11-17 September 2015 #775

Left, right and centre

Polarisation in the Nepali media is becoming a part of the problem
Tsering Dolker Gurung

‘Chances of having statute in accord slim', read the banner headline on an English language paper in Kathmandu this week. Its sister paper in Nepali on the same day had the headline: ‘Constitution by September planned’. A page 1 story on another paper said: ‘All doors closed for new talks’.

If the contrasting headlines confuse you, you are not alone.

Given the wide gap in the coverage of the constitution-writing process and politics in the national media, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for an average reader to make head or tail of the news, let alone the op-eds. The partisan interests of the media, the political alignment of its editors and the bias of its reporters are blatantly on display.

It has come to the stage where you cannot grasp the complete picture of what is happening in the country without scanning all the big papers. But who has the time for that?

For many of us, our daily dose of news still comes from a single source: a newspaper we subscribe to and when the editorial of the paper is skewed in favour of a particular group or political ideology, we are influenced by a single narrative. The bias of the paper gets rubbed onto the reader, resulting in audience segmentation. Those who adhere to the paper’s views have their beliefs reinforced and become more extreme in their thoughts, those who don’t switch to another one. Just like cliques on social media, we prefer to engage amongst members of closed groups, shutting off dialogue and fragmenting public opinion.

Polarisation in journalism doesn’t just happen in Nepal, of course. In the UK the Guardian and the Telegraph represent two ends of the political spectrum. In the US it is Fox news and MSNBC. Save for few propagandist tabloids and news channels, the Nepali news media, had so far escaped being pigeon-holed. The centre was the position most chose to keep.

The coverage of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006 is a prime example. Newspapers and TV channels all hailed the deal as ‘historic’, signs of progress and democracy in the country. Reports following the peace accord were more or less with uniformity regardless of who the publishers were.

That’s not the case anymore.

Since the constitution writing process began and following the dissolution of the first constituent assembly, the gap between newsrooms in Kathmandu has grown -- reflecting the political polarisation and the ideological battles of the left and right.

The publishers’ stance manifests itself in the newsroom, widening the gap on the debate on the constitution, for instance. All this became much more stark after the violence in Kailali on 24 August. While those leaning towards the left underplayed the incident, and shaped the narrative to emphasise the root causes of Tharu ire, the right-leaning chose to report on the brutality of the lynchings and the murder of a baby.

If you read, listen and watch news today, it isn’t so hard to see which party line the paper is toeing. Some, including this paper, have been supportive of the current government’s moves on the drafting process, and pushing for a timely constitution regardless of dissenting voices. Then there are others who seem to be more aligned with those parties that lost badly in the CA-2 election. These have been extremely, and sometimes needlessly, critical of the state and of the draft constitution.

While the mainstream reporters haven’t actually been fabricating stories, their selection of what to cover and the slant that conforms to their political agenda and editorial line is a worrying trend. By limiting space to include only views that match one’s own, the media has left no common ground for opposing views to come together, perpetuating society’s divisions.

The formation of these ideological ghettos result in each ground taking a more extreme political position and an overall polarised political discourse.

In the end, individual news items may be scrupulously accurate on facts, but as a whole, they may be missing a balance. And that can only hurt the credibility of the journalists and their media outlets.


Read also:

Political geography of Nepal’s Twittersphere, Bibek Paudel

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