The media should strive to shape society for the better, not just mirror inequality

The media should drop its claims of impartiality and instead use its influence transparently to facilitate positive changes in society, argues Tom Lawson

Does the media just reflect the reality of society as it is, or does it influence who we are and how we think?

This was one of the key questions asked at the Mirrors or Movers conference held by the Media CSR forum in London in June. The event, which built upon the Mirrors or Movers report published last year, brought together journalists and media experts to debate the media’s role in society.

To me, asking whether the media shapes or reflects society felt a little like asking whether the chicken or egg came first. When it comes to gender equality for example – one of the topics discussed at the conference – does the media’s often deplorable portayal of women simply reflect the inequalities that exist within society or did the media help to create them in the first place? Either way we’re currently in a situation where despite being just over half of the UK population, women make up just one fifth of our MPs, 4% of FTSE 100 CEOs and only 5% of national newspaper editors.

“Most agree that media plays some part in shaping the society we live in,” said conference chair Simon Hodgson, who went on to suggest the ways it does this: questioning, campaigning, inspiring, silencing or amplifying certain voices, and normalising. Examples of this can be seen throughout the news, from the media-wide dominance of coverage for Ukip over the Green party for last month’s MEP elections, to the Guardian’s support for the End FGM campaign.

However, it seems to me that rather than trying to answer the impossible question of how much society has been shaped by the media, the more important issue that came from the debate is whether the media now strives to uphold one of its founding principles – that of impartiality – or whether it works to help enact a shift towards a more just and equal society. In the case of gender equality, does and should the media reinforce current values? Or should it use its influence to strive for equality?

“In the same way you wouldn’t just go to one political party for comment, you shouldn’t just go to one gender”

Conference panellist and Sky News interviews editor Tami Hoffman believes it should do the latter. “Watching TV you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only people who know anything about anything are men,” she said. “If only 7% of engineers are women, the media has an added responsibility to go out and find those 7% and have them represented. We should be moving society away from this, not just mirroring it.”

After a suggestion that this could be seen as tokenism, she responded: “In the same way you wouldn’t just go to one political party for comment, you shouldn’t just go to one gender.”

Harriet Minter, head of Guardian’s Women in Leadership initiative, argued that not only should women have greater representation within the media, but that media organisations “need to realise that women’s issues are not soft issues.” She went on to describe her ideal media landscape ten years from now: “We’d have naked women off page three and fully clothed women on the cover, in fact page three would be gone… it would just go one, two, four.”

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Even if the change doesn’t come directly from within the mass media itself, Tracy Corrigan, digital editor of the Wall Street Journal, expressed hope that social media can have an impact. “Debate can become the news,” she said. She gave the example of how the Santa Barbara shootings earlier this year became a women’s issue story because of the social media hashtag #YesAllWomen. “The feedback loop of digital media is starting to change things,” she said. Ordinary people have increasingly more power to help create the positive shifts that the media arguably needs.

It seems then that although the media needs to highlight the inequalities and injustices that exist in the world, it shouldn’t reflect these in its own values and how it operates.

At Positive News for example, we work to counter what we see as an inaccurate representation of society whereby mainstream media continually points to problems and often fails to recognise work that is being done to produce solutions, and fails to give prominence to positive developments. We are not an accurate reflection of society as a whole, but until the rest of the media gives a more balanced view of the world, in my opinion we shouldn’t be.

Equally, until we live in a society that is gender equal, the media can use its undeniable influence to change things for the better.