The Power of the Media

 David Hession,  Head of Impact Measurement & Research at LIFT Ireland 

I was a huge tennis fan when I was growing up. Tennis was one of the few things that I was pretty good at. Every summer I’d be glued to the television as the Eastbourne tournament moved to the Queen’s club tournament, which then led into the weeks of Wimbledon.

I grew up watching John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and others. One of the people I used to watch was Vitas Gerulaitis. He won the Australian Open in 1977, which was when I was starting to watch tennis. I don’t remember seeing him play too often on TV this side of the Atlantic but I was always aware of him as one of the big names in World tennis – I think at one stage I had a Gerulaitis-branded tennis racket – always a sign that someone had made it big.

I remember opening the newspaper one day in 1994. There, on one of the first pages, was a major article about the death of Gerulaitis, aged just 40. I don’t remember the headline specifically, but the tenor of the whole article is still fresh in my mind. It said that Gerulaitis had died in mysterious circumstances while staying with a male friend. Few details were provided but it seemed like there was a subtext to me: something unusual, probably deeply unsavoury, must have been involved in his death.

Time passed and a couple of months later I was reading a newspaper again. I got to the back page and there in the bottom corner was a small one-paragraph article headed “Vitas Gerulaitis’ death ruled accidental”. As I read through it became clear that Gerulaitis had died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to an improperly installed heater. No drugs. No violence. No sexual misconduct.

When Gerulaitis had died in mysterious circumstances the media were delighted to jump on the bandwagon, guess and speculate about what had happened and allow insinuations to emerge and enlarge. But when the banal and tragic truth came out, it was only mentioned in passing, hidden away on the corner of an inside back page. It seemed cruel to me. The damage had already been done.

The media has such a powerful role to play in directing public conversation. Just how much power they have can be almost terrifying to comprehend. Think of how the language of Newspeak was manipulated by official media in George Orwell’s 1984; or of how national news radio was used as a tool in early-1990s Rwanda to brainwash a country’s Hutu majority into treating the Tutsi minority as ‘cockroaches’ undeserving of the most basic of human rights; or of the dangerously polarized echo chambers that pass for news outlets in the US, where facts and opinions are deliberately and malevolently confused, in order to push one side’s agenda or another’s. The immense power of the media brings an immense responsibility.

The question then is what is it that we need from our media? I believe that what we need is honesty, fairness and balance. We are in a lucky position in Ireland that our media outlets still require a balanced outlook. But maintaining that balance in the face of the pressure to entertain must be a difficult thing to achieve. Real leadership is required in this regard; leadership that places integrity, honesty and accountability at the top of the list of necessary attributes. Long may it continue and long may our own media take seriously the power they have to lead.

Join us on April 15th at the Better Leadership Forum where we will continue this discussion with topics such as: 

  • The role of the media in calling out good and bad leadership. 
  • Leadership within media organisations themselves – can / do the media speak truth to power? 
  • The role of the media in promoting positivity during difficult times.  
  • Accountability, honesty, respect and integrity within the media.   
  • The importance of press freedom and an independent and well-functioning media sector.  
  • How the media influence public sentiment on leadership.   
Learn more and book your place at the Better Leadership Forum here