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Nation, Progress and Role of Media

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

While most journalists pride themselves on objective presentation of news and views, media presentations could be as biased and prejudiced as that of ordinary individuals or social groups. Media bias occurs not only because individual reporters and commentators as well as the owners and editors of media outlets are biased and/or prejudiced but also because of some of the constraints that are part of the system. One constraint surely is space and time: space for newspapers and magazines and time for radio and television. They don’t have all that they wish to or want to have. This results in two practices: agenda setting and gate-keeping.

Agenda setting is the practice when the mass media pay attention to particular events or issues, or set the agenda for the major topics of discussion for individuals and society. Researchers have argued that the mass media do not so much tell us what to think but rather what to think about. For example, in the 1986 elections in the US, candidates spoke about the problems of crime and illegal drugs. Researchers documented during that period a big leap in the media’s attention to drugs, especially to crack cocaine. In April 1986 surveys showed that only two percent of the people picked drugs as the nation’s most important problem. By September 1986, after the media blitz on drugs, 13 percent of the people picked drugs as the nation’s most important problem. This example is just one of the numerous that any careful media watcher can come up with. Just notice how the saturation coverage of Princess Diana’s death, for example, made it seem that a mediocre, confused and pretty divorcee was an angel in disguise who just might have saved the world if only she had lived longer! Just look at the reams of newsprint wasted recently on the betting scandal in cricket and about Cronje having fallen into disgrace. It is as if the shenanigans of cricketers and con-men in India and elsewhere, is the most important "news" of the day and that it is the biggest problem India is facing.

Gate-keeping occurs when editors, producers and other media managers function as message filters. They make decisions about what types of messages actually get produced and disseminated to particular audiences. Journalists believe that they are neutral observers who present facts without passing judgments on them. The news reporting conventions such as the "inverted-pyramid" news lead, the careful use of language, eschewing adverbs and adjectives as much as possible, a detached third person view of matters do help journalists perform their duties in somewhat neutral fashion. But these days, as even a lay person would point out, there seems to be little difference between reporting and writing opinions and between front page news and the opinions on the centre-fold.

"Neutral" journalism refers, of course, only to a particular degree of neutrality. Our childhoods, our class and caste backgrounds, our social upbringing, our education, our experiences, both in private and in public guide and shape our world view and that world view does influence in how we perceive events and report them. The American sociologist, Herbert Gans pointed out that several enduring values are shared by most American reporters and editors. Those values include ethnocentrism, responsible capitalism, small-town pastoralism and individualism. There has been no such attempt at tracking or tracing the values that Indian journalists and editors share. It would be a very useful exercise for Indian media watchers and students of journalism to do such a study. Many have observed that the mainstream and large English newspapers present a particular version of events and personalities as opposed to what the regional language and Hindi newspapers do. Clearly, the slight backlash that we observe against the mainstream English media in India today is reflective of the challenge to those "values" that those English speaking/writing journalists espouse. I would say that the "enduring values" that are shared by journalists, especially the top editors and reporters in the English language media, include "secularism", "liberalism", "anti-communalism", "pro-Nehruvism" and "pro-modernism". This is just an off-the-cuff listing and I have no doubt that if any serious research is to be done on this topic, then one will have to carefully "operationalise" these terms and find a way of measuring any such bias among India’s news editors, commentators and reporters.

Media bias is not a phenomenon that is restricted to any one country or society or a particular newspaper or television producer. There is bias in the American media and there is bias in the India media; and surely there is bias in Indian-American media (see for example, my critique of India Abroadon Indiastar.com).

Let me give you an example and point out that it is not just in news and commentary but sometimes also in the selection and editing of letters to the editor that bias creeps in. On Friday, July 2nd, 1999 the Washington Post published a letter by Govind Bangarbale countering a letter from Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmiri American Council. The Washington Post printed Bangarbale’s letter but by blatantly inserting a phrase. The phrase, "the Hindu Fundamentalist BJP" was not part of Mr. Bangarbale’s letter. He had simply said, "India’s foremost political party, the BJP" to which the newspaper in an insidious and unscrupulous manner inserted its own "opinion" about the BJP. Rarely is bias so obvious and blatant, but there you have it, from the newspaper that gave us Watergate!

This is not to say that the bias is only evident in some newspapers and only on some issues. However, it is important to record the bias, wherever and however they appear. The bias can be noticed in the choice of headlines, the wording of surveys and polls, the choice of pictures, the screening out of oppositional voices, the reliance on particular sources, etc.

Recently, Indian commentators and editors, including Saeed Naqvi and the redoubtable Arun Shourie have expressed deep concern about the way Indian newspapers report events. An article by Arun Shourie ("Refusing to learn, "Daily Excelsior, August 20th, 1999) indicts both Indian and international media for their blatantly partisan and untruthful reporting in the Graham Staines’ murder case in Orissa. For example, both the English language media in India and the international media declared in bold headlines about the persecution of Christians in India. Not only was there no "persecution" but that in many cases it was the Christians who had started or instigated the violence. But that went unreported. In other instances, the conflict was not communal, i.e. they were not Hindu-Christian, but were mostly caste clashes and group rivalry. I noticed in the New York Times a headline reporting the arrest of Dara Singh for the murder of Graham Staines and his two sons in Orissa. The headlines said "Hindu suspect nabbed in missionary killing". I wrote a letter to the New York Times to ask if they would have said "Muslim suspect nabbed in Hindu killing", or "Christian suspect nabbed in Muslim killing". Of course, they did not publish my letter and the question I raised here at my university where David Halberstam, the veteran New York Times correspondent, was a visiting scholar received only a cursory "depends on the story" response from Mr. Halberstam.

The New York Times, it seems, has especially given a slant to reports after the BJP came to power. A reader pointed out that it was amazing how a subtle doctoring of a headline can shape opinions. He was referring to a report by Celia Dugger, which by itself was quite fair and had not pinpointed anyone as being the villain, but where the headline was deliberately mischievous and dangerous. The headline read (March 23rd, 1999) "Shiva vs. Jesus: Hindus Burn Homes of Christians"!

Enough of the villainous goras; what about the Indian newspapers? There are innumerable aspects of the Indian media one can criticize, but let us focus on a few here. For example, there is the middle/upper class bias and urban focus of the English language media. Yogendra Singh Yadav, well-known psephologist, has said that the media, particularly the electronic media, has paid little attention to the rest of the society and has been merely projecting superficial aspects.

In an article titled "A warped Indian media?" the French correspondent for Le Figaro, Francois Gautier (The Indian Express, February 1, 1999) asked why it was that the Indian media presented alarmist versions of the news when it pertained to the killing of a "minority" or of a "white person" but when Hindus are killed in similar fashion the media relegated the news to the back pages. He says: "(when) the last courageous Hindus to dare remain in Kashmir were savagely slaughtered in a village, as were the labourers in Himachal Pradesh... very few voices were raised in the Indian Press condemning it; at least there never was such an outrage as provoked by the murder of Staines. When Hindus are killed in pogroms in Pakistan or Bangladesh, we never witness in the Indian media the like of the tear jerking, posthumous ‘interview’ of Staines in Star News". He goes on to chide the Indian press: "Why does the Indian Press always reflect a Westernised point of view? Why does India’s intellectual ‘elite’, the majority of which happens to be Hindu, always come down so hard on their own culture, their own religion, their own brothers and sisters? Is it because of an eternal feeling of inferiority, which itself is a legacy of British colonisation? Is it because they consider Hindus to be inferior beings...."

Veteran journalists like M.V. Kamath, Arvind Lavakare and Arun Shourie have complained that even they are shunned and their work disregarded in the mainstream English media. Lavakare, in a message to an Indian-American think tank and philanthropic organization says this: "Though English newspapers here don’t touch me with a barge pole, several Indians in the USA have responded positively to my rediff columns and the presence of some members of the Indo-American community in President Clinton’s ongoing visit to our country is clear proof of the significant contribution the lot has made to bring about positive changes in the US’s viewpoint on India". Luckily, some of the new web portals like Rediff.Net have been more open to differing views and they have discovered new talent like that of Rajeev Sreenivasan, Ashwin Mahesh, Varsha Bhosle and others who are willing to challenge the "politically correct" establishment academics and media pundits who have strait-jacketed "thinking" about political, religious, social, economic and gender issues. But the influence and presence of these "establishment" media persons is so great that an organization like the South Asian Journalists’ Association in New York City, which is itself controlled by establishment journalists, only invites authors, media persons and activists who do "politically correct" work to address their meetings and refer only those "establishment" people as "sources" to local American media looking for background material about India or to interview people about India.

Finally, how does the Indian media perform? Traditionally, mass communication teachers used to talk about different media systems/models: the libertarian model, the authoritarian model, the totalitarian model, the developmental or third world model and the social responsibility model. According to this categorization, the libertarian model allowed a free-for-all system where all kinds of opinions could be expressed by all varieties of people and without any constraints. There really wasn’t any such system prevailing in any country and there isn’t one now. The authoritarian model prevailed (and still prevails) in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Libya, or Iraq where the military or feudal leaders exercise tight control over the media, not by pre-censorship but by harsh punishment to those who don’t toe the official line. The totalitarian model was the one that prevailed in all communist countries, where the media was owned and operated by the government and where pre-censorship was the norm. The developmental or the third world model basically put moral pressure on private media to report certain kinds of news — that which related to the building of dams, the construction of schools, the provision of drinking water, or whatever that the government thought highlighted the country’s efforts in developing the nation. In such a system the government too owned and operated media, especially the electronic media. The first forty years of the Indian experiment in and experience of media management and operation could be termed "developmental". Finally, the social responsibility model demanded the practitioners in media to exercise self-control. The American system and maybe the rest of European systems could be so categorized.

These models or systems have now been so bent out of shape because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the development of technology (the internet especially) and the growth in media operations and the increase in media mergers. The last of those has basically turned media operations into profit generating corporations that are driven by ratings and the finding of and catering to the lowest common denominator. Those "developments" have affected the Indian media too and Indian newspapers and magazines have therefore succumbed to sensationalising events, focusing on the famous and the notorious and the glitzy and the glamorous. Reports are shorter because people’s attention spans have grown shorter (because of the influence of television); reports are hyped up and conflict is added where there is none or little because conflict sells.

Is quality and serious reporting and analysis therefore dead? I don’t think so. As more and more channels of television and more and more newspapers and magazines seek to acquire more and more readership, the opposite happens. The market gets segmented. If people start reading and watching the same "homogenized" material, they rebel; they seek something new; or they seek the old and the trusted. It may not happen tomorrow, but the experienced and the wise and the qualified may get back to editing newspapers and producing television programs or managing internet sites. I will let you know when the tide starts turning!

Originally published on April 19th, 2000.

 
     
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