New Civilization News: Is the cup half empty or half full?    
 Is the cup half empty or half full?10 comments
29 Aug 2002 @ 03:02, by Martin Oliver

Do schemata control the world? What are schemata anyway?

In the centre of the page, a 10 year-old boy is pictured looking down the sights of an AK-47 rifle. This marks the start of the 'World' section in a throw-away copy of the Sydney Morning Herald dated Wednesday July 24th, a newspaper considered to be one of Australia's most intelligent broadsheets.

Reading the accompanying article, things are not as they first appear. The photo was taken at a military and sports summer camp somewhere in Russia. Further reflection suggests that the photographer went out of his or her way to photograph the youngest participant, thereby creating the maximum impact out of what is a non-news item - one that paradoxically occupies more space on the page than any of the others. Was a photographer flown all the way from Australia to capture this image?

At the top of the page, in bold type, we are reaquainted with that old chestnut, revenge. The Hamas movement in Palestine has vowed to avenge the recent killings of a number of Palestinians, which include Hamas's military leader. There are active peace movements in both Israel [link] and internationally [link], but in the mainstream media their voices somehow rarely seem to be heard above the clamour of hatred and anger, except at Christmas, when they might be the subject matter for the token feelgood Christmas story.

A column on the left refers to Vieira de Mello, who is taking over from Mary Robinson as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In doing so, it succeeds in using the word 'minefield', even though I was unaware of any war in western Switzerland.

Underneath, we hear about the resignation of a Dutch minister within hours of her new government taking office ('Ready, steady, quit') because of previous links to a militia group. At the bottom, there are controversial remarks made by the future Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the ordination of gay priests, and last but not least, the shooting of three polar bears by the authorities on the Spitzbergen archipelago.

I feel that in setting out in a single-minded fashion to do whatever it thinks is necessary to sell newspapers rather than have them sitting around at the end of the day, the Sydney Morning Herald is shamelessly pandering to the latent primitive side of the human psyche and toying with it like a puppeteer.

People who are just glancing through this edition are grabbed by the child/gun image, both centrally positioned and excessively large in relation to the size of the page, located directly under the word 'revenge'. Those who linger are fed weapons (a gun and a minefield), death (Palestinians and polar bears), militarism (a militia group) and dysfunction (a weakening of the Dutch government and some archbishop controversy with an adversarial flavour).

Interestingly, almost all these news items have effectively shifted their focus away from the present day into the history books or a possible future that may never eventuate. The Dutch minister was linked to a militia group twenty years ago. The Russian boy might be conscripted and sent to Chechnya, and then again, he might not. Vieira de Mello may experience challenges at the UNHCR some time in the future, while Hamas may or may not add to the cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine.

Do these six news items help to enlighten readers about the true state of the world, or are they largely tangential to the key events that are shaping it? How do they compare with far more significant happenings from around the planet that may be less inflammatory and addictive, and for a short attention span, too dull? Will future developments of a more optimistic nature be reported with the same thoroughness?

What information is omitted from this page? Why is there nothing about the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which on July 24th was only a month away from commencing? This gathering had the potential to benefit billions of lives, and be a turning point in the world's history.

Why is it often hard to gain a global overview from a mass media that would rather stick to dysfunctional or violent details than provide us with the big picture in a representative way? Why are the views of raving political extremists often given more coverage than those of sane moderates? Is the world viewing its own collective shadow?

A journalist who left Northern Ireland days after ceasefires were declared, was heard to say 'You can photograph violence, but you can't photograph peace'. To voice the unthinkable, what would happen if the perceived absences of data represented by issues such as peace, cooperation, life, and health were to be accorded the status of events? Is the level of peace in the world increasing or descreasing?

How many countries are democracies? Sources other than the mainstream media say that the number of dictatorships in the world has been steadily decreasing for years, and the number of democracies has been steadily rising. Why aren't we being told? As the number of dictatorships has fallen, why haven't we seen a proportional drop in the number of column inches given to what is happening in totalitarian regimes?

In his book 'Towards an Eco-city', David Engwicht refers to a community workshop he attended in the Australian city of Brisbane, where a TV news editor described the criteria he used to pick stories.

'The whole workshop was upset when the producer admitted that the primary consideration was entertainment value. He admitted that the reason so much bad news is covered is because people like to come home after a rugged day in the workplace, lock their safety grille, and from the safe vantage point of their home, watch all the bad things that are happening outside.'

The UK newsreader Martyn Lewis, who was strongly attacked for coming out in favour of the inclusion of optimistic news in 1994, had this to say in a challenging 1998 speech [link]:
'I have an occasional nightmare that when the world ends - and each profession is allocated its tombstone - on that inscribed 'Journalism' will be the words - "Well, folks, we finally did it!" In my waking hours, I am filled with growing confidence that it won’t be too long before we shall deserve a more honourable epitaph than that.'

If reporters cannot be accused of promoting what they are covering, should this principle also extend to the copycat behaviour encouraged by those media outlets which, in a seemingly desperate hunt for dysfunctional behaviour, are publicising members of small, low-budget community groups who, following an accident, are suing these groups for outrageous sums of money?

Children will imitate acts of TV violence. Why aren't they protected by a violence rating for the TV news, a show that is competing for ratings with other violent TV shows? Recent findings show that increased TV exposure alone makes children more violent. *It doesn't matter what they watch*.

Another obvious effect of this onslaught of dysfunctional news is desensitisation. Our emotions become gradually desensitised to the media, and possibly (to a lesser degree) to everything else. We become so desensitized to pictured violence that after a while we succumb and, at a crucial level, regard it as normal.

Inevitably, this begins a vicious cycle in which ever-greater efforts are required to achieve the same level of impact on an audience. The inescapable results are characterised by an increasingly brutal lack of subtlety; when the Sydney Morning Herald's habit of picturing weapons in the centre of the first page in the 'World' section becomes old hat, I'm unsure what its next strategem will be.

But perhaps the most important, invisible, and insidious effect is the mass psychological frames of reference created by the media. Depending on the type of coverage, these may be either dysfunctional or life-orientated (henceforth referred to as 'functional'). Some people may prefer to translate these terms into 'negative' and 'positive', but I feel that the labels 'dysfunctional' and 'functional' are less woolly.

On the whole, the mass media has the effect of promoting dysfunction by giving it mainstream credibility. Indeed, it will frequently imply, and sometimes tell us, that dysfunctional people and families are normal, with the subtext that it isn't too bad if we emulate them. Later, any dysfunctional behaviour we exhibit may be reported, creating an unbroken feedback loop....

Such frames of reference are called 'schemata' (singular 'schema') by cognitive psychology. These are powerful organising mental fields or 'maps' that govern how each person will fill in the remaining detail to supplement incoming information. They also determine whether it is taken on board, or whether the eyes of your interlocutor glaze over as they gaze horizontally into the distance.

As mental biases, determined by incoming sensory data and information, schemata become increasingly marked over time, leading people to seek out certain kinds of subject matter while ignoring others. The selective nature of information taken on board then tends to reinforce existing schemata. This feedback cycle represents a kind of hardening similar to the way that people typically develop increasingly rigid attitudes as they get older.

We apply constant scrutiny to our politicians on the basis that as they are so apparently dishonest and corrupt (the 'child and cookie jar syndrome'), if the media's back were turned for even one day, there is no saying what politicians would try to get away with. One effect of this double-edged edge sword is increased cynicism. Nevertheless, the media's role of exposing is an important one; a better balance between dysfunctional and 'functional' is the key.

Where schemata are concerned, a more healthy media balance would make a world of difference. If the mass media were to provide an equal measure of 'functional' news, this change would radically change the mass schemata, and immeasurably improve the moral health of the societies that news comes in contact with. In the same way that a fish cannot objectively understand water, a person immersed in dysfunctional news will probably not see it for what it is, or recognise that news is essentially 'constructed'. Exposure creates more limited - and limiting - views of the world on the part of individuals, the healthy part generally hidden, the unhealthy aspect in full view.

Given the propensity of mainstream media coverage to latch onto dysfunction, it isn't surprising that cynicism is one of the most dominant schemata in the West. A cynic's cognitive frame of reference is usually skewed in such a way as to unquestioningly believe in anything dysfunctional they are told, no matter how outrageous ('yeah, typical'), while reacting to information of a 'functional' nature with hostility, rejection, scepticism, puzzlement, or blankness.

If you tell the average person that they could be obtaining all their electricity from wind through a newly available consumer option offered by their power supplier, they will probably react in a way that suggests it's a matter for someone else but not for them.

A more cynical individual may say that 'someone' 'in control' will put a stop to it, probably the government, otherwise big business. If this is paranoid thinking of a certain kind, the 'Them' system has not been matched by a corresponding 'Us' system – the counter-conspiracy of individual and collective empowerment. As an acquiescence to who is 'in power' and what they propose, the development of mass cynicism is a great asset in oiling the path for the machinery of government and corporate control.

According to media advisor Michael J Wolf, ' fast becoming the driving wheel of the new economy'. If dysfunction is largely what makes up the news, and news is now largely a form of entertainment rather than information, we are entering perilous territory. When does the tail begin wagging the dog? Or has it already started? Do we want our reality shows to be filmed in theatres of war?

Our innate moral values are continually under attack from an excessive, unhealthy media focus on death, with the underlying implication that life, especially in the Third World, is a cheap commodity. Crime is continually covered, occasionally admiringly; CEO's are given 'fat cat' pay rises; property speculators are financially rewarded; war is justified; the questionable values that built Western civilisation and appear to be demolishing it a much greater rapidity are everywhere to be found.

When will the global environmental crisis be renamed the 'World Psychological Crisis' or 'World Moral Crisis'? We have been de-moralised and need to be 're-moralised' - by reflecting our moral values in the media through 'functional' news coverage.

Some observers may notice an interesting correspondence between the quality of everyday media coverage, and the quality of everyday thinking and action. Minds are often diverted away from the real solutions that will disadvantage the corporate sector - led away instead towards ineffectual substitutes; understanding of possible solutions is deliberately restricted to 'safe' territory. The saying 'our thoughts create the world' may be true from more perspectives that a New Age one.

People who have developed schemata based on dysfunction are more likely to go out and act dysfunctionally. The message we're getting is that it's all up for grabs. Individuals generally take their behavioural cues from a perception of how things lie in the outside world, distorted or not.

Is exposure to dysfunctional media a formative factor in dysfunctional design – the design of most new cars, houses, buildings, roads, traffic systems and industries (at the same time acknowledging that designs are improving)? Existing patterns of design also carry their own momentum and inertia, governed by schemata of a different kind. The end result is unnecessary consumption. Is this fortuitous for big business, or carefully premeditated? Do insecure people consume more? Does anxiety about death lead people to buy more?

A further schematic level is the blanket assumption that assumes other people think in the same way, with those who don't being labelled 'weird'. Through this mechanism, the greatest insanities, such as filling cities with toxic vehicle emissions, are treated as normal and generally ignored; a kind of societal entrainment exerts subliminal and overt pressure on nonconformists and minorities to be 'normal', adopt 'normal' values, and join in. The same force usually subverts childhood and teenage idealism, to remake it according to a template laid down by those who in the cringe-inducing phrase, are 'living in the real world'.

Whether intentional or not, dysfunctional news may effectively be conveying the message 'This is the way the future is going to be, so get used to it'. A major irony is that the radical media may often fall into the trap of basing their dysfunctional news around the same message to stir up a bit of extra anger. If such negative scenarios are presented as foregone conclusions, the end result is highly disempowering and carries with it a bad energy.

Nazi propagandists (who incidentally were the forefathers of the modern advertising industry) had a habit of filming the German invasion of one country, which was then rushed to the next one they planned to conquer. By appearing to be invincible, they knew that when the next invasion began, most resistance would already be beaten at a psychological level. Is globalisation really inevitable, as the media would have us believe, or is this claim the most likely means of producing such an outcome?

Lester Brown, founder of the WorldWatch Institute, reminds us of the mediaeval latin word for sloth, 'acedia'. In referring to this, Damascene (quoted by Aquinas) describes it as 'a kind of oppressive sorrow' that so depresses a man [or woman] that he [or she] wants to do nothing. It is a kind of spiritual apathy that makes people shrink from spritual good, and indicates a refusal to begin new things.

A tragedy is that, without a counterbalance, dysfunctional media coverage perpetuates, and may even accentuate, the Christian myth of Original Sin, the idea that the human race has carried a heavy weight of 'sin' ever since the time of Adam's Fall. Isn't it an interesting coincidence that the mass media is so fond of using the word 'shame'? As a prison bar, we should shrink with horror away from ever using it – the world already has enough challenges on its plate.

I would suggest that 'acedia' finds a parallel in the 'freeze effect', where overwhelmed, numbed and traumatised people (probably much of the population) wait for the cynic's 'someone else' to act first. No amount of exhortation generally has much effect on them. We have to allow them to be healed first. It requires breathing space and a safe psychological environment.

Media observers are familiar with many of the self-seeking rationales behind dysfunctional news - political point scoring, political empire building, and the questionable anticipation of greater sales figures. An interesting underlying ideology contained within the choice of such coverage (without a counterbalance) is that power ultmately lies at the political level, the view expressed by the wind energy cynic referred to earlier.

A common idea behind such dysfunctional news is that we have devolved down a near-primate level, where stubborn people 'in power' now have to be 'shamed' into taking the necessary action - the subtext being that no other approach will work. This strategem doesn't appear to be the ideal solution. There is a distinct lack of focus on long-term considerations and here-and-now opportunities for being proactive. In feeling you have to pressure another person to reluctantly act in your interests while dragging their feet, you have handed over power to them in fairly stark terms; sometimes we have no choice but to play this game, on other occasions we have another path.

Here are two propositions: 1) Governments often act in a deceitful, self-interested way 2) Many people have resolutely cynical attitudes towards their governments.

There is no denying that 1) will tend to create 2). Is it too bizarre to propose that 2) could create 1), with mass expectations facilitating negative and self-interested behaviour on the part of governments? This could perhaps be compared to mass cynicism being 'a great asset in oiling the path for the machinery of government and corporate control'. It is easier to fulfill the expectations of people than to cut against the grain by going off in a completely different direction.

In contrast, I feel that the subtext to 'functional' news is one of empowerment, and the firmly-held belief that power ultimately lies at a grassroots level. It carries with it the scope to completely bypass governments in some contexts. While most governments feel their hands are tied by international economic factors, the grassroots has no similar obstacle – the biggest challenges it faces include mass cynicism, disempowerment, and a lack of training.

Many outcomes in the political arena lead to a result that could be described as a 'half-empty' or 'half-full' cup, a result that is far from ideal, but not the worst possible outcome. This can be perceived either as a 'half-empty cup' (largely ignore the positive outcomes, tell everyone how bad things are, and pressure the government to act – i.e. fill it all the way up), or a 'half-full cup' (ackowledge the opportunities, grasp them, and run with them largely irrespective of what governments are doing). Wherever relative freedom (of assembly, speech, press) is to be found, it is a half-empty cup, but do we ever acknowledge it as such?

While this analysis is intended as an exposé of what dysfunctional news is doing to us, I don't want to underestimate the power of positive media outlets such as Yes! Magazine in the US [link], Positive News and Living Lightly from the UK [link], and Oz Positive in Australia [link].

The journalists' network Images and Voices of Hope [link], a collaboration between the US-based Visions of a Better World Foundation, and the global spiritual organisation Brahma Kumaris aims to speed our civilisation’s transition from the 'old story' of despair and injustice, to the 'new story' of a sustainable peaceful future.

In the interests of a peaceful media, please refrain if possible from shooting down, torpedoing, or even attacking this article. However, you are still welcome to criticise it or comment on it. My hope is that it will generate plenty of views and discussion.

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2 Sep 2002 @ 23:33 by alchemist : 9/11/02 media boycott?
As a PS, maybe 11th September would be a good day to steer clear of the 8 page World Trade Centre supplements, and instead reflect on creating a future that is radically different from our past.  

4 Sep 2002 @ 17:47 by bonny sosa @ : Cup is half full
Because of individuals like Martin Oliver, I feel my cup is half full. Thanks for the article. It was worth acting on. Keep it up.  

20 Dec 2002 @ 06:28 by spiritseek : Connection
Predicting disaesters before they happen seem to be worth money.Predictions on this basis causes it to be so and feeds into our minds the negative view of the world.  

13 Dec 2004 @ 20:46 by b : Good Thoughts Martin
I guess that is why we humans seem to have an urge to be intoxicated. Dreary old newspapers.  

20 Mar 2007 @ 09:22 by bkwsu watch @ : BKWSU cult service front
Visions of a Better World Foundation and the Brahma Kumaris [BKs] are both the same people. the Visions for a Better World is a BKWSU service front. The joke is that they believe that the world is about to be destroyed by nuclear holocaust and after 6 Billlion of us die, uring which time they will become angels. Then 900,000 of them only will become "worship worthy" gods and goddesses in a nuclear powered heaven on earth. They believe that time is only 5,000 years long and repeated identically within which, of course, they are the most superior souls. "Shudras" or "untouchables" is what they call non-BKs. They say "God" possesses a little old Indian lady and speaks messsages through her to them telling them on these things. For more information, see;  

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2 Sept 2002! And today is Sunday 05 October 2008! And what has changed? Have you?  

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