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The Mass Media Foster Sociocentric Thinking

The mass media and press in a country tend to present events in the world in descriptive terms that presuppose the correctness of the self-serving world view dominant in the country. As critical consumers of the mass media, we must learn to recognize when language is being used ideologically (and so violating the basic meanings of the terms themselves). We must learn how to recognize sociocentric bias wherever we find it.

Many examples of sociocentric thinking can be found in the mass media. This is true, in part, because the media are an inherent part of the culture within which they function. Because much of the thinking within any given culture is sociocentric in nature, we can expect the sociocentric thinking of the culture to be furthered through the mass media as vehicles of large-scale social communication.

For example, the mass media routinely validate the view that one's own country is "right" or ethical in its dealings in the world. This cultivates one-sided nationalistic thinking. The basic idea is that all of us egocentrically think of ourselves in largely favorable terms. As sociocentric thinkers, we think of our nation and the groups to which we belong in largely favorable terms. It follows, therefore, that the media will present in largely unfavorable terms those nations and groups that significantly oppose us.

For example, to most citizens of the United States, it seems naturally to be a leader of all that is right and good in the world. The mass media largely foster this view. When we look critically at the mainstream mass media of a country, it is easy to document the bias of its presentations of the important events in the world.

It follows that the mainstream news media are biased toward their country's allies, and prejudiced against its enemies. The media therefore present events that regard the countries of allies in as favorable a light as possible, highlighting positive events while downplaying negative events. As for its enemies, the opposite treatment can be expected. Thus, positive events in the countries of one's enemies are either ignored or given little attention while negative events are highlighted and distorted. The ability of a person to identify this bias in action and mentally rewrite the article or representation more objectively is an important critical thinking skill.

In the United States, for example, because Israel is our ally, our media usually ignore or give minor attention to mistreatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. On the other hand, because Fidel Castro of Cuba is our enemy, mainstream news writers take advantage of every opportunity to present Castro and Cuba in a negative light, ignoring most achievements of the Cuban government (e.g., in the area of universal education and medical care).

Let's consider some examples from the news to exemplify this pattern of sociocentric bias in the news.

U.S. Releases Files on Abuses in Pinochet Era (from New York Times, July 1, 1999, p. A11)

Historical background

In 1973 a group of military officers overthrew the government of the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Their announced justification was that Allende was trying to replace democracy with communism. At the time of the coup the U.S. government repeatedly denied any involvement in the coup and any knowledge of the torture and murder of people considered enemies of the coup leaders and the imposed political structure. Accordingly, the mainstream news media presented the official U.S. position (along with its official explanations) as the truth of the matter. The coup leaders were presented as a positive force against communism. The democratically elected government was presented as a threat to our way of life. The coup, in other words, was presented favorably. Human rights violations were played down.

Contents of article

In this article, written some 27 years after the coup, the mainstream media finally admitted that the United States played a significant role in the Chilean coup. The article states:

The C.I.A. and other government agencies had detailed reports of widespread human rights abuses by the Chilean military, including the killing and torture of leftist dissidents, almost immediately after a 1973 right-wing coup that the United States supported, according to the once-secret documents released today.... The Clinton Administration announced last December that, as a result of the arrest of General Pinochet (who seized power in the coup), it would declassify some of the documents.

Another article in the New York Times, dated November 27, 1999 (article entitled "Judge Is Hoping to See Secret Files in U.S.," p. A14), states, "The Nixon Administration openly favored the coup and helped prepare the climate for the military intervention against the Socialist Government of Salvador Allende Gossens, by backing loans, financing strikes, and supporting the opposition press."


This account illustrates how successfully sociocentric renditions of events are rendered by the news media at the time of their occurrence and for many years thereafter. It also points out, in its failure to suggest - even now - that some significant breach of morality originally occurred, or that, even worse, breaches of our announced values are common. There is also no criticism of the media for their failure at the time to discover and publish the truth of the U.S. involvement in the coup.

U.S. Order to Kill Civilians in Korea Illegal, Experts Say: Prosecution Seen as Impossible Now (from San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 2, 1999, p. A12 (taken from the Associated Press)

Historical background

During the Korean War (1950-1953), the news media represented U.S. involvement in the war as a fight, on our side, for the freedom of the South Korean people against a totalitarian government in North Korea (which we presented as dupes of the Chinese communists). That the government we supported in South Korea did not itself function in a democratic fashion and easily could have been represented as our "dupes" was not mentioned in the news coverage of the time. The coverage implied that we were there for humanitarian reasons: to protect the rights of innocent Koreans to have a democratically elected government and universal human rights. The mainstream media also failed to point out any problems with either our involvement in the war or the methods we used to deal with "the enemy."

Contents of article

This article, written 25 years after the events in question, focuses on the killing of civilian refugees by American soldiers during the Korean War:

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a dozen veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division said their unit killed a large number of South Korean refugees at a hamlet 100 miles southeast of the Korean capital.... The survivors say 400 people were killed in the mass shooting and a preceding U.S. air attack.... In the 1st Cavalry Division, the operations chief issued this order: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire at everyone trying to cross lines."

Such orders are patently illegal, military law experts say today. "I've never heard of orders like this, not outside the orders given by Germans that we heard about during the Nuremberg Trials," said Scott Silliman of Duke University, a retired colonel and Air Force lawyer for 25 years.

Yet, "during the 1950-53 war, there were no prosecutions of anything more than individual murders of civilians by U.S. servicemen," the experts note.

In pondering the question: Why were the orders to kill refugees kept quiet all these years?... a retired Colonel who eventually became chief drafter of the Korean armistice agreement commented, "If it was in their unit, then for the sake of the unit they didn't want to report it." He goes on to state that for much of U.S. history, "we've done very badly in not trying these cases.... What bothers me most is the fact that the American public seems to take the side of the war criminal if he's an American."


The significance of this article is that, on the one hand, it again is an example of how successfully the news media render sociocentric events at the time of their occurrence and for many years afterward. What is unusual in this article is the suggestion of a pattern of behavior that goes beyond the events at this particular time ("We've done very badly in not trying these cases.... What bothers me most is the fact that the American public seems to take the side of the war criminal if he's an American"). This suggestion of a pattern of American wrong-doing is exceptional, as it diverges from the usual sociocentric tendency of the news. It should be noted, however, that we find this merely in the quote of one individual. The suggestion is not taken up in any follow-up articles. It is not a newsmaker, as was the story of President Clinton's sexual escapades. In this sense, the sociocentrism of the news media is not significantly breached.

Treatment Is New Salvo Fired by Reformers in War on Drugs: Courts, voters beginning to favor therapy, not prisons, to fight crack (from San Francisco Chronicle, June 11, 1999, p. A9, taken from the New York Times)

Historical background

Sufficient historical background is given in the contents of the article itself.

Contents of article

A dozen years after the national alarm over crack hastened the decline of drug treatment in favor of punitive laws that helped create the world's largest prison system, anti-drug policy is taking another turn. Treatment is making a comeback.... In the crack years of the 1980s, treatment programs were gutted while the drug-fighting budget quadrupled. New reports said crack was the most addictive substance known to humanity, and prisons started to fill with people who once might have received help instead. The number of Americans locked up on drug offenses grew from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 today. Yet even during the height of the prison boom, when some people were sentenced to life behind bars for possessing small amounts of a drug, a number of treatment centers continued to have success. While not all addicts respond to treatment, these programs showed that crack was less addictive than some other street drugs, or even nicotine, and that many of its users responded to conventional therapy.


This article exemplifies the powerful role of the media in feeding social hysteria and thereby affecting social and legal policy. The view advanced by news reports that crack is the most addictive substance known to humanity was the popular view of the day. Also popular in the 1980s was the view that crack users are best dealt with by imprisonment rather than through treatment of the drug abuse problem. The news media reinforced a simplistic Puritanical tradition that is deep in our culture: that the world divides into the good and the evil. According to this social ideology, the good defeat the bad by the use of physical force and superior strength, and the bad are taught a lesson only by severe punishment.

Test the Idea
Identifying Sociocentric Bias in the News I

Read through the newspaper every day for a week and attempt to locate at least one article revealing sociocentric thinking in the news. One of the best ways to do this is to carefully read any articles about the "friends" or "enemies" of your country's power structure. You should be able to identify a bias toward preserving this nationalistic view. Any negative article about one of your country's friends will play down the negative events and present extenuating excuses for those events. You will rarely find positive articles about your country's enemies, for in nationalistic ideology those who are evil do no good.

Use the format we have been using in writing what you have found, including Historical Background (if possible), Contents of the Article, and Significance. It also will be useful if you think through how the article might have been written if it did not reflect a sociocentric bias.

Sometimes an article in the news does not display our socio-centrism, but implicitly documents the sociocentrism of another group. For example, the New York Times, June 20, 1999, included an article entitled "Arab Honor's Price: A Woman's Blood" (p. 1), focusing on the sociocentric thinking of Arab religious groups in Jordan. The facts it covers are the following:

  • An Arab woman in Jordan was shot and killed by her 16-year-old brother for running away from home after her husband suspected her of infidelity;

  • After her husband divorced her, she had run away and remarried;

  • Her family had been searching for her for six years in order to kill her. "We were the most prominent family, with the best reputation," said Um Tayseer, the mother. "Then we were disgraced. Even my brother and his family stopped talking to us. No one would even visit us. They would say only, "You have to kill." "Now we can talk with our heads high," said Amal, her 18-year-old sister.

The article goes on to document the way in which traditional Arab culture places greater emphasis on chastity in women than on any other "virtue." The article states:

  • "What is honor? Abeer Alla, a young Egyptian journalist, remembered how it was explained by a high-school biology teacher. He sketched the female reproductive system and pointed out the entrance to the vagina. 'This is where the family honor lies!' the teacher declared;

  • More than pride, more than honesty, more than anything a man might do, female chastity is seen in the Arab world as an indelible line, the boundary between respect and shame;

  • An unchaste woman, it is sometimes said, is worse than a murderer, affecting not just one victim, but her family and her tribe;

  • It is an unforgiving logic, and its product, for centuries and now, has been murder - the killings of girls and women by their relatives, to cleanse honor that has been soiled."

Test the
Idea Identifying Sociocentric Bias in the News II

Locate at least one newspaper article containing evidence of sociocentric thinking on the part of some group. Complete these statements:

  1. The article I identified is entitled...

  2. A brief summary of the article is as follows...

  3. The sociocentric thinking depicted in this article is as follows...

  4. If this group had not been thinking sociocentrically, and instead had been thinking rationally, it would have behaved in the following way...

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