we are corrupted. They are lackadaisical? That then reflects our own laziness because it is always us. Never “Us” versus “them”. It is the media that has created the “US Versus Them” misconception. There is no “them”. Just Us.
Mass media serves as a gatekeeper of information about social issues in most societies and while they are expected to discuss issues in a neutral manner, it is almost inevitable that they package a complex topic by highlighting some aspects of it over others and suggesting attribution of responsibility to various degrees. Now, as we are more aware of the media’s “blame game,” it is up to us to decide whether we want accept their suggestions or engage critically on our own.
By Thamar Jones