Business, public service or entertainment?
Increased competition, globalisation and the need for resources have radically transformed the media industry, displacing priorities like the public good and social responsibility. In the past, while there were galvanising means of defining what news is, today, anything goes, helped to a large extent by technology. VISA RAVINDRAN examines the issue of an `image-explosion' which is inadequate either as information or entertainment, for vastly different viewers and readers.
News or showbusiness ... the result is a loss of credibility.
TECHNOLOGICAL innovation and economic change have transformed the news industry to the extent where its original definition as a public service no longer holds good. Increased competition, globalisation and the need for enormous resources have nudged priorities like the public good and social responsibility to lower levels with an increasing emphasis on commercial viability, triggering a constant chase of viewership, readership and advertisement support that, in its extremest form, has Ripley's Believe it or Not segment on Australian TV reporting the advent of "Naked News" where women newscasters strip as they deliver the news "without missing a beat".
Hype and sensationalism have robbed news stories of credibility. Martin Kalb, veteran American journalist and author of The Rise of the New News identifies four root causes for the change: (1) A loss of trust and respect for large institutions of government; (2) the new technology which drives the industry in a way that's never been known before; (3) the commercialisation of what was once a public service and (4) the changed definition of news itself. Since his study is of the American experience he describes this change in terms of the Cold War. When it was around, he says, "it was a galvanising, focussing means of defining what news was. But today anything goes. And so from sex to sensationalism you call it and its news. But it is very confusing." This dumping of information is something we are all familiar with because of the multiplicity of channels spewing out information constantly without relating them often to our everyday life.
Instantaneous transmission, online news and 24-hour coverage create an illusion of "catching the news as it happens" and raise expectancy levels which droop because constant thrills cannot be manufactured and news can only reflect reality. The coverage of the Agra summit is a good example in recent times of the boredom resulting from excess coverage. When disasters are covered round the clock this expectation leads to some totally inappropriate segments to fill the space/ time as when aircraft design was elaborately discussed and various people connected with planes and flying speculated on what might have happened when Kennedy Junior's plane went missing and his fate still remained unknown. Constant repetition of the news, especially disaster news, breeds apathy and insensitivity. Classical convention demands in drama that horrendous events are not shown on the stage but merely reported by one of the characters. But today, in a total reversal where even the shadow of reality was kept from graphic portrayal we display "too much reality" which as T.S. Eliot said, humankind cannot stand. In addition instead of shocking people into action a daily procession of blood, gore and body bags has the opposite effect of familiarity reducing intensity.
There is interpenetration of TV and the print media as sources for each other. Very often breaking news is caught on television or online and hard news reporting and features is considerably blurred and background information, different perspectives, analysis and comment in features in the print media and discussions and analyses on TV are very necessary today for the average watcher/ reader to make sense of what is happening around him/her. Too much information is overwhelming and is passively received (or missed entirely) without absorption or involvement.
Information issues increasingly gain political significance because control of knowledge is directly related to power. At the time of the Lewinsky scandal, Richard Reeves, syndicated columnist and Professor of Journalism in S. California, said simultaneous access to information for President and people reduces the President from Chief Executive to First Explainer. He is of the view that democracy ends up reducing the stature of politicians by exposing them on powerful media but thus contributes also to confusion. In the Indian context, our own scam-a-day revelations contribute to a similar state especially when accusations and charges never seem to lead to untampered investigation and conviction. This has only increased the public's mistrust and cynicism. The video wars in Tamil Nadu portraying conflicting reports of the same events and the charges of doctored videotapes have made it clear to the public that ownership of satellite channels by political parties is directly in the way of unbiased reporting of the news. Other kinds of ownership bring in other kinds of bias commercial, religious etc.
Dramatic events like those of 9/11 and the retaliation following it edge other news out even when all the channels and most of the print media to which we are exposed, recycle the same news with the result that the sense of déjà vu lulls one into a less than alert state and nuances even if presented, are not picked up by the viewer/reader. Studies report that celebrity and lifestyle-based reports have almost moved out and hard news with war, politics, diplomacy and military reports are coming back into prominence. Celebrity and lifestyle news had increased to an extent where news as entertainment had people hopping from one news channel to another and newspapers have several pages of such news as also city supplements that seem closer to PR for new products or long engagement diaries documenting shows, meeting and processions. The satellite channels have so much filmy news and film-derived content that could at least be reduced to include more relevant information and better entertainment too. The idea of a globalised world should lead away from uniformity of content that results from <147,1,0>aping older entrants in the field and reflect instead the diversity to which also globalisation gives access. As the futurologist Alvin Toffler remarks in Powershift. "Rather than homogenising the planet ... the news global media system could deepen diversity instead ... Instead of a single global village as forecast by Marshall McLuhan, the late Canadian media theorist, we are likely to see a multiplicity of quite different global villages all wired into the media system, but all straining to retain or enhance their cultural, ethnic, national or political individuality." But what Toffler envisaged in the last decade of the 20th Century as happening in the future is reflected only in what we still only glimpse in "the Other" as represented perhaps, by a channel like Al-Jazeera, but the mainstream media this term itself would be redundant in the scenario Toffler presents is yet to gear itself to the new realities.
Celebrity and lifestyle stories have increased in the print media.
Toffler also speaks of two seemingly contradictory things happening at once consolidation at the financial level and diversity at the actual level of what audiences get to see, and an "image-explosion" along which mass audiences split into segments and subgroups receiving different configurations of programmes and messages. The fact that this has not been taken into consideration in the production and programme selection stages has led to vastly different viewers and readers still receiving the same product mix which, geared to mythical "laymen" or "average viewers/readers" is completely inadequate for other groups either as information or entertainment.
While marketplace compulsions might have reduced effectiveness of the media as public service it is a component that should not be completely forgotten. The reliability of news is an important bond between newspaper or channel and reader or viewer. Political squabbles and speculation occupy too much space/time and in spite of the clamour for "transparency" in public affairs, no data on the running of our towns and cities or details about public expenditure or how the Budget allocates funds are open to the democratic public.
Citizens do not even known how to lay hands on statistics or government publications which are their right in a democracy. Commercialisation and "uniformity" have affected the media to such an extent that its watchdog status and opinion-making powers are vastly depleted. And the "showbusinessisation of the news" as an American writer described it, has taken away its reliability. If media is to make full use of the tremendous power that technology has blessed it with, a lot more thought should go into the gathering and presentation of the daily news and it should be much more sensitively geared to its receiver/user.
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