Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Do Media Producers Have Obligations to the Greater Society?

I wrote an article a few years ago that generated some positive responses and ended up being cited as a source in another random article that I had come across on the web, in which I laid out an argument for professional media producers to take responsibility for the products they create in terms of their affect on society at large. While that article is still valid, it does not address the growing issues of spontaneous mobile media creation in light of the rise of smartphone and tablet use.

While I do not see this as a censorship issue, it is hard to get around the fact that we are in an era when it is increasingly more difficult to protect
our families from offensive or dangerous material. Media creation itself has become the domain of the public, where anyone with a "smart" phone can become a celebrity or a cyber-stalker with the ease of a few clicks. Uploading media is quicker now than the thought process, it seems, with so many people uploading spontaneously without regard to the greater impact of the material. In Internet forums dating back to the dawn of the World Wide Web, moderators have had to deal with the issue of people who go on the attack through the security of their anonymous presence, spouting ideas and epithets that would never pass as discourse in polite, face-to-face exchanges. But the Internet offers channel after channel for anyone, sane or otherwise, to "share" their ideas, feelings or plans, however despicable. It is almost impossible to be plugged in and not get exposed to some of this. Add social media and mobile messaging into the equation and it becomes very messy. So what are professional media creators doing about this?

As a producer of commercial content and independent cinema, I have had to ask myself questions about this many times. There are places in art for examining all ideas and inevitably some of those are going to leak onto the radar of an audience that is either too young or impressionable to receive the work in the way it was intended. Art is meant to offend, to challenge and to inspire, although not necessarily in that order, and more importantly, it should do all three at once. The offense need not be obscene, and is really an action to take the viewer out of his or her comfort zone. The challenge is for the intellect, to stimulate the mind and make it grow. The inspiration is, ultimately, what art does for the spirit or the heart; it is an emotional thrust that propels the audience toward something greater after exposure to the art. While that is one definition of art, it is not a license to create commercial products for mass consumption that denigrate society.

More than ever, professional media producers have the responsibility on their shoulders for creating material that adds something positive to our culture. Likewise, they have the responsibility to repudiate the creation of material that does not add anything positive. Film and television that include scenes glorifying misogyny or violence or religious intolerance, even in subtle ways (like the most beautiful murder scenes possible), should frame those scenes contextually in a way that makes the point of their inclusion clear and relevant or they should not be included at all. And beyond that, producers (and writers and directors) should all school themselves in the ways in which media affects society, be it the detrimental lies told by political pundits or the detrimental myths pushed upon children by outdated, two-dimensional ideologies from Disney or its cable cousins.

Disney has made some strides, just to put things in perspective, but they are very small. A recent episode of Sophia the First has a princess doll proving she is equal to a knight action figure and the message is handled in a way that does not rely on talking down to anyone or taking away from the knight in the process. And the Big Box Sing-Song shorts that Disney now distributes offer insightful messages in small packages. But, the very slight improvement in Frozen notwithstanding, the major commercial work of the studio has a long way to go. And this is the studio that claims to have a "family" focus in its media creation.

What producers need to understand is that this is not a "Family Values" issue. Many so-called "family" films are as bad or worse at sending positive social messages because they are less overt. And programming targeting tweens and teens is frequently among the worst of all. These are highly impressionable ages, yet the material is so often generated in a way that over-simplifies issues and offers needless sexuality or violence in a lighthearted or flippant context. Adolescence is a confusing time and a period that is challenging for the child coming of age as well as the child's adult guardians. Media should be making this easier, not more difficult, and certainly not selling detrimental archetypes to these young minds.

Our planet is in an unstable situation, politically, environmentally, economically. Commercial media can be a destabilizing force or a stabilizing force. Social media is well suited toward destabilization when a revolution is necessary. But entertainment is about complacency, escapism and allowing the audience to let its guard down. Entertainment is where the insidious messages get through to the subconscious without obstruction. Entertainment is where producers need to question their own motives and take responsibility most of all.

This is not a point for lawmakers to take up, but if the professional media producers of the world continue to act irresponsibly, it is left to the consumers to wield the biggest sword. The problem here is that most consumers are either unaware or too complacent. And that leaves society in a very precarious position.

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