Saturday, 30 March 2013

What is good news?

Vicars dread having to preach to an empty church. But what would happen if one of them were to add a bit of entertainment to worship so as to improve attendance? I can imagine the stern frowns on many a face if an Achen were to allow a rock-and-roll inspired performance in church, like what Mary Clarence does in the movie Sister Act. So it is with the media. On the one hand is the remark that the quality of serious journalism is declining. On the other hand is the complaint that the content is too boring (as many would say of a church service that is too boring).
The analogy -- borrowed from Market-driven Journalism: Let the citizens beware? by John H. McManus -- between the church and the newsroom ends here. Obviously, enhancing the liturgical experience is not like packaging media content. And at least in the context of the Mar Thoma church, Achens are under no pressure to impress church-goers unlike in the West where non-denominational churches attract a large number of the faithful. 
But applied to the media, it raises a lot questions. What does the public want? What do people consider as a quality product? Does entertainment always attract more people than “high quality” content? Are editors forced to think with “cash registers in the mind”? Does news as a “commodity” bring down its informational value? In short, what constitutes good news? And, most of all, who should be the arbiter of what is good?
Any discussion on this should be based on the indisputable fact that the media, be it newspapers, magazines, television or the Internet, serves an important function in democracy. I recall how a guest preacher (a layperson) in my native church in Kerala began his sermon by saying that he read no newspapers at all and shut out television entirely because they delivered ‘bad’ news! Instead, he said, he read only the Good News. (It is another matter that the great theologian Karl Barth advised his young colleagues “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”)
Such talk from the pulpit creates more misinformation and confusion. The media must be recognised for what its functions are. McManus says the mainstream media acts as society’s headlights. Imagine driving your car through a rough and potholed road on a dark night without the headlights on. Well, that is what society could be without a free media. “Good journalism can’t smooth the path into the future, but it can help us find less bumpy routes.”
Information, and specifically the news media, can play a crucial role in the formation of public opinion in society. It can impact major social, political, and economic issues in a substantive manner. There are several examples of investigative and analytic journalism bringing a significant issue to the fore. The role of the press and news television in probing certain scams of recent times is worth mentioning. Veteran journalist P. Sainath’s investigations of rural distress and farmers’ suicides are examples of journalism at its best.
However, critics say that the ratio of serious to sensational journalism has been steadily declining. There is no denying the fact. In 1981, Ashwini Sarin, a reporter of The Indian Express, broke the law to expose how poor women were being trafficked. He actually ‘purchased’ a girl called Kamala. The more recent Peepli [Live] is eerily familiar of bad practices to earn television ratings. In short, journalism is crafted to serve the market and what was till yesterday pursued as facts and truth are today commodities offered for sale. Other worrying tendencies in the media include systematic dumbing down and rogue practices like paid news.
For purists, this is nothing but blasphemy. Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in the United States, blames the market culture of journalism thus: “In the new culture of journalistic titillation, we teach our readers and our viewers that the trivial is significant, that the lurid and loopy are more important than real news.”
Defenders of market-driven journalism, however, say the media environment is too competitive in today’s world to disregard the market side of it. They argue that the free choice of consumers will make the content more lively and invigorating.
Striking a balance between information and entertainment or audience interest (market pressure) and journalistic values is the key to good journalism. In my opinion, a well-written article about the life of Amitabh Bachchan or “news you can use” can be both informative and entertaining. But some piece of information on his daughter-in-law’s baby shower is at best flippant. Snooping into the strict personal lives of people, be it celebrities or politicians, can in no way be said to be in the public interest.
As Press Council of India Chairman Markandey Katju observed recently, “No doubt the media should provide some entertainment also to the people, but if 90 per cent of its coverage is devoted to entertainment, and only 10 per cent to all the socio-economic issues put together, then the sense of priorities of the media has gone haywire.”
I place myself in a position that media practitioners too, like all other professionals, make errors of judgement. For this there are watchdog institutions. Besides, there are journalists themselves who are critical of the bad practices in their profession. It cannot also be forgotten that 2011 was the year journalism changed; it is a testimony to the power of the reader that News of the World, which at one time was the biggest selling English language newspaper in the world, had to shut down.

The big picture
This article is not to analyse who has the stronger case, votaries of market principles or their critics, but the implications in society of the trend towards journalism that serves the market. For instance, such media practices as the phone-hacking scandal for which News of the World is facing charges are clearly the result of the commercialisation of the mass media. 
In India, as elsewhere in the world, there has been a rise in corporate power over all areas of people’s lives--economic, political and social. What it entails for the media is that more than social responsibility, economic criteria have come to dominate decisions about the messages and means of communication. Extending the analogy of headlights further, it can be said that there are many factors responsible for the poor quality of illumination of roads: they range from the personal disposition and values of media persons to the priorities of the corporate media (and companies that put pressure on the media) in deciding what should be illuminated and what should not be.
Says Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop Rowan Williams in an essay on the media: “[T]he journalistic enterprise... is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity - which is therefore selected, packaged, and, to that degree, inevitably slanted. This unavoidable ‘marketising’ of the process has the effect of creating yet another interest group, the professional producers of information, whose power as suppliers in the market restricts the freedom of others.”
These producers of information, those who control information, decide who will speak about whom, about what, when and for how long. They identify the priorities and interests that “deserve” attention. They determine the national priorities and set the agenda.The implication of this in society is that it reinforces a limited world view. For instance, I have heard many youngsters speaking against reservation in education or jobs, without being aware of the historical or social reasons for it.
In a world of blatant economic imbalances such as the one we live in, the dominant narrative in the media is often of the rich and the powerful. There is a tendency by journalists to apply “metropolitan templates as the obvious frame of reference” as a result of which there are disturbing gaps of information in regard to rural affairs. Obviously, solutions too are top-down.
While reading daily news or watching it on television, have you ever asked yourself, “Whose perspective is this?” The predictable reply is that this what the reader or the viewer wants. But excluding other perspectives is like showing only half or even less of the picture.
What coverage does the poor, the Dalits or the marginalised in society get in proportion to glam and glitz? Their perspectives do not sell. Oftentimes, with its subtle and not-so-subtle images, the media also becomes instrumental in creating new forms of social division in society. We are in no way less guilty in perpetuating them.
The good thing is that technology is changing news environment in many ways. “If the classical journalist just occasionally nurtured the illusion of writing or speaking for posterity, no such fantasy is possible in the electronic world. In one way, it is the reductio ad absurdum of marketised information, indiscriminate information flow,” says Bishop Rowan Williams.
“From another perspective,” he adds, “the user's immediate access to both the producer and the rest of the audience radically undermines some of the power of the producer. Classical media outlets claim to serve democracy but often subvert the possibilities of an active, critically questioning public by assuming the passive undifferentiated public we have been thinking about. The drift in some quarters to near-monopolistic practices, the control of the product by careful monitoring of response and periodic re-designing - these evaporate when we turn to internet journalism.” (There are other dangers to this, though.)
The case of WikiLeaks expose is a classic example of new forms of journalism emerging. But technology is no solution as long as “journalistic communication is bound to a market model”. 

Some gospel truths
Building a socially conscious media is a process. It is not going to change overnight by moral exhortation.What then should our role be as Christians in a process of social action regarding the media? It is to challenge the right of the “gatekeepers” to decide for others. It requires us to constantly challenge the media’s negative impact on society and the distortions it creates. In other words, it is important not to take everything presented in the media as gospel truths.
We need to ensure that the media reflect, in a balanced fashion, the views, opinions and cultures of all segments of society. The fundamental methodological critique is to focus on “Who is telling the story and for whom?”
Churches can provide an invaluable service in this by helping the general public (not just church-goers) better understand the media and be wiser consumers. The National Council of Churches USA, a leading organisation for ecumenical cooperation among Christian denominations in the United States and of which the Mar Thoma Church is a part, has adopted several policy statements with respect to the issues of media, faith and society. It has a Communication Commission whose activities are (1) media advocacy, (2) media education, (3) network television programming and (4) Worldwide Faith News, “a web-based venture which allows faith groups from all over the world to post their news releases, gaining equal access to mainstream news coverage”. (Details of the NCC policy guide can be had on It is an example worth following even at the parish level.
It is also for us to discover ways to use the media itself to make our voices heard and those of the poor, Dalits, women and other marginalised sections of society. The Occupy movement in different parts of the world offered the church an unprecedented opportunity to make such voices heard louder. The image of a bishop being led away in handcuffs for trying to enter the Juan Pablo Duarte Square in New York City won’t die that easily. By doing that, he and hundreds of members of the clergy and the laity was setting a fine example of even occupying a “space within the media”. 
Engaging with economic and social justice is a gospel imperative. As Mar Thomites we gloat over how Yuhanon Metropolitan engaged himself with social and political causes.
But most of all, if we need to be careful in discerning good and bad media content in mainstream media what about our in-house publications? What images do we convey through these? What filters are there to keep out negative stereotypes or messages that promote a self-centered lifestyle?
How does the Facebook generation see these publications? Do only “success and celebrity rather than a broken and a contrite heart that are made to seem desirable” in them, as Malcolm Muggeridge, the legendary journalist and social critic, says in his essay titled ‘Christ and the media’. Or is “Jesus Christ Superstar rather than Jesus Christ on the cross who gets a folk hero’s billing”?
(This appeared in the Diocesan Herald in March 2012. The views expressed here are personal.)

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