Stanislava P. Jovanovic

MA in Psychology

Faculty of Philosophy Nis

Plzen, Czech Republic

Stanislava P. Jovanovic

Stanislava P. Jovanovic is a psychologist, currently working as a writer in the field, which allows her to maintain a wide spectrum of professional engagement and constantly learn about new concepts and findings. She had worked with socially endangered groups for several years, mostly with children and young people. She is a certified peer educator and a peer life coach, with vast experience in organizing workshops, trainings, courses, seminars etc. She is also a certificated assertive communication trainer.

Joined On:
July 06, 2017
Last Active:
April 02, 2018

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The Absolute Authorities of the US Media

Let me begin by stating my position right from the get-go. The US media, not unlike other instruments of persuasion (I’m tempted to say manipulation, but we’ll get to that in a bit), tend to use various well-established psychological means of getting you to think what they need you to think. And this is nothing to get too upset about, it’s just the way things are done. The problem arises when we disregard the intentions behind what is being presented to us. This post will try to shed some light on one of the moves used frequently by the US media – (ab)using what could be described as the absolute authorities to promote a statement that needs to become unquestionable.

The Creation of the Absolute Authorities

But let’s discern one thing first – what is considered to be the authority in the consciousness of Americans was intentionally created as such before it was so mercilessly exploited. To really understand that, we need to spot who these customary authorities are.

Have you ever noticed how often a few characters seem to appear in the news or in the TV shows, over and over again? Whenever there is a controversial topic or an opinion you need to accept as your own, you will see several standard players. Depending on the contents, there is an ex-CIA agent, a navy seal, an author (of a book… any book), the science guy, a member of a minority group, a war veteran, a widow of a war veteran, a parent that lost a child. Now, before anyone gets me wrong, let me say it upfront – my intention isn’t to question the experience, the difficulties, the expertise, or the suffering of these categories of people. They are all valid. My goal is to demonstrate how these individuals get misused as instruments in media and in politics.

What media use here is a trick from the  psychology of marketing, and the psychology of marketing probably borrowed this approach from medieval snake oil salesmen. That simple principle states that if the tradesman wants to sell a product, they need to employ one of the three authorities to promote it – a celebrity (because you’re supposed to want to be like her and buying the hair dye she’s using should help), an expert (who’ll convince you to buy the newest type of toothpaste because it’s somehow complicatedly much better than the one you’re using right now), or your average Joe (who you can identify most easily with). This really is one of the most basic principles of advertising and sales. But the red flag should be the fact that the same principle is used by the media.

Let’s proceed to the next manipulation of the most basic psychology that the media (in the US, but all over the world as well) use – empathy and taboo. There’s really not much to say about this blatant mistreatment of our ability to sympathize with those who suffer. Using persons who lost a close someone, who are frequently discriminated against in the society, or who experienced the trauma of war as an instrument of persuasion is the media specialty. Here’s why - it’s taboo to question whatever the sufferer says, as we commiserate and wish to inflict no further pain to them. And this everyday social phenomenon of empathy is something that is commonly abused in the media and in politics. Furthermore, the psychology behind taboo guarantees a strong adherence to it, since, as it appears, we tend to form taboos and traditions as a means of avoiding social punishment. In other words, if we adhere to our tradition and respect what is taboo in our society, we are more likely to be accepted and not be penalized. A strong fear of rejection stands behind such tendency. And the media knows this. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the absolute authorities in the US media, as we call them here with a tinge of criticism, are precisely the figures our tradition would not allow us to doubt – wise men, those who suffer, the brave.  

The Abuse of the Absolute Authorities

As a result of these social and psychological pressures, the absolute authorities get called in when the media need to create an unconditional conviction among the people, when they need you to absorb and never to doubt. These individuals are usually forced to take a stance in a political matter and are the victims as much (if not more) as the viewers.

By the use of the marketing principles discussed above, a mourning parent or a spouse gets dragged from their individual suffering into a collective dialogue about politics and policies, or any public issue. In a polarized nation, anyone who is invited to take a stance in the media, whether mainstream or alternative, will usually pick one of the two sides in any matter. And the matter is most frequently very vaguely associated with their personal destiny. But, we’ll never question that. And we’ll never ask ourselves – what the heck does that have to do with the problem being discussed!

Let’s analyze one recent example, so that it’s not all theorizing. At one moment of the 2017 US Presidential elections, a mourning family captured the media attention. Khan family, the mother and the father of Humayun Khan, who died as an US soldier in Iraq, presented themselves as the perfect tool in the campaign. They are members of a minority group, they lost their child, and Khizr is also an expert, holding a degree in law, with their late son being a soldier who fought in a war for the US people. There were so many taboos, no one would dare to notice out loud that something might be wrong, let alone call into question the validity of the debate.

Now, let us not lead the discussion at the same level as the media did. Let us keep a critical mind before we fall into fire and get scared not to break a taboo. What I am saying is this – when Khan family took a stand for something that they as civilians, as non-media and non-politicians believed they needed to do, media took advantage and abused this personal expression of grief and belief. And pretty much every media outlet missed the point and discussed the question more or less ad hominem – left, right, mainstream, and alternative. All you could hear was how impressionable the speech was or was not, how Muslim women are treated within Muslim societies, how effective was that Khizr took the pocket version of the US Constitution and offered it to Donald Trump, and how Trump reacted.

And now I ask you to keep your minds open for a few more moments. If we took everyone’s political affiliation aside, if we disregarded how scared we are not to be mistaken with someone who would discriminate against people based on their religion, if we forgot how much sympathy we feel for a mourning parent, and how much gratitude we might experience towards someone who we feel lost their life defending our lives – we will inevitably notice that the discussion simply IS NOT THERE. It’s really not about our feelings. It’s not about our admiration, our sorrow, our compassion, our gratefulness. A political debate in media should stick to politics. To law, to economy. To what is, in the end, a bit dull to listen to, and not a really good propaganda tool. And, most importantly – not something that will give the media good ratings and millions of viewers.

So, the next time you see an absolute authority in the media (and once you’re aware of this, you’ll start noticing them everywhere), and see how they are being used through the basic psychology of marketing (read: persuasion), you might want to ask yourself – what is the media trying to sell to me? And why are they using such tactics instead of presenting valid logical arguments, relevant research, and analysis? In the end, is this a move of those who promote freedom of thought and speech, of objective media, or does the taboo and a threat to social acceptance have other purpose – to put a stop at the very attempt of an informed discussion?

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