Voyeuristic entertainment posing as news
If you flip through the 180 channels on the dish these days in India you can’t distinguish between real news and reality TV. Journalism is only a narrow segment of the spectrum we call the “mass media”, and that segment is just getting narrower.
Current affairs programmes have turned into voyeuristic entertainment posing as news. There is a raucous reporting of trivia, or there is overkill.
Breathless live coverage of issues with five talking heads on the screen talking at the same time, so you can’t tell what the hell is happening.
The public service role of media has vanished
Recently in an hotel room in India, I flipped through Hindi and English news channels. The main news in all of them was cricket.
Cricket was not just the main news in the sports section; it was the number one item in the main news lineup. This went on for a day or two as long as the tournament lasted.
I teach journalism, and all this makes me wonder whether there is any point training college students in mass communications just so that they can feed the media industry’s voracious appetite for escapist entertainment masquerading as news.
Such content keeps us ignorant of the real state of our countries, the structural problems within our societies. It doesn’t throw the light on social injustice, discrimination and exploitation.
At a time when we need it the most, the public service role of media has vanished.
Journalism and democracy are two sides of the same coin. If one is undermined, the other is also weakened. If one is strong, it protects the other.
But the over-commercialisation of media is governed by an unspoken compact between advertisers and publishers that journalists will not be too controversial so that, in return, advertisers will have access to the widest possible audience.
Censorship by exclusion
We now have to deal with what John Pilger calls “the censorship by exclusion”. Commercialisation of media ownership sanitises the content of what journalists are allowed to report.
Censorship by exclusion is much more insidious because it happens in countries where the press is supposed to be free. Readers and viewers are lulled, and the TV set turns into an anaesthesia machine.
Media gatekeepers argue that they are just giving the public what the public wants. But do we really know what the public wants? Do we really care what the public needs?
It is because the mainstream media has abdicated its public service role as a defender of media independence that I think there is new relevance for new media.
Online sites, social networking and citizen journalism complement what the established press can’t, or doesn’t, touch because of state control, commercialisation or sheer laziness and complacency.
So, you see, new media isn’t just a fad. It is a tool that democratises delivery, takes journalism out of the hands of business and government. But it is just a tool. And like any tool it can be used, or misused.
We sometimes tend to get carried away by the medium. It shouldn’t be technology just for the sake of technology.
We shouldn’t be so mesmerized by gadgets and the planned obsolescence of gizmos that we lose track about what that technology is supposed to do.
To turn Marshall McLuhan around: the message is the message.
Wake up calls for traditional press
Online media and citizen journalism are wake up calls for the traditional press to re-invent itself, for journalists to relearn what their profession is all about. We need a paradigm shift in the way we do journalism.
Half the children in South Asia are stunted because they are undernourished, but the covers of our news magazines are about how to lose weight.
In parts of India the maternal mortality rate is at sub-Saharan levels, but our newspapers must have a “tits and ass” section.
Nearly 200,000 Nepali women are trafficked to prostitution in India, yet the only sex our newspapers cover are about adulterous film stars.
The trouble begins with what we define as news.
Journalism schools have set the criteria: for a calamity to make it to the news pages the people who die have to do so in sufficiently large numbers, they should preferably be well-to-do, they have to die suddenly and all at once, in one place.
There have to be good visuals, and the victims should speak English.
Which is why the fact that 150 children in Nepal are killed every day due to preventable diseases isn’t news because they are from poor families, they don’t all die in one place but pass away silently, scattered in homes across the country.
The mainstream media has not sufficiently upheld the citizen’s right to know what is important and relevant to a majority of them. And that is why citizens have become journalists themselves.
Citizen journalists complement traditional journalists
Convergence of technology is making online journalism possible, and it is filling a gap that mainstream media has abandoned.
Just about every media conference I have attended in the last five years has dealt with a debate between old media vs. new media. This subject has been flogged to death.
Let’s not get distracted anymore by the debate between digital vs. analog. After all, it is not an either-or question. We need both. Citizen journalists complement traditional journalists.
What is important is not the platform. What is important is the content. And the delivery is dependent on the content: you choose the medium that best reaches the public that the message is meant for.
Also, just because we have grown tired of talking about the digital divide doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Things are changing fast, but affordability and accessibility because of language and bandwidth keep computers and the internet out of the reach of most citizens.
Actually the digital divide is just the manifestation of structural inequities within and between countries. There is the income divide, there is a school divide, there is a health divide. These are all problems that the mass media should be in the business of finding solutions to by improving governance and making democracies more accountable.
In our enthusiasm for digital media, we have to remember that it tends to be an echo chamber. When you can customize your news feed, subjects or viewpoints that you don’t agree with can be blocked out.This hardens opinions and works against the politics of compromise that is essential to make democracy work. Instead of being a bridge, therefore, the over-connected Internet fragments and compartmentalizes public opinion.
Virtual thought ghettos then populate cyberspace.
Press freedom is like a rubber band: to make it work you have to stretch it. Media pluralism has to be protected by its constant and maximum application so that journalists (citizen or otherwise) maintain our credibility and protect our agenda-setting role.
Finally, the real challenge for both new and old media is therefore to be relevant, to enhance our credibility, and to protect our freedoms.
This is true for whether our delivery platform is the Internet, broadcast or print, whether we work for a newspaper, we blog, or we tweet. Or we do all of the above.
This piece is an edited version of a presentation by Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times, at the Mediafabric event organized by Sourcefabric in Prague on Friday 21 October, 2011. Reproduced here with Kunda’s permission.