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Guest Column: Credibility in the age of digital media: B. Unnikrishnan Nair, Mathrubhumi News

17-October-2017
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Guest Column: Credibility in the age of digital media: B. Unnikrishnan Nair, Mathrubhumi News

Today, we inhabit a world swamped by a staggering proliferation of media platforms. In such a segmented universe, made even more complicated by social media, the gravest challenge we and other responsible purveyors of information face is: “How relevant is ‘Credibility’ in the age of Digital media?” The short answer to that is a huge affirmative YES; it is all the more relevant.

History teaches us that print ruled for 500 years, since the age of the Guttenberg press. Telephony ruled for over a century, radio for a brief while before being overtaken by television over 50 years, computers for half of that and now the ubiquitous smart phones over a mere eight years, have transformed the dynamic media landscape. Figuring out what will be the next disruptive technology is the greatest challenge. It would be wise to heed the words of a titan of the global tech industry and long-time chief executive and chairperson of Intel, the late Andrew S Grove, who said, “Listen to the technology, the technology will tell you what to do.”

The implications of this massively distributed media world are manifold. It makes for a highly democratised, empowered, personalised, participatory and fragmented structure, where the traditional hegemony of editors is not only being questioned but even derided. In this hyper-connected world, the source of news has moved out from the news room onto the streets. In such a scenario, where any mobile-user assumes the role of news-purveyor, the most important factor that works to our advantage is our credibility and our efforts to deliver news that is accurate. Especially in these times where so much of un-curated fake news gets circulated in social media.

The potential for danger this holds for society is highlighted by the horrific spate of lynchings in North India spurred by reckless rumour-mongering in social media, especially through WhatsApp. In Kerala too, we have had instances of communal strife fuelled by social media postings but contained immediately.

The magnitude of the problem is revealed by research data that suggests that 66 per cent of the 18 crore internet users in urban India and 85 per cent of rural Indians regularly access social media through the internet. Indians are estimated to possess about 30 crore smart phones now. About 20 crore of WhatsApp’s 100 crore users are here, making our country their biggest market. On New Year’s Eve in 2016, 1400 crore messages were exchanged on WhatsApp in India, according to their own data. WhatsApp rolled out the video-calling feature here in November 2016. We have since made over five crore minutes of video calls every day, more calls than any other country.

The audience is not inclined to unquestioningly consume packages offered to them by media houses. They are at liberty to access whatever information they desire, which reinforces their biases on a particular issue. Increasingly at play here, in our age of personal media and also known in psychology as “confirmation bias,” is the tendency of people to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.

Moreover, in the new media order, it is impossible to suppress news. Like Ravana’s head, it will emerge in some platform or the other. The wisest option for traditional media to handle uncomfortable news is to ‘bury’ it in an inconsequential slot, instead of ‘killing’ it. Even for social issues, media support isn’t required anymore. Recent examples of this are the Anna Hazare movement and protests related to Nirbhaya incident, where the entire news cycle was driven by social media.

So, what is this new creature? The audience are addicted to breaking news, they want to be updated every nano-second and they want to be the first to create or share. They enjoy unquestionable freedom to express and consume, especially with WhatsApp, where the communication is totally encrypted, so much so that even WhatsApp can’t peep. In this new world, the audience is both king and queen. They are creating, reporting, distributing and interacting. Each individual is a media microcosm by oneself.

What is the result of this massive change and empowerment? It’s a chaotic world where swarms of edited, authentic information and un-curated content clash for attention. As in the wider world, where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” here too it is so. World-wide right-wing forces are increasingly resorting to social media as a tool for recruitment and dissemination of misinformation and hate.

Little wonder then that Facebook has turned to AI that can analyse text and images to prevent extremists of all hues from misusing the network for ’radicalisation’ of vulnerable youngsters. The company has a team of 150 specialists reviewing these in 30 languages. AI will largely be used in conjunction with human moderators who review content on a case-by-case basis.

In such a fraught scenario, the onus on responsible media organizations to act as gate-keepers of authentic information rises exponentially. It is heartening that this new audience, which slaves after multiple sources for consumption of news, comes back to reputed digital platforms during news breaks. We realise that rigorous fact-checking and sedulously earned reputation for purveying edited and credible content drives the audience back to respected organisations. This aura of authenticity of the mother brand rubs off on other verticals too. We believe that this very chaotic media universe, affords responsible media houses an opportunity, to gain increased audience share relying on a legacy of credibility.

The critical issue in media today is speed of delivery. Minutes and seconds are crucial. The new mantra is not the survival of the fittest, not the big eating the small, but the fast eating the slow. Many are experimenting with cost-effective, nimble and efficient back-pack journalism for all verticals. MoJo (mobile journalism) has a lot of disruptive potential. This speed of response to a news break cannot be executed at the risk of compromising credibility. To ensure this, serious organisations check and re-check, before venturing to publish or telecast. Fidelity to truth has to be maintained through the entire news cycle of an issue.

The compulsion for immediacy doesn’t overshadow commitment to facts. This axiom holds good for every aspect of news be it obituaries, death toll in accidents, riots, calamities and the like.

There are two aspects to credibility. One deals in facts, which is and always will continue to be sacrosanct. The other is the subjective side. A lot of news and information that we deal with as a responsible media organisation relates to facts. We fact-check and publish. But an even more critical issue attaches to the subjective side and these are related to societal issues. If we are convinced of the essential truth of an issue, however unpalatable it might be to majoritarian or prevailing norms of opinion, we trust in our conscience and press ahead with publishing or airing it, irrespective of the consequences and even if our own audience were to turn on us. Our stand in such cases is determined by a simple philosophy: will it benefit society or not?

We adamantly refuse to publish incendiary stuff that would prove detrimental to society, such as sparking off communal riots. In our definition, it doesn’t quality as ‘news.’ Responsible media houses do not lend their not inconsiderable voices to spreading violence.

Above all these good practices and efforts to hold on to a value system anchored in truth, authenticity and credibility, good media should strongly believe in society and in self-regulation. History proves that after times of upheaval and chaos, equilibrium eventually returns to society. As part of this, media too will be consumed responsibly. Media etiquette is bound to develop over time as sophisticated taste evolves. As part of the greater good, responsible media houses should continue their holy matrimony with inalienable values.

(The author is Chief of News at Mathrubhumi News)

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com.

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