“Freedom of press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy,” said Walter Cronkite, the ex-journalist who was cited as the most trusted man in America during the ’60s and ’70s. There is no denying the fact that freedom of press is one of the most vital components of a genuine democratic set up. Authoritarianism not only flourishes through stifling opposition but also by suppressing information. Now, let’s think of a democratic system where the media is entrusted with absolute freedom of expression. Is that the happy ending to the story? Perhaps not. The simple reason behind it is that it only generates further questions. Is our media credible enough? Does it reflect genuine public concerns? What is the extent of accuracy our media has? Does it inform and educate the masses in an unbiased way?
Let’s scrutinise the whole issue to get a comprehensive picture. Broadly we shall try to draw a contrasting picture of media as a world of truth and a world of lies.
Simply put, ‘truth’ implies something that is factual, realistic, and genuine; the reverse of it is nothing but a ‘lie’. Suppose ‘X’ says, “Charminar exists in Hyderabad,” then ‘Y’ comes and says, “No it does not, it exists in Islamabad.” Now, a herd of people come and started supporting Y. Will that make Y’s statement true? Obviously not, because Y’s statement is not factual, realistic, and genuine. But we are living in a post-truth world—truth matters in the least and we are dominated by emotions instead. And a large chunk of media fraternity has taken absolute advantage of us for their commercial gains.
These days blaming the media has become quite a fashion trend. But nobody can deny the fact that if there were no media, the human civilisation might not have evolved or would have remained stagnant. Be it traditional palm leaves or contemporary social media, messages have always been helpful in spreading knowledge and information.
If we go through any mass movement in our history, the media has always played a crucial role. Right from Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s socio-religious reform movement, the first War of Independence, three Gandhian movements, those led by J. P., and up to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, the media had a pivotal role in these struggles.
There are many past instances (scams and scandals) in which media organisations directly or indirectly exposed. In the recent past, too, there have many pseudo ‘Babas’ have been detained due to pressure from the media. Further, from time to time, there has been reportage of several irregularities, malpractices, and criminal cases where action was taken basing on media pressures.
The technological world has blessed us with social media, which has empowered the common citizen. We now have multiple platforms to express ourselves, free of cost. When a matter of public concern is repeatedly shared, viewed, and debated on such forums, it pressurises the mainstream media to take up that issue for reportage and discussions. For the last couple of years we have also been observing several administrative steps and legal actions taken due to viral posts about several inhuman practices. Broadly, the crux of the matter is that if media (mainstream or social) complies with the truth it leads to positive outcomes.
A couple of months ago, Cobrapost (a news portal based on investigative journalism) conducted an operation called “136”, which exposed several media houses that had agreed to run political campaigns, mock opposition leaders, and propagate Hindutva for money before the General Election. Paid news has become an integral part of media houses. This is the real face of our contemporary journalism.
Paid news and fake news are mostly inter-connected. Media houses are paid to spread fake news in order to satisfy a certain motive or interest. The BBC conducted a survey in five countries in 2017 and found out that in India 83% do believe that fake news do exist, but 75% could not distinguish between fake news and genuine news. This is really worrisome. Further, social media has facilitated the spread of fake news.
Sometimes news can be biased, or present a half-truth. Portraying one side of an event or issue makes a media house biased. It is always evident that a section of media houses always praise the establishment (even when it commits a blunder), whereas other sections always criticise the government, even it does something commendable. In my opinion, there doesn’t seem to be a single media house which portrays the complete picture.
The tussle among media houses to catch the most eyeballs has wiped out the real issues like poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, or untouchability. These days, our anchors are more concerned about Mandir-Masjid, Hindu-Muslim, Nag-Nagin, existence of Hanuman, and many more sensational stories. These days, television studios have become a battleground where panelists fight on live shows, and where ten people appear on a single screen to pass a judgement about who is patriot and who is not.
The above are few concerns have struck all progressive thinkers and citizens. I think the problem does not lie in the style of journalism, but rather within us (the readers, the viewers). We prefer sensation, thrills, and controversy over factual information. Such content is being sold to us because we like to consume it. Media literacy is very essential in any democratic set up, where people should be able to decide who is speaking the truth and who is telling lies. But I strongly believe those who have thrived in the media business with the help of lying cannot succeed forever. As Abraham Lincoln rightly said, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”