Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: The competitive face of truth

15 Oct,2020

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

The media is not what it used to be. Competition has traditionally been about influence. How many copies did we sell? But behind the controversial coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the death of the 19-year-old young lady in Boolgarhi, Hathras, is the motif of narrative, not the concept of justice. Underlying that narrative is, beyond the ratings rat race, the qualitative war of post-truth news television.

 

When people accustomed to old-fashioned journalism decry the supposed invasion of Marketing on the editorial floors, it seems like a tug-of-war that the muscle of marketing can easily win. Easy access to what’s presumed to be a tangible feel of what’s popular, thanks to the social media, makes the editorial job seem somehow measurable.

 

But journalists did not study to be SEO (search engine optimisation) content managers. Many of them aspire to join the most popular channels and newspapers. Some of my journalism students, after being industry-oriented enough through various kinds of exposure to the trade, were eager to make a difference, joined some of the most popular channels, only to quit in exasperation within the next couple of years after they discovered some harsh realities.

 

Very few journalists would themselves agree with what’s going on. Media trials with sensational claims have taken over from good old investigative journalism; debates from sanity. Some unseen hand seems to stymie journalistic independence. The answer cannot be more vociferous competition, but a different kind of competition. We are seeing the cringeworthy fruits of the former phenomenon. There are too many, albeit reluctant, wannabes on air, too much artificial anger.

 

If anything, the mimicking of what is presumed to be public anger is specious. The anchor creates a momentum of emotion in a discussion, often discrediting a guest who dares to raise a voice of disagreement. It’s like a microcosm of our nation, a quashing of dissent through brute force. The problem is that instead of decrying that channel, other anchors try to adopt the same style strategy. Bear in mind that nearly every channel articulately claims that theirs and theirs alone is the “news, not the noise”. (The remaining are less hypocritical.) By doing so, they not only offer themselves up for the same criticism as the original, but also wind themselves up in knots trying to defend ethical journalism.

 

Traditional news is low-involvement, but it has grown in appeal and intensity over the past two decades. That would, of course, be a good thing were it not for the fact that it is also a form of validation. People’s response to the noisy journalism is that of attention and synchrony. It’s a tango of sorts, involving the viewer into the debate, raising and then legitimising arguments delightfully. So news has morphed from a source of information into a source of debate.

 

Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that—so long as the points of the debate are legitimate. That’s the point of departure among channels. While each channel claims to be kosher, sometimes the difference could be in the veracity of what guests on a panel say. Most of the guests have some vested interest or the other. This is also where channels can differentiate themselves, and more importantly, call out the rotten fish so that we avoid consuming it.

 

So how does healthy competition look? We are blessed to have such a diversity of views on our channels, and a large proportion of our journalists are well-meaning. But here is the window of opportunity for those good intentions: Contribute to the competitiveness of the channel by doing what journalists do best—questioning what is wrong. Competition needs to be both qualitative and quantitative. The business leaders concern themselves with the numbers, so it’s an easy guess who should be in charge of qualitative competitiveness. Is a channel calling people anti-national for having a dissenting voice? Is an anchor drawing false equivalences while citing figures or facts? Are the headline graphics asking questions that sound rhetorical, thereby misleading the viewer?

 

A true journalist would object to all of these. Yet we see at best exasperated murmurs from the fraternity. The media is the story today, yet the media still lives within the old-fashioned idea of not preferring to look inward. If the media doesn’t, someone else is filling the gap, and that’s where the trouble lies. By not exposing the obvious within the media, we are exposing a less media-literate viewer towards false inferences.

 

As the founder of BeingResponsible, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is attempting to build media awareness among school- and college-goers via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes of repute to positions of leadership and can be reached at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com. His views here are personal.

 

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