Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Almighties of India and the spread of yellow journalism….

The belief that the Assam molestation case was stage managed by a journalist is shocking to say the least. In a desperate bid to stay relevant, and acquire content at whatever cost, media often faces pressures to sensationalize stories. When that desperation crosses all limits, and when journalists start to fabricate news – just like Erwing Armstead did in Irving Wallace’s The Almighty – it is time to sit up and take note. The Fourth Estate has a crucial role to play in a democracy. That important role does not allow for fabrication of news.

Though the Assam incident may be an extreme case of yellow journalism, more subtle forms of the same are rampant all across the media landscape. How do journalists sensationalize their stories? Very seldom do they actually create lies; usually, it’s all about preferring one story v/s the other, focusing on the problems of one political party v/s the other, and (on TV) allowing one bunch of people who share the channel’s views to speak longer v/s the other bunch. Media bias is all pervasive; that’s why consuming more than one media outlet to get the full picture is so important.

One of the commonest tricks of the trade is to give prominence to selective stories that serve the channel’s objectives better. So a negative story that occurs in a state that is ruled by a political outfit not favored by the channel is blown out of proportions; given prominence over other stories which may actually be far more important. By manipulating weights in this manner, media outlets create biased perceptions of what is going on in the country. For instance, these days, too much is being made out of the economic problems facing the country. While this overall picture is indeed true, not enough coverage is provided to the brighter spots of the economy – for example the strong FDI inflows into the country, the fast growth in NRI remittances, etc. As a result, a more-than-necessary gloomy picture is painted.

Take another example. The Independent’s sensationalist comment on the PM is put on the front pages, but Obama praising the PM as a stalwart of global economics is ignored. Take stories related to inflation. When inflation drops like it did yesterday (though by a token amount), media plays it down and puts it on the inside pages, but had inflation increased by the same token amount, it would have been put on the front pages. This kind of selective biasing of stories is all pervasive.

The other common trick that India’s TV All Mighties often play is to fill up panels with speakers who share the anchor’s views. One particular anchor is known to shut panelists who take points of view against his up. Another channel which is known to be a pro-ruling establishment channel does the exact opposite. A third English news channel does flip flops from government bashing to government appeasing – perhaps to maintain a neutral position “on average”! None of these channels bother about the damaging impact of their dirty practices on the country.

The third and increasingly common trick is to conceal the real identities of panelists. A woman lawyer who is quite popular on TV these days is actually the Vice President of a national party’s women’s wing, but the TV channel on which she appears prefers to call her just “Senior SC lawyer”. Likewise, another lawyer who once waxed eloquent about a particular party was in reality a college buddy of a national leader of this party. When the political party’s association is concealed, the panelist’s credibility increases. Since the whole intention is to do exactly that, the anchor doesn’t mind it.

In general, while newspapers also have biases, they tend to be more responsible and more balanced. But TV channels are a different ball game entirely. TV channels are overtly biased, and in their zeal to support their favorite parties, they are willing to go to any extent. The Assam story may also have a similar political bias. Assam is not known to be a competitive media market. The channel the journalist was working for appears to be a small local channel. I am not sure competitive pressures made the journalist do what he allegedly did. Maybe the whole idea was to grab the attention of the nation. Maybe the channel knew its scoop would create a sensation nationally, affecting the image of a particular party. Maybe that was the whole idea….

The real truth is that one cannot rely on any single media outlet these days. Just think about it. We are totally dependent on media for all the information we have on most subjects. Very few of us do primary research to learn about a subject. If this is true, and if we consume only one media outlet, we would become puppets in the hands of this outlet. This media outlet would then shape our opinions the way it wanted to. And it would never declare its real agenda…..it’s important people realize this real truth….

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