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Voyeuristic entertainment posing as news

Monday, October 24th, 2011

If you flip through the 180 channels on the dish these days in India you can’t distinguish between real news and reality TV.

Journalism is only a narrow segment of the spectrum we call the “mass media”, and that segment is just getting narrower.

Current affairs programmes have turned into voyeuristic entertainment posing as news. There is a raucous reporting of trivia, or there is overkill.

Breathless live coverage of issues with five talking heads on the screen talking at the same time, so you can’t tell what the hell is happening.

The public service role of media has vanished

Recently in a hotel room in India, I flipped through Hindi and English news channels. The main news in all of them was cricket.

Cricket was not just the main news in the sports section; it was the number one item in the main news lineup. This went on for a day or two as long as the tournament lasted.

I teach journalism, and all this makes me wonder whether there is any point training college students in mass communications just so that they can feed the media industry’s voracious appetite for escapist entertainment masquerading as news.

Such content keeps us ignorant of the real state of our countries, the structural problems within our societies. It doesn’t throw the light on social injustice, discrimination and exploitation.

At a time when we need it the most, the public service role of media has vanished.

Journalism and democracy are two sides of the same coin. If one is undermined, the other is also weakened. If one is strong, it protects the other.

But the over-commercialisation of media is governed by an unspoken compact between advertisers and publishers that journalists will not be too controversial so that, in return, advertisers will have access to the widest possible audience.

Censorship by exclusion

We now have to deal with what John Pilger calls “the censorship by exclusion”. Commercialisation of media ownership sanitises the content of what journalists are allowed to report.

Censorship by exclusion is much more insidious because it happens in countries where the press is supposed to be free. Readers and viewers are lulled, and the TV set turns into an anesthesia machine.

Media gatekeepers argue that they are just giving the public what the public wants. But do we really know what the public wants? Do we really care what the public needs?

It is because the mainstream media has abdicated its public service role as a defender of media independence that I think there is new relevance for new media.

Online sites, social networking and citizen journalism complement what the established press can’t, or doesn’t, touch because of state control, commercialisation or sheer laziness and complacency.

So, you see, new media isn’t just a fad. It is a tool that democratises delivery, takes journalism out of the hands of business and government. But it is just a tool. And like any tool it can be used, or misused.

We sometimes tend to get carried away by the medium. It shouldn’t be technology just for the sake of technology.

We shouldn’t be so mesmerized by gadgets and the planned obsolescence of gizmos that we lose track about what that technology is supposed to do.

To turn Marshall McLuhan around: the message is the message.

Wake up calls for traditional press

Online media and citizen journalism are wake up calls for the traditional press to re-invent itself, for journalists to relearn what their profession is all about. We need a paradigm shift in the way we do journalism.

Half the children in South Asia are stunted because they are undernourished, but the covers of our news magazines are about how to lose weight.

In parts of India the maternal mortality rate is at sub-Saharan levels, but our newspapers must have a “tits and ass” section.

Nearly 200,000 Nepali women are trafficked to prostitution in India, yet the only sex our newspapers cover are about adulterous film stars.

The trouble begins with what we define as news.

Journalism schools have set the criteria: for a calamity to make it to the news pages the people who die have to do so in sufficiently large numbers, they should preferably be well-to-do, they have to die suddenly and all at once, in one place.

There have to be good visuals, and the victims should speak English.

Which is why the fact that 150 children in Nepal are killed every day due to preventable diseases isn’t news because they are from poor families, they don’t all die in one place but pass away silently, scattered in homes across the country.

The mainstream media has not sufficiently upheld the citizen’s right to know what is important and relevant to a majority of them. And that is why citizens have become journalists themselves.

Citizen journalists complement traditional journalists

Convergence of technology is making online journalism possible, and it is filling a gap that mainstream media has abandoned.

Just about every media conference I have attended in the last five years has dealt with a debate between old media vs. new media. This subject has been flogged to death.

Let’s not get distracted anymore by the debate between digital vs. analog. After all, it is not an either-or question. We need both. Citizen journalists complement traditional journalists.

What is important is not the platform. What is important is the content. And the delivery is dependent on the content: you choose the medium that best reaches the public that the message is meant for.

Also, just because we have grown tired of talking about the digital divide doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Things are changing fast, but affordability and accessibility because of language and bandwidth keep computers and the internet out of the reach of most citizens.

Actually the digital divide is just the manifestation of structural inequities within and between countries. There is the income divide, there is a school divide, there is a health divide. These are all problems that the mass media should be in the business of finding solutions to by improving governance and making democracies more accountable.

In our enthusiasm for digital media, we have to remember that it tends to be an echo chamber. When you can customize your news feed, subjects or viewpoints that you don’t agree with can be blocked out.

This hardens opinions and works against the politics of compromise that is essential to make democracy work. Instead of being a bridge, therefore, the over-connected Internet fragments and compartmentalizes public opinion.

Virtual thought ghettos then populate cyberspace.

Press freedom is like a rubber band: to make it work you have to stretch it. Media pluralism has to be protected by its constant and maximum application so that journalists (citizen or otherwise) maintain our credibility and protect our agenda-setting role.

Finally, the real challenge for both new and old media is therefore to be relevant, to enhance our credibility, and to protect our freedoms.

This is true for whether our delivery platform is the Internet, broadcast or print, whether we work for a newspaper, we blog, or we tweet. Or we do all of the above.

The above is an edit of a my presentation at the Mediafabric event organized by Sourcefabric in Prague 21 October, 2011. First appeared in

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3 Responses to “Voyeuristic entertainment posing as news”

  1. Rupa Subedi on Says:

    Dear Kunda ji,

    Overall, I think the democratization of electronic media is a good thing. But I must say the that Facebook in Kathmandu has also revealed the “less attractive” aspects of human nature (a bit like the book Lord of the Flies does). I find it quite disturbing how nosy people are – taking such an interest in people’s personal affairs in a “group-think” way that in other countries people might say is akin to “mobbing/hounding”. Here is our poor country going through tumultuous changes, and there is Facebook competing to be the latest to “break the news” about so-and-so’s personal life (with not a thought that perhaps that person would kindly like to be left alone). So yes, citizen journalism is good – but what are the issues being covered – that is probably more important. Rupa

  2. Rituraj Sapkota on Says:

    A nice summary of what has been and always will be an endless debate/discussion. I teach Television production and film making in an institute in Central India and everything that comes on TV is a pure contradiction of what we teach in Media Ethics and just about everything else to do with production. The way Anna Hazare movement was broadcast round the clock and beyond was revolting, more so because only a few miles away from where I live, young Maoists my age are being hunted down by the armed forces who will perhaps not rest till the last of them lies dead. When I travel from Nepal to here, I encounter beggars, eunuchs, vendors and the invisible people who run a family cleaning railway tracks, carrying baggage, building roads, pulling rickshaws, begging or running a shop four square feet wide. Yet these people’s lives are never depicted anywhere. Films are always about the urban elite who have problems with self realisation needs, while a huge population has not met its physiological needs (referring to Maslow). My juniors and some of my students are today working in newspapers, where there job is limited to covering Page three parties and writing a tabloid article on “Manscara” (some sort of a mascara for men, a junior called me up to ask for a quote a year ago). In the electronic media, even if we were to overlook the media bias, have we not seen the likes of Arnab Goswami call esteemed guests and ask leading questions that would have cost him his license if he was an advocate?
    But when we look at the Nepali media today, we see they are highly influenced by the Indian media and that is one trend which is hard to change. Do we need a dozen 24 hour news channels? And if they do operate 24 hours, how much of air time do they really dedicate to “real news”? Nepal is rife with stories in every house in every village yet a sense of “celebrity worship” seems to be catching on. How much of it can we actually change? As a pioneer in the Nepali media, you perhaps have a lot of potential in changing the future of our news media. But where are the entertainment media headed? I remember watching programs on NTV as a child and I yearn for at least the same quality of programming today, forget expecting standards to have risen, but we seem to have only stepped back, with some channels trying to replicate Indian soap operas and doing a bad job at replicating what are already bad enough.

  3. Kunda on Says:

    Thank you, Rituraj-ji and Rupa-ji. Looks like we are on the same page. The field is wide open in Nepal for a public service broadcasting station with information-education-entertainment model.

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