Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: Objective and balanced-not!

17 Dec,2020

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

Last week, I was chatting with a friend who owns a modest but surprisingly well-funded group of publications with a social-right slant. Pardon this compulsive hyphenation. I have started using economic-right and social-right because too many jargony terms are thrown around these days, and they all either overlap or confuse. To me, a social-right indicates a relativistic campaign for a community, that is, a campaign that sees a community as pitted against another.

 

An interesting point my friend brought to the table was the idea that objectivity is often mistaken by many editors for balance, but in reality, they are different. One distinction could be that objectivity is all about sticking to the observable facts without bias, while balance is to fairly provide all sides an equal value without bias.

 

That means you can be objective, provide all facts, and still be biased, because you set an agenda to tell the whole truth that lies on one side of the fence. That should be fair if you define your readership well. Political parties bring out their house publications with that agenda. But if someone claims balance, it sets off alarm bells in my mind.

 

Reporter bias is not only allowed by good editors, it is often encouraged. While covering an alleged gangrape in Boolgarhi, Hathras, reporters led the campaign, convinced by what they saw and heard around them—take or leave any possible, institutional agenda to comment on the state’s political supremo. Reportage often includes voices from both sides (at least once a story has developed enough), gladly lapping up available sources.

 

On the other side, the current government has set the agenda for the nation through mediated messages not so much by armtwisting as by simply making a welter of stories available to the media, ready, formatted, and ripe for picking. 

 

Balance needs replacing. The concept of balance needs to be replaced in the media, and in much of the practice, it has been replaced. In the absence of something that is readily available waiting to be adopted, it has been often replaced by campaigns and representation, replete with nudges bordering on social engineering.

 

But shouldn’t we fight and strive for objectivity and more importantly, for balance?

 

No sirreebob. Why? Because like objectivity, there is no limit to balance—you can never bring enough stories of all hues to constitute ideal balance. Both Doordarshan and Republic TV can rightly claim to be objective. Doordarshan and NDTV would probably claim balance, but is often called out for that supposed claim as hypocritical (although I am not sure I see that claim in as many words–being the media, they have a way with nuanced wording!). My point about the hypocrisy of balance is that it is often a cognitive illusion whose realisation needs someone else to call it out–some externalisation, if you will.

 

Audiences are ever-evolving as media literates, but often they are only catching up with technology. In India, channels’ new claim to represent their audience seeks, speciously, to situate media platform in the comfort zone of yay-sayers and fan clubs. It eliminates the naysayers, dividing the audiences not on traditional lines of age, gender, income levels, geography and psychographics, but on the lines of partisanship.

 

For that kind of strategy, as an audience, I prefer the messaging in uncensored fiction—or dramatised—shows on OTT like Undekhi or Aashram. Wrapped in the rapture of a thriller, the messages are nevertheless unmistakable. But when the message is sponsored, it looks forced. That is the case both with some forgettable films post-2014—and with today’s television news.

 

I also see the so-called hypocrisy as a brave, quaint and naive effort. The concept of “news story” has changed with live coverage and live reportage. But this gravitation in this decade towards providing limited sides and versions of news is interesting. The same editorial discretion that media has always used to justify the selective pickings is now more out in the open. So as news media matures (if we can call it that), the ambiguity that the right-wing calls hypocrisy is also morphing.

 

 

Post-maturity. Tomorrow’s post-mature (like postmodern, get it?) media organisations will recognise the need—demand, for those who understand the word—for eclectic views. In an age of channel-surfing, surfing is the democratic choice, not balance. I call organisations mature in the sense that they have evolved with trends. The hope is that in the end, the perspectives somehow arithmetically cancel themselves out, resulting in this zero-value of objectivity.

 

Doesn’t that sound almost silly because there is no way arithmetic could solve that problem, so to speak? The next intellectualised demand could be the right not to surf—the demand of an algorithmic generation that may be more accustomed to staying put while stuff comes to them. One English-language channel employs anchors with different and well-known partisan dispositions. (The Hindi channel doesn’t offer quite the same luxury of choice,) That’s perhaps the most fair we can get within the matrix of “modern” news media.

 

The concept of balance is as unrealistic as the concept of objectivity. But while objectivity has long been challenged by the postmodernists, the concept of balance continues to brazen it out.

 

As the founder of BeingResponsible, Shashidhar Nanjundaiahis attempting to build media awareness among school- and college-goers via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes to positions of repute and leadership. And fair disclosure—he’s been an editor. You can reach him at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com.

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