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Indybay Feature
by STREET SHEET (streetsheet [at]
Thursday May 9th, 2002 3:46 PM
...the media makes its main profit not from selling information to an audience, but rather from selling an audience to its advertisers
We think what we hear: the media and public perception

Too damn bad when at the end of the day
all the thoughts in your head
are just the things that they say.
Henry Rollins

More than a century after the emergence of Citizen Hearst and yellow journalism, most of us have learned to take our morning newspaper with a grain of salt (well, make that two). Being critical and seasoned media consumers, we know better than to entirely trust the newscast and to believe everything it says in the paper: we have been warned about the concentration of power in the communications industry, and, wading through marshes of violence and sexual depravity, we clearly identify sensationalism when it bleeds in front of us. Overall, we assume that harmful side effects of our media intake are limited to a tolerable minimum.

Personally, I like to think so too. However, I frequently get my mind boggled when, after a week of steady mass media diet, I access alternative sources of information. Watching KRON-TV, I start wondering why homeless people have to be such a problem when they are just dysfunctional misfits choosing a lifestyle — reading independent statistics, I hear about homeless families, veterans, and the elderly. Listening to corporate radio, I am sincerely puzzled as to "why they hate us so much" — listening to KPFA, I am presented with a variety of reasons. Reading the Chronicle, I am stunned by polls that say eleven out of ten Americans support the president — stepping out of my house I run into 30,000 demonstrators who beg to differ. It all becomes a bit schizophrenic at some point — I mean, exactly whose reality are these people reporting?

If we put our views on politics and social issues to the test, we will probably have to admit that they are largely based on what we hear and see in the media: we receive information, evaluate it more or less, and then eventually form our opinion. The trouble is that the information we receive is already a result of the media’s selection and presentation, the result of considerations and priorities (and omissions) which mostly have nothing to do with our individual belief systems. In other words, sometimes what ends up in our minds is not really ours, but rather what the media chose to be there. It’s no conspiracy at all, mind you. It is the natural outcome once the laws of capitalism dominate the flow of information.

Newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels are worldwide businesses that need to profit and grow. In the U.S., however, most revenues nowadays come from corporate advertisers, not the consumers. In a bizarre shift of focus and raison d’etre, the media makes its main profit not from selling information to an audience, but rather from selling an audience to its advertisers. "The dirty little secret is we are beholden to advertising," says a reporter from the Arlington Star-Telegram, a daily in Texas. Take the Chronicle for example: the paper is chock-full with ads, to the degree where before holidays it almost reads like a Macy’s catalogue. Obviously, a reader’s twenty-five cents weigh in rather meagerly compared with $250.000 in Macy’s advertising money. In fact, after the Hearst Corporation bought the paper, they could even afford to slash the price 50%, making it probably the only product that got cheaper during inflation.

As a result of these priorities, the media’s commitment and accountability lie primarily with the sponsor and not the buyer, which also mandates that media outlets not bite the hands that feed them. This is where "the news that didn’t make the news" comes in: you will not see a Chronicle article that Macy’s has a problem with. Unfortunately, with the global entanglement of corporations and their joint ventures, things become much more far-reaching than that: now, reporters are not only supposed to never upset their paper’s advertisers, but also to never upset the interests of the corporations owning or doing business with the advertisers. A few honorable exceptions aside, investigative journalism becomes thus limited to the shenanigans of celebrities, or, as a reporter from the Arlington Star-Telegram put it: "When you have to start worrying if your stories are conflicting with the ad department, you’re fucked."

Naturally there also is no love lost between the ad department and the homeless. Advertisers chiefly target wealthy audiences and pay media outlets premiums for white male consumer factors — no wonder that many issues concerning the rights and problems of homeless people are not considered "newsworthy;" on a smaller level, local businesses advertising in newspapers usually have their own gripes with persons living on the streets. Most importantly, the media is owned and run by pro-business capitalists, people who believe that the status quo is working just fine and merely view homelessness as the failure of people who "opt out of the system."

While this attitude inevitably shapes the coverage — homeless people are usually depicted holding beer cans, sleeping in the streets, or stumbling around in a drugged haze — the coverage inevitably shapes the opinions in the consumer’s mind. The covered segment of "the homeless" becomes equated with the entire homeless population, making it easy to dismiss them as hopeless dropouts. Therefore, what mass media consumers think they know about homelessness are often just the stereotypes and simplifications of the people in charge of the presentation.

Finally, news is a cutthroat business, with journalists under enormous time pressure to crank out their stories. While reporting truth is a cumbersome, time-consuming endeavor, many journalists don’t have the luxury of such an approach. Resorting to press releases and sound bites are frequent practice, which perpetuates the same simplifications. It would be interesting to see what happened if homeless advocacy groups were to design the local coverage of a San Francisco newspaper for a month, providing comprehensive reporting, backgrounds, and analyses. Readers would be amazed at the mental flip-flops their opinions can perform — for most minds are subject to change, depending on what information they are fed.

Take it from the STREET SHEET.

Originally published in STREET SHEET
A Publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco
468 Turk Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
415 / 346.3740-voice • 415 / 775.5639-fax
streetsheet [at]
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