Traditionally, media have been treated as “fourth estate” and that is problematic because an “estate” implies that it is alright to have exclusive possession over a property – in this instance, the media. Due to the increasing role of technology in democratizing the media “estates”, the old definition needs to be shelved in favor of something else. What is this something else? No one quite knows that yet, but I will try to offer an answer to that in this this small note.
Before we categorize media as one thing or another, let us look into the changing roles it plays in contemporary society first. Also important to ask are questions, such as: are the changes palpable enough? Are the changes in media and society complimenting each other?
Historically, media used to be a wing of the ruling class. Whatever suited the government (in socialist states), or business classes (in libertarian societies), more or less used to get reflected in the media. To some extent, this is still true today. But for the most part, we see the media being at loggerheads with pretty much everyone else who are losing no time in decrying media to be biased and for not being neutral or objective. From celebrities to politicians, the common accusation is that our media are full of sensational headlines and they are always targeting model citizens and conducting what has come to be known as “media trials” and declaring who is guilty while misusing their power.
This has started discouraging many young people from evaluating the role of media favorably. Media organizations are getting defensive while plenty of skepticism abound on the way media operate. In a way, “media activism” (like “judicial activism”) is perceived to be a wrong thing, one that tends to jeopardize the status quo of a society. And amidst this atmosphere of distrust and negativity, I am going to focus on the hope and the bright future that lies ahead instead. After all, the confusion regarding role of media is not necessarily a bad thing; only by assessing the confusing canons of media, can we derive some clarity on their desired scope.
And hence, we need to admit first that media are biased – and may I add, they are meant to be biased. Media do not work in a vacuum. They are byproducts of human interventions and interpretations, and therefore, the media reports are inherently supposed to be biased. There is no need to feel guilty about the biases in media. Indeed, a refusal to acknowledge the possibility of bias in news reports is precisely what leads us to feel fooled. It is not media that fools us with biased reports, it is ourselves as the audience which comes with a preconceived notion that media reports are sacrosanct, who fool us. Likewise, the second myth is media are supposed to report the truth. That on some occasions should be the attempt, but once again the audience perception that there is a singular truth to every incident or issue, itself is an exaggeration. The truth is, there are multiple truths.
When media try to impose a singular truth, that is in fact a singular narrative. A reporter who reports a story first obtains information from a select pool of experts. After that biased sampling is done, the processing of this information depends on the limited acumen of the reporter who has strengths and limitations just like any other individual. After the sampling and errors are considered, then comes the interpretations of the report, which are bound to be subjective, influenced by not just conscious, but also subconscious and superconscious factors. After the report is submitted, then we have sub-editors and editors who use their subjective criteria in finalizing it.
It is true of both print and electronic media. “Footages” are constantly edited, the camera focuses selectively to highlight points of views, the words are carefully chosen considering the limited air time. And the same is true even of online journalism, where the blogger or the online journalist exercises individual prerogatives in terms of what stories to publish, which stories to hyperlink to, and so on. So eventually, the news we get to learn are always subjective, biased and hand-picked. There is a lot of “gatekeeping” and “agenda-setting” involved in production and circulation of news.
Once we realize this rather unsavory account of how media function, we can then squarely blame the media for the kind of education it imparts to the society. Now that the excuses of objectivity are rendered invalid, we can hold media responsible for their failures in enlightening the public as they are supposed to. In other words, if they are meant to be subjective and selective, then why is it that most of our media work as though they are public relations agencies of political parties or business class? In a way not only are most of mainstream media are subjective, but while choosing their sides, they have been choosing the wrong side, the side of the oppressors, the side of the exploiters. And owing to their deliberate profit-seeking mischiefs, they have been injecting the audience with those versions of truths that are detrimental to the interest of the audience, which keeps their circulation going at the first place.
And this is increasingly becoming the situation today where we are loving communal politicians who are preaching hate and actually hating the oppressed Dalit students who are committing suicide by calling them “politically motivated”. Our media reports are biased in favor of the advertisers who are in cahoots with the political parties and businesses they get funding from. Some of our leading journalists of the country who live in multi-millionaire’s mansions happen to be the ones who also get awards for investigating corruptions and power tussles. The beneficiaries of the political economy are the ones who control the critical discourse around the problems with the political economy. In short, the “fourth estate” owners are the ones defining the scope of freedom and role of media in investigating their own monopolies. In this battle where the admirals and the arbiters are one and the same, where the conversation remains among themselves, it is us – the vast section of audience and the independent journalists who are at the receiving end.
Nothing that I said so far is something all of us did not already know. But the way to end this pessimism is precisely in acknowledging the problem exists, to recognize the agencies that sustain these problems, and then to wage a collective war against the appropriation of media, in which each of us has a stake.
Thanks to emergence of online media and blogging, I am hopeful that in coming years, the estate will crumble to pieces, the “media groups” will finally disappear, the consolidation of news sources as monopolistic corporations will wither away. Media can be reclaimed by all of us only when it is understood to have been taken away from each of us. To the young journalists today, my message will be to serve their employers who serve their advertisers, no doubt. But while at it, also pursue consciousness-raising analysis and columns, independent of that. The best years of journalism are ahead of you, and it is imperative that you learn to distinguish between the mundane, hopeless profession of journalism that earns you accreditation and press club privileges – and the infinitely exciting, positively reassuring, progressive journalism that remains your option if you were to utilize your skills in a parallel or exclusive manner to do what a journalist is supposed to – that is, to lend a voice to the underrepresented, to not just take up issues of tragedies but also to follow them up with a passion, to question authorities, to speak truth to power, not to take gleeful selfies with the prime ministers, to go beyond the celebrity culture and to celebrate the marginalized too.
In the times of farmer suicides, dalit murders, alarming rape statistics, communal violences, spiraling unemployment, hike in price of essential commodities, it is not enough to report. The role of media in our society has never been more pertinent. The way we are suddenly celebrating India’s glory today by calling it a shining India and challenging China, comparing ourselves with America, and browbeating Pakistan, it is purely jingoistic and quite ironic. We need to be much more cautious about whose voices are we airing. Are we expressing what the powerful elites want to project India as so that we can invite so-called investments to colonize us once again? Or are we paying heed to our freedom fighters such as Irom Sharmila and Rohith Vemula and the countless poor who live in destitute and still persisting on with struggle?
Whose India is our media’s responsibility? Which section of people need we love enough to work as their agency, and which section of people need we ignore from stealing the limelight? As Malcolm X, the great pan-African revolutionary from the United States once said in the 1960s, “If you are not careful, the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” The role is to choose our side wisely, not to shy away from it under the illusion that we are somehow objective when we cater to profit sphere and subjective when we cater to public sphere. The definition and the role of our media need to change from being an estate to being a sphere, where access, equality and justice remain the goals.
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