GENERAL TOPIC INFORMATION
The media plays an important role in Western society as it makes individuals and governments more accountable for their actions.
The media plays a very different role in some countries compared to those in the Western world and these differences must be understood by students in order to write high quality essays. In many countries the media is tightly controlled by the government and is used as a tool to disseminate propaganda. In the West the media is controlled by private companies and is sometimes viewed as having a role to play in ensuring government accountability. It should be recognised that controlling media gives enormous power as it can be used to manipulate public opinion. In all cultures media is used as a tool of power and information is usually controlled according to the interests of those holding power. In some countries this is the government, in the West it is owners of media organisations (not reporters or editors!).
In the West, traditionally there has been a delicate power balance between government and the media. Individual newspapers and television stations will sometimes support one political party over others. This means that governments are dependent on their support and media organisations are sometimes openly biased. However, media organisations are also dependent on government, as governments have the power to restrict ownership and create laws around media ownership.
Since 1990, the power of individual media outlets in the West has decreased because of the Internet. Social media and other web sites are able to pass on information rapidly and the number of publicly available media sources has become enormous, diluting the power of individual media organisations. The increased availability of media also has significant implications for government as it has become virtually impossible to control publicly available information sources. In the West the most notable example of this is Wikileaks – a website that publishes leaked government documents around sensitive issues including drone attacks and the treatment of prisoners held without trial (Guantanamo Bay, Pakistan, etc.) and the killing of citizens without trial. In other countries the media is controlled to prevent details of government scandals being released; however, the Internet is making controlling the flow of information more and more difficult.
A common IELTS topic is the relationship between news reports and people’s lives. The key concepts are that people learn more about the world from news programs. They become aware of issues that they might have previously been unaware of but could affect them in the future. People also become more aware of the conduct of organisations and this may influence their decision-making. For example, people have become more aware that companies are not acting in their interests. They become aware of important upcoming changes in laws so they can make appropriate changes to their lives. People also become more aware of opportunities in society. Information is always useful – but not always in obvious ways – people’s decisions are made up from our experience and the wider people’s experience the better their decisions will be.
Trust in journalists and media organisations is also a significant issue. Most people will be honest and truthful unless doing so is in conflict with their own interests. This is also true for governments and companies and equally applies to media organisations. When considering information provided, the interests of the source should always be taken into consideration. A journalist reporting a story must act in the interests of the editor, who must act in the interests of the owners of the media organisation.
In general, the restrictions placed on media organisations are limited. However, there are three key restrictions that are placed on media organisation relating to libel, harassment and privacy. Libel (or slander) is the idea that media organisations (or any individual) must not make false or unproven allegations against another person. This law exists to protect people from having their reputations unfairly damaged by other people. This is currently a problem in social media where people can make false claims against other people that can be deeply hurtful. A further problem on social media is that there are few restrictions in publishing material (including photographs) that can be used to harass or bully other people. This is a significant issue facing young people who may be socially isolated because of harassment by people who are often known to them and can lead to serious consequences including self-harm. Many countries have recently introduced laws to make bullying and harassment a criminal offence. A further, but poorly implemented part of media restrictions is privacy and mainly applies to people who have a high public profile (politicians, celebrities, well-known sportspeople etc.) who sometimes have unwelcomed pictures taken of them or private information published about them. The general test of whether something should be published is that if information is “in the public interest” it should be published. However, this expression is too vague to be very useful. It is clearly in the public interest to inform people about criminal or immoral activity committed by a person in authority however it is questionable whether information about personal relationships should be published. The consequences of allowing such material to be published can be very serious as it can impact people’s emotional wellbeing. In addition, it creates an environment where people are followed in public affecting people’s sense of security and can be dangerous as people take action to avoid being followed.
Advertising to children occasionally appears as a topic in IELTS. The key issues around advertising to children are that children do not understand the motives of advertisers and will not realise that advertisers are not necessarily acting in children’s best interests. The exposure to advertising that children have is controlled by parents, who play a key role in educating children about advertising. A further important principle is that children are some of the most vulnerable people in our society and as such all adults and organisations have responsibilities to them. It should never be acceptable for adults to take advantage of children. In many countries there are strict laws around the amount and type of advertising to children.
Advertising to adults also often appears as an IELTS question that often presents difficulties for students. Most students identify the role that advertising plays in informing people about products and discounting. However, it is rare that students identify that advertising exists only to benefit companies and often attempts to manipulate people into buying unnecessary products or services. Advertising also preys on unattractive qualities of people including the need to be seen as more successful or beautiful than others.
Violence on television is a difficult topic – whether violence in the form of crime or violent accidents. Unfortunately violence is a part of society and seeing violence on the news or other programs can act as a warning to people to act with care. However, there is the risk that people can become desensitised to violence and become more violent. It is very important that displays of violence are followed up with the impact of violence because seeing the impact of violence on people’s lives can serve as a reminder that violent behaviour has serious consequences and displaying those consequences can be a powerful teaching method.
The reporting of crimes in the media must balance the needs of the public against the victims of crime and their family’s interests. It is almost certainly in the public interest to report that crimes have taken place and the general nature of those crimes as this can raise public awareness and vigilance. The public can often provide information to solve crimes and can take action to limit the chances of becoming victims of crime. However, there should be restrictions around the details of crimes as these may be hurtful to families and victims, particularly if they are of a violent or sexual nature.
What media should be made available in public libraries is also an interesting question that arises. The key to answering this question is having a clear definition around the purpose of a library. A good definition is to provide educational material to the public at little or no cost. Having a definition allows what libraries should provide to be clearly determined. Under the above definition, books, movies and music should be made available in libraries, but video games (except if they are educational) should not.
Media organisations – The word “media organisations” has very general meaning and can refer to any organisation that publishes material for the public and includes newspapers, television stations and web sites.
Freedom of the press – This is the idea that media organisations are allowed to act freely within the law and publish any information that is in the public interest. The concept mainly refers to freedom from the interference by government and the protection of information sources.
Accountable – Accountable means that a person or individual is responsible for their actions and will face consequences if actions are illegal or immoral.
Disseminate – Disseminate is a formal way of saying to pass on and it should only be used with disseminate information or disseminate propaganda.
Manipulate – Means to handle something in a controlled way. It is often used with events, particularly when there is an attempt to influence an outcome to obtain a desired result.
Bias – Bias is to favour one side over another.
Media ownership – This is a general word that describes who does or can own media outlets and is often used when discussing the concentration of media ownership. If one person controls all the newspapers and televisions in an area, it gives them a very high level of influence that government will usually prevent from occurring.
Scandals – An event that can negatively affect a person or organisations reputation. Common collocations include sex scandals and political scandals.
Vested interests – Vested interests are where somebody stands to benefit from a particular outcome of an event and as a result may attempt to affect the outcome of that event.
Desensitised – “Desensitised” means that somebody is no longer sensitive to something. It is usually used for sexual images or violence and means that people are no longer shocked by something that they would have been previously been shocked by because they have seen it many times before and is therefore no longer unusual.
Libel – Libel is the crime of publishing harmful untrue or unproven allegations against a person or organisation that could leas to damage to a person’s reputation.
Public interest – The public interest refers to information that it is beneficial for the public to be aware of.
Sample Essay – Editorial Choices
News editors decide what to broadcast on television and what to write in newspapers. What factors influence these decisions? Do you think we become used to bad news? Should more good news be reported?
News editors have challenging decisions to make when deciding what to publish because they must consider the interests of many competing factors. The primary consideration for editors is the interests of their employers, or the government if they play a significant role in determining the future of media outlets. If owners have no particular interest in a story, editors will often choose to publish many negative stories as they often contain warnings for the general public, but this should be balanced with positive stories to avoid pessimism and cynicism in society. In this essay the role of the media will be discussed.
Editors are employees and although they make decisions about what is to be published, they make those decisions with the interests of their owners in mind. Media organisations often take a political stance and will favour one political party over another to reflect the interests of the owner. In this way the media influences political debate and are therefore very powerful. This situation is both undesirable and unavoidable but the overall impact of individual media organisations has become less because of the wide availability of different information sources on the Internet.
If there is little political gain in a story then editors will generally choose to publish more negative than positive stories in the media because these stories often serve as warnings to the general public. For example, stories of children dying because of being left in cars on hot days and people charged with serious offences such as drug trafficking in other countries are useful reminders to the population of the serious consequences of these actions.
However, it is important to balance negative articles with more positive articles to avoid people becoming depressed and cynical and to remind people of the goodness that exists in almost everyone. Stories of people rescuing others or providing support to the ill and underprivileged are important in reminding us of the many positive things that we do for others and are done for us each day.
In summary, news editors represent the owners of media organisations and will make decisions in their best interest. Where there is little or no interest they will usually report more negative stories as these serve as warnings to the public, but balance these with positive ones to remind us of the goodness we all possess.
This question is exceptionally difficult because to answer it well requires deep cultural knowledge as well as a deep understanding of the role of media. The question is further complicated by the fact that three questions are asked and linking these together logically is difficult.
The cultural element to this question is simply that media organisations have different controls placed upon them in different countries. In many developing countries the media is often viewed as the mechanism for which the government disseminates information. In the West the media is viewed as providing an important check on the behaviour of government and plays an important role in the political systems of Western countries. However, editors and journalists are employees and have limited control over what is published – owners control the content of what is published and will act out of personal interest rather than the common good.
The question itself asks about what is broadcast and what is printed. It should be noted that the correct word “published” and the word “media”, which is the underlying topic, are both avoided by the examiners. Beware of using language directly from the question – examiners know that students use this language and deliberately avoid including key vocabulary in questions.
There are three separate questions asked in the question itself. This provides a natural way to break down the essay into three body paragraphs. It should be noted that the second and third questions are closely related and in the introduction these are grouped together so that there are two rather than three ideas sentences.
The introduction contains four sentences. The first sentence tells the reader the topic and the reason why it is important. The second and third sentences contain the main ideas and are presented in the order that they appear in the body and define the high level structure of the essay. There are two ideas sentences because the argument has been broken into two logical parts, what influences editorial decisions and the breakdown between negative and positive stories. The logical link between these two sentences is that the first sentence covers the stories that news organisations have an interest in, the second covers stories that media organisations have no interest in. The fourth sentence is a thesis statement, which outlines the aim of the essay. It should be noted that all key elements of the essay are presented in the introduction in order to prepare the reader for the content in the body. By providing high-level detail in the introduction the reader is not likely to become confused about the direction of the essay.
The first body paragraph is the most challenging for students as they are drawn by the question into thinking that editors have power and control. This is true to a limited extent, but a student who states that owners are the true influencers will impress examiners with their ideas. This paragraph is by far the most sophisticated of the essay and contains deep underlying reasons why media organisations behave in the way that they do.
The second and third body paragraphs cover the questions surrounding the balance between good and bad news stories. It is worth noting that the purpose of each of these stories is explained to the reader giving the essay an ideas focus. These explanations are supported with examples.
The conclusion is two sentences and contains the same grouping of the questions as in the introduction resulting in an essay that is highly structurally consistent.
Media – The question refers to television and newspapers. The best general word to describe this is media. Students commonly copy language from the question into their essays. To test whether students know the correct vocabulary examiners will often avoid the correct word in the question and replace it with a definition. Common useful collocations are media organisations or media outlets.
Publish – Publish is a general word that is mostly used for books and magazines but can be used more generally. The best general verb for movies and television is “release”.
Cynicism – A useful formal word that refers to the lack of willingness of a person to trust information that they are presented with and will usually assume that what they are told is not true as an initial view. This word is closely related to pessimism.
Underprivileged – This is a very general work that describes any person who has fewer opportunities in life. Examples of the underprivileged are the poor, those that lack access to basic education and healthcare and people who are mentally or physically impaired.