Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: First Step to Reclaiming Trust

17 Sep,2020

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

The Supreme Court’s ruling on hate speech this week, staying the airing of a controversial show on a news channel, stops short of landmark, but leaves it parked with immense scope for a larger churning.

 

Let us not forget the historical precedent of this case. When the 15-year-old Sudarshan TV channel—repeatedly accused over the past few years of spreading fake news and religious hate-mongering—claimed that there is jihad aimed at UPSC recruitment, it didn’t sit well with a section of people. After considering public complaints, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting allowed the telecast of the same programme, which claims that there was a jihad (Islamic holy war) infiltrating the Union Public Services examinations. The law does not allow pre-censorship or prior restraint of news, and surely the ministry knows that, so the whole procedure seems a little perfunctory. We can expect political interest in a ministry’s decisions, so the decision not to stop it is hardly surprising, given that a jihad claim promotes the Hindutva narrative in however warped a way.

 

That is when the Supreme Court got into the act.

 

The term ‘news platform’ has for long included opinions. In fact, opinions have occupied centrestage as nearly all primetime news shows are actually opinion shows. Certainly, this is like the editorial page of a newspaper, where content ranges from critical analysis to policy advice. Showing political slant in airing opinions has always been considered par for the course in this space (or time). The less observed slant, though, lies in one of the final stages of gatekeeping—the step of selecting which news stories will be disseminated in what order of importance.

 

TRUST VS BELIEF

Public trust in the media is founded in the very process of news production—newsgathering using news sources, both official and independent, followed by layers of gatekeeping. In public and legal interest, the gatekeepers (input and output editors or someone upstairs) can verify the authenticity of these sources. The authenticity of the source determines how the media keeps our trust.

 

This trust is a chain. Whether a source is official or independent, an entire news story can be a mere claim if the chain of trust is broken at any joint—source, gatekeeping, or dissemination. The trust-deficit theory ignores the question, if trust is the bedrock of news consumption, how come television news is still so addictive? When we keep hearing that public trust in the media is eroding, we must remember that it may have given way to another psychological clutch—belief.

 

Both trust and belief are subjective. The distinction is that while trust may be the result of hard-earned reputation, belief is the result of a choice, whether personal and conscious or through sociological indoctrination. A recent theoretical construct called the “Belief Gap” builds on its predecessor, Knowledge Gap. Knowledge gap pits knowledge as a competitive element in our psyche to keep up with the Joneses. On the other hand, the concept of belief gap posits that we will gravitate towards information that provides confirmation to our existing beliefs. It is possible to extend this concept to propose that there is a snowball effect to beliefs—that new beliefs may be formed as a result of content we receive. So we may see trustworthiness as an attribute of the disseminator, and belief as an audience attribute.

 

WHY OWNERSHIP MATTERS

If channels are operating on the springboard of belief, they continue to place the red herring of trust. Most if not all media platforms will also claim the words that one news group’s social media page uses to describe itself: “without fear or favour …[in] an ethos of editorial excellence and credibility”. If we must bring back trust, we must reorder gatekeeping, and that means a form of regulation that people can trust. Among the Supreme Court’s observations about the conduct of news channels, the most significant are about ratings and ownership. The observation states that the ultimate objective in problematic messaging is ratings. Second, there is a need to make ownership transparent.

 

These observations are significant and a great first step in putting the legal spotlight on the media. The problem is really a combination of economics (ratings), politics (affiliation and backing of parties, but also owners’, producers’ and anchors’ individual affiliations), and religion (or, in general, owners’ ideological affiliation). By making media ownership more transparent, we would be triangulating trust and belief. Whether I trust that platform or not would depend on whether the owner’s belief systems are attractive to me.

 

Let us begin a possible reengineering of a new churn by admitting that self-regulation of news television, for all its brave and relentless attempts, has failed the test of trust. Pre-censorship of live content is never going to be possible nor is prior scrutiny an option under our Constitution. But like any industry’s albatross, trust and social responsibility are integral to the media industry. Eminent lawyers on a news channel suggested this week that independent regulation is the answer, rather like a tribunal that can operate under the legal rather than legislative or executive system. This recommendation looks feasible insofar as placing the burden of reclaiming trust on the producer and not on the consumer.

 

As the founder of Being Responsible, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is building and delivering new curricula at schools and colleges in a brave attempt to instil Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes of repute to positions of leadership. His views here are personal You can reach him at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com.

 

 

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