In order to think critically when consuming media, one of the most important lessons to learn are the differences between power, influence, popularity and fame. Here are my definitions. I find them very useful, particularly when I am watching the major cable news channels. You don’t have to use them, but I strongly recommend that you come up with your own.
Power. The ability to change my life profoundly or significantly in ways that are beyond my control. Example: President Barack Obama.
Influence. No power over my life beyond my control, but an ability to influence my decisions/worldview. Examples: Cornell West, Oprah Winfrey.
Popularity. Strong interest in you and what you do, but no appreciable impact on my daily life. Examples: LeBron James, Taraji P. Henson (don’t ask).
Fame. I hear a lot about you, whether I want to or not. But you have no impact at all on my existence. Example: At least 50% of all of the people we in the media tell you are powerful, but are really mostly influential, popular or well-known. Lots of reality show “stars” are crowding this category lately, helping to commoditize and cheapen the value of fame to the point that it’s hardly worth anything these days. Hence, the pressure on public relations/publicity professionals to “brand” their clients as influential and/or powerful.
We in the media (including social media) can confer fame, and thus a false sense of power, to people in a way that can be misleading at best to an unsuspecting public. At worst, it can have negative, even dangerous, implications, even on a global scale. The scariest recent example of this is the elevation of Rev. Terry Jones, an obscure Florida church pastor with a congregation of less than 50 people, to international influence by publicizing his threat to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11. The only way to protect yourself is to think critically about the messages with which you are constantly being bombarded with ever-increasing intensity and efficiency thanks to the innovations of digital delivery.
Think about this the next time we in the media business (including the advertising, publicity and public relations industries, all of which are increasingly coordinating their messages across all content platforms, including social media) tell you who you should be paying attention to, who you should like or believe, or in the case of African Americans in particular, who your leaders, role models, friends and enemies are and what causes to support. I’m not telling you that you should distrust everything you read, see and hear. I’m saying that you owe it to yourself to not just swallow it whole.
To quote the classic by Public Enemy: “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
Alfred Edmond Jr. is the editor in chief of BlackEnterprise.com