Can the Indian media regain public trust?

26 Mar,2019

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

In an edit page article on The Indian Express, Rasmus Kleis Neilsen, director of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of political communication, University of Oxford, writes: “In a new survey of English-language Indian internet users, we find that a third name search engines as their main source of online news, and a quarter name social media – in each case overwhelmingly. Google and Facebook respectively. Only 18 per cent claimed going directly to the websites or apps of news publishers as their main source of online news.”

As if that was not troubling enough, he goes on to say, “Worryingly, many Indians do not seem to understand how the platforms they increasingly rely on for news actually operate.”

We know this already from life experience. In spite of all the jokes and warnings, people seem to implicitly believe what they receive on Whatsapp, because “X sent it to me” or because “It came on my phone”. The illogic of their belief matches one supposes the illogic of all belief systems but that is a philosophical matter beyond the scope of the media.

What journalists have to face then is not just a crisis of confidence and trust from their readers and viewers, but a greater crisis of being sidelined or trumped by algorithms. Regardless of the critiques here or elsewhere and regardless of how you feel about this news channel or that news site, the bulk of journalistic work is done by legwork, information-gathering and due diligence. Most platforms also provide a variety of news so that various points of view are presented. This buffet approach to news is not how algorithms work.

But are media houses and journalists themselves partly to blame for this shift or is it all on the shoulders of Google and Facebook? After all, much of what passes for news or discussion on the news as far as Indian “news” channels are concerned, beggars belief. The drama, the yelling, the violence if not physical then certainly intellectual, has diminished the idea of news and debate far more, to my mind, than Google and Facebook have done.

In the case of Indian media houses, this degradation is deliberate. Even if one cannot trust the intentions of Google and especially Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica revelations, several decisions are still made by algorithms and not by human editors. As far as Indian news is concerned, the damage has been done wilfully by humans, either by journalists or their owners or both.

Nielson discusses the greater responsibility that Google and Facebook have on the dissemination of news here:

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/facebook-google-twitter-internet-algorithm-as-editor-5640696/

But our focus is on the Indian media. Already we have seen that fact-check websites do better work than trained and employed journalists to expose fake news. Most journalists themselves use these fact-checkers as reference points. The irony is that often these sites correct false news put out by the mainstream media itself. The ironies involved are mind-boggling.

Nielson has located his opinion piece within the upcoming general elections. The questionable use of social media and of targeted algorithms on voters has been seen in the US presidential elections and the popular vote for Brexit in the UK. It is imperative that these internet giants are studied closely.

Still the greater responsibility, to my mind, lies with the Indian media itself. Where and why has it lost out? Why is the Indian media unable to combat fake news? What can be done now?

There’s one clear hint here though: Stop catering to the ruling party and try and assume at least a semblance of objectivity. That might help the media regain some public trust. It’s a bit late but no harm trying. The option is subjugation and irrelevance. You don’t need an algorithm to figure out what that means.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal.

 

 

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