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Media’s Contribution to the Decline in Civility: Investigating how certain media outlets and personalities may encourage or reflect a decline in civil discourse.




The fabric of civil discourse, an essential element for the functioning of a democratic society, appears to be unravelling at the seams. The very institutions entrusted with fostering public discourse and understanding are accelerating this decline rather than it occuring in a vacuum. Among these, certain media outlets, with a spotlight on the taxpayer-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), play a pivotal role in shaping the nature and tone of public discourse. This exploration delves into how these entities are contributing to a downturn in civility, reflecting broader societal shifts and the underlying psychological, economic, and philosophical dynamics at play.


At the heart of this issue lies the transformation of media from a platform for information and diverse viewpoints into an arena of polarisation and sensationalism. This shift is not merely a reflection of changing consumer preferences but a calculated response to the economic incentives embedded within the media landscape. The drive for viewership and engagement incentivizes content that provokes emotional reactions rather than informed debate, leading to a scenario where sensationalism trumps substance. Taxpayer funding was intended to insulate the ABC from financial pressures that might bias its content. However, paradoxically, this cushion has only given it more freedom to pursue its goals unhindered by the costs associated with spreading false information, sensationalism, or causing public distress.


Eminent judicial philosophers have explored the philosophical foundations of justice, which contend that fairness in public discourse is essential to a just society. However, when media outlets prioritise sensationalism over fairness, they distort public perceptions and contribute to an environment where civil discourse is sidelined in favour of conflict and sensationalism. This environment is fertile ground for the erosion of civility, as it undermines the principles of respect, understanding, and reasoned debate that are essential for the healthy functioning of a democracy.


From an economic perspective, the writings of notable economists elucidate the market forces shaping media behaviour. The pursuit of profit in a competitive media landscape drives outlets to cater to specific audiences, often at the expense of balanced reporting. This segmentation of media into echo chambers reinforces pre-existing biases and discourages engagement with opposing viewpoints, further contributing to the decline in civility.


Psychologically, the impact of media on civility can be understood through the lens of personality and human behaviour. Media content that emphasises conflict and division exacerbate stress and anxiety, leading to a decline in empathy and an increase in hostility towards those with differing opinions. The reinforcement of in-group versus out-group dynamics not only diminishes the capacity for empathy but also erodes the social cohesion necessary for civil discourse.


In the context of Australia, and particularly within the Northern Territory, the effects of media on civility can be observed in the polarised responses to issues of local and national significance. The coverage of contentious topics, such as private security and juvenile crime, lack the nuance and depth required for constructive public discourse. Instead, sensationalist narratives dominate, framing these complex issues in binary terms and contributing to a climate of division and hostility.


The ABC and Four Corners made efforts to draw parallels between the tragic, accidental demise of an Aboriginal man, who was inebriated and had assaulted security staff, and the death of George Floyd, aiming to incite unrest and provoke a violent community reaction. Fortunately, the network's diminished credibility and viewership, despite the billions in taxpayer dollars funneled into this media giant, meant these efforts did not gain traction. However, their prior campaigns against the lawful detention of juvenile offenders have led to sweeping, detrimental reforms. These changes are directly linked not only to a rise in criminal activity and a diminished deterrent effect of incarceration but also to the deaths—deemed murders in my view—of individuals merely performing their duties in public service.


The role of personalities in shaping media content and, by extension, public discourse cannot be overlooked. Influential media figures, through their platforms, have the power to set the tone of public debate. When these figures engage in or endorse incendiary rhetoric, they legitimise incivility as an acceptable mode of public engagement. This phenomenon is particularly concerning in the case of taxpayer-funded entities like the ABC, where there is an expectation for content to adhere to higher standards of impartiality and respect for diverse viewpoints.


The decline in civility is not merely a matter of etiquette but has profound implications for the fabric of society. A public sphere characterised by hostility and division is antithetical to the principles of democracy and undermines the collective capacity to address complex societal challenges. The restoration of civility requires a concerted effort to reorient media practices towards fostering understanding and respect for differing viewpoints.


This entails not only a reevaluation of the economic incentives driving media content but also a commitment to the principles of fairness and equity in public discourse. Media outlets, especially those funded by taxpayers, have a responsibility to serve the public interest by promoting informed and respectful dialogue. This includes providing a platform for diverse voices, challenging sensationalism, and prioritising content that contributes to the public good over that which merely generates viewership. After many of the sensationalised reports are aired or posted, they remove the ability for the public to debate or comment on those reports, a clear case of censorship and prima facie acknowledgement of their intention to cause distress and discord.


The contribution of certain media outlets to the decline in civility is an issue that reflects broader societal, economic, and psychological dynamics. Addressing this challenge requires a holistic approach that encompasses reforming media practices, fostering media literacy among the public, and cultivating a culture of respect and empathy. As society grapples with the complexities of ever growing issues, the restoration of civility in public discourse is imperative for the sustenance of democracy and the well-being of the community.


Note -

The array of instances showcasing bias, sensationalism, political partiality, and even the encouragement of violence in the community stands as stark evidence for the need to defund the ABC. Despite having a clear mandate for decades, the ABC has demonstrated, through both my observations and numerous studies over the last 40 years, a persistent failure to self-regulate its agenda and conduct.  From the author.


The opinions and statements are those of Sam Wilks and do not necessarily represent whom Sam Consults or contracts to. Sam Wilks is a skilled and experienced Security Consultant with almost 3 decades of expertise in the fields of Real estate, Security, and the hospitality/gaming industry. His knowledge and practical experience have made him a valuable asset to many organizations looking to enhance their security measures and provide a safe and secure environment for their clients and staff.

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