What do you want when you open the newspaper? What is the intended purpose of tuning into a news channel? Why do you want news?
These are some fundamental questions that you should ask yourself before you consume any information that is presented as news. Here, it is important to realise what constitutes news.
In a classical sense, factual reportage delivered through print or electronic media (radio, television, and broadcasting) would be considered news. However, today, we often confuse it with what is mostly promoted through social media – where algorithms and behavioural patterns determine what we are mostly subjected to see. Anyone using a virtual identity, acquired by mechanically agreeing to oblivious terms and conditions, can peddle the most ludicrous of information to the virtual audience.
Here, there is no accountability or editorial responsibility. No one filters the disinformation or fake news from the real one. Of course, mainstream media is not averse to committing mistakes or misreporting, but editorial control ensures that its distinction from propagandist media is visible and structural. Although, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that these distinctive attributes are fast receding, even in mainstream media.
The spread of illicit, untrue, factually incorrect and intentionally misleading news is not a new phenomenon. People have peddled it, and masses have created revolutions in history, based on well-designed, effectively disseminated, false or prejudiced information. The only difference is that, back then, it was plainly and rightfully called propaganda.
Our social interfaces concerning news and information have become extremely personal. At the same time, ironically, we have more avenues than ever before to share these choices publicly, on social media. We have to understand that these days, it’s easier to create information and disseminate it to masses than ever before.
If a teenager from Macedonia can peddle fake news articles about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – what makes you think you are not prone to such misleading information, and will not make decisions, perceptions and propositions based on such news? In this age of (dis)information, a sordid, motivated mind can produce propagandist content in many formats.
New media, high-speed internet and a smartphone will make sure that the target audience is ‘dumbed’ down. The target audience varies based on the interests being served. It might be a frantic electorate for a resourceful political party, or the millennial population for a corporation seeking to capitalise on the increased awareness of rights and issues. All you need to figure out is cui bono (for whose benefit?).
If you switch on the TV and find the anchor in an almost-orgasmic elation while declaring that his/her hashtag is trending, it is indeed an achievement, which he/she seeks to reclaim every day. There exists a chaotic and symbiotic relationship between social media, electronic and even print media. The priorities of newsrooms, informed through hashtags, are furthered in the virtual dimension. This is done ‘structurally’ by paid social media co-coordinators of the organisation, ‘randomly’ by online users sharing disapproval or otherwise, and by the paid/unpaid online army of trolls who have a fixed and malicious agenda.
This is not merely reportage or debate – it has transcended into a marketing exercise, which is flirtatiously close to propaganda. Social media plays its part by enhancing the reach and helping finding new audiences through stories promoted on networking sites. The studios and newsrooms dutifully show off the impact they have had through social media. In turn, social media reinforces the construct, thereby creating a loop of intelligently-marketed news. This is a smooth-functioning ecosystem that thrives on impulse and outrage which ‘New India’ possesses in abundance, albeit selectively.
Today, journalism is fighting a battle on two fronts – within itself and with fake news. As journalism evolves alongside technology, it’s also showing its desperation due to the fear of becoming obsolete. Add to this the increasing corporate control of media houses and diminishing editorial autonomy or independence – and you have valid concerns regarding ethical and professional turpitude!
It’s easy to overlook faults of news organisations if the content fits our prejudicial package. However, it comes at the cost of credibility which is the single most precious tenet of journalism. It obfuscates the cause of accountability and accentuates distrust among different audiences, resulting in a sharp difference of opinions which may well lead to social and political discord.
Fake news collectively hurts mainstream media and diminishes hard-earned credibility. Syndicated efforts are required for fact-checking stories, data, analyses and especially, the claims of the administration. The fact-checking divisions need to be made more resourceful and rigorous. Media houses should have dedicated units to track fake news chains and sources, challenge and then expose them.
On the other hand, online activism is required to enquire about and subsequently seek the prosecution of individuals and organisations which create and disseminate malicious, inaccurate and fake content, whose motive is to create a disinformation barrier and exploit it for political or other ends. However, in a post-truth world, where authenticity and facts are just a matter of convenience, this task looks increasingly insurmountable.
Nevertheless, journalism that is bound to an agenda which is self-serving and sensational is the bigger challenge, if not the immediate one. In the fight of who decides what’s pro-India, pro-Army and what the national interest is, it’s the consumers whose minds are overwhelmed by the opinionated and channelised anger. Whether this anger is justified or false, no one really knows. Today, more than ever before, people are divided on the role of media, its integrity and its future in the Indian democracy.
The bottom line is that media today has been reduced into a disruptive commodity which very cunningly informs a range of our functions and decisions – political, social, religious, commercial, cultural and prejudicial. And that is precisely why we should be more prepared and diligent in identifying, consuming, and dispersing what we believe to be the news.
Image used for representative purposes only.