Spend 10 minutes discussing any hot-button issue, and you will inevitably hear something about the media.
Most of us take the term for granted, as though we all know exactly what it means. It’s like a proper name. When you say, “Joe’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture Joe (assuming we know him). When you say, “The media’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture “the media.”
With the media, however, 10 different people may picture 12 different things—entirely different things.
The media is what’s known as a collective noun: a single term that stands for a group of individuals. Collective nouns get used a lot in sensitive conversations these days, for better and worse. For instance, you might hear someone make a statement about the mainstream media. Or the gays. Or the blacks. Or women—as in the classic question “What do women want?”
The last three examples have received a lot of blowback in recent years, and deservedly so. They’re often said with a tinge of disparagement born of certain isms: racism, sexism, homophobia. Used in this way, these collective nouns seem to assume that all gay people think alike, or all women want the same thing.
That’s obviously bollocks. Most of us (I hope) have learned this.
So why haven’t we learned it with the media?
When we refer to the media, do we mean The Economist, with its unapologetic free-market bias and incisive reporting of underreported stories around the world? Do we mean The Atlantic, whose essays always seem to highlight the one perspective that never would have occurred to anyone? Are we referring to David Brooks and his thoughtful conservative point of view? Or Maureen Dowd and her irreverent quasi-gossipy sometimes-liberal views?
You might think I’m saying we should stop using collective nouns altogether. I might like to, but I can’t. They do have their uses, in large part because while we are unique individuals, we really do belong to groups with similar characteristics that often (but not always) shape who we are. So it’s difficult to have a full discussion of mass shootings without considering that nearly all the perpetrators are men, or to dialogue about terrorist attacks without considering that many attackers (but not all) have subscribed to violent and dubious interpretations of Islam.
Same with the media. They do have things in common. There is a bent toward the unusual or sensational: hence the old journalistic maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.” Broadcast news, in particular, works within severe time constraints (a half-hour to cover the world), so the reports may be simplistic. All journalists are biased because all journalists are human, and all humans have biases.
Bottom line, I think it’s essential for us to listen carefully for these collective nouns—and to the people who use them, including ourselves. Ask yourself what they mean by that term in that conversation. If we do that, we can take steps to question stereotypes, drill down into simplistic images, and get closer to a clear picture of reality, a rather important basis for any dialogue.