Media are more than just channels for disseminating information. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) identifies the following functions (“Unit 1: Understanding Media and Information Literacy — An Orientation,” n.d.):
1. "Media act as channels of information and knowledge through which citizens communicate with each other and make informed decisions."
This means that media play a vital role in the public’s knowledge formation and decision-making. Because we interact with our surroundings and with the world around us through the information provided by media, they inevitably shape our perception and our opinions. This is why it is important for media not only to provide information, but also to provide information that is comprehensive, multi-faceted, and diverse.
A perfect example would be the weather report and the way it helps the audience decide whether to bring an umbrella or not, or what to wear on a particular day. A more nuanced example of this function would be the way media were used in the recent Presidential Elections to help the public communicate their opinions about each candidate and choose which candidate to support.
2. "Media facilitate informed debates between diverse social actors."
In relation to providing diverse and multi-faceted information, the media also function as avenues through which different sides of debates can be expressed. Unlike the traditional form of debate where only two sides get to express their opinion, the media must provide their audience with multiple perspectives, for by hearing out all perspectives, it will be possible for us to form sound opinions about matters of personal or public concern.
Consider how the media inform us about matters related to corruption or governance. Do you think that only one perspective is shown, or are you often given the chance to consider the various sides of the story?
3. "Media provide us with much of what we learn about the world beyond our immediate experience."
As human beings, our sensory perception is often limited to our immediate surroundings. It is then the function of media to provide us with information that go beyond this, so that we can be more conscious of our own actions and aware of how the world around us is evolving. This is extremely important in our current society, as we can now rarely find interactions that are isolated or do not tie people, communities, or countries together. Since countries all over the world are now interconnected socially, politically, and economically, issues that used to be only of national concern now have a more global impact.
One example of this is why media report on increase in oil prices in the Middle East because of the way it influences the fare hike in the Philippines. Changes in immigration laws in a foreign country are often relayed by media because Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs)—and hence the Philippine economy—could be affected.
4. "Media are means by which a society learns about itself and builds a sense of community."
In addressing us as the “public” or the “audience,” media aid us in imagining that we are a part of a community and are part of a nation. Without media, it would be difficult for us to understand that we are part of something bigger than our immediate surroundings and personal experience. In a way, then, without media, we would not have a nation.
Think about how you formed your identity as a Filipino. In what ways do you think media contributed to this?
5. "Media function as a watchdog of government in all its forms, promoting transparency in public life and public scrutiny of those with power through exposing corruption, maladministration, and corporate wrong-doing."
Media are widely known as the fourth estate, which means that they are the watchdogs of the people, constantly vigilant towards the government and informing its people about issues of national concern. It is a watchdog in the sense that it upholds democracy and protects the rights of all citizens. This function is often associated with the journalistic arm of the media. A perfect example of media as the fourth estate is investigative journalism, which often tackles issues that expose the wrongdoings of government officials.
6. "Media are essential facilitators of democratic processes and one of the guarantors of free and fair elections."
As media play a vital role in upholding democracy, they also function as watchdogs during elections, making sure that no anomaly occurs and that the election process goes smoothly. The most relevant example is the media coverage during the 2016 Presidential Elections. Various news stations and websites monitored the election results and constantly updated the public about the number of votes for each candidate. They also reported on issues related to voting precincts, voter registration, and vote-buying, and facilitated debates that would help the public decide who and what cause to vote for. However, it is also worth noting that political candidates also make use of the media for publicity and promotion, and that the issue of biased reporting has been brought to attention because of this.
7. "Media are a vehicle for cultural expression and cultural cohesion within and between nations."
Media form a huge part of our identity and culture formation. They create narratives that help us perceive who we are as a nation and as a community by providing a sense of commonality. By exposing us to other cultures, however, media help us realize how we are different from or similar to other communities. Ideally, this allows for a better understanding of our unique characteristics and the unique characteristics of others. The simplest manifestation of this media function is the film industry: how do you think local films help us form an identity as a Filipino people? How do they help us differentiate our culture from the culture of other countries?
8. "Media function as an advocate and social actor in its own right while respecting pluralistic values."
When it comes to media, objectivity is a myth. You must keep in mind that any type of media has its own purpose and its own message. In the act of filtering and choosing which type of information to relay, media choose their advocacy. Hence, nothing is entirely objective. However, an important factor of this is the existence of pluralistic values. Media can choose a message or an advocacy, but it must not fail to show the multiple perspectives involved. In short, media can uphold certain values or beliefs. They may do so as long as they respect all sides and not filter or distort information in order to reinforce their own ideas.