Guest Column: Rising Public Distrust Must Worry Mainstream Media: Alok Verma
The landscape for traditional journalism is being shaken by tectonic shifts in technology, industry economics and audience behaviour. Digital technologies allow anyone to publish, and allow for greater user control over the content received. Audiences are more fragmented in terms of pure numbers, ethnicity, and viewing, listening or reading habits. And the consequences of these technological and audience behavioral shifts raise significant economic questions for traditional business models in journalism. In the middle of all these changes, journalism is a profession under constant strain and tension. Can any of this be good for journalism?
Against the backdrop of this changing landscape for media and journalism, ethical issues and issues that touch on corporate governance have become more visible and more contentious. During a time when successful new styles of journalism are emerging in our country, we have seen executives blur the business with the profession, journalists violate the basic tenets of their craft, and journalistic enterprises falter. News media that serve as a watchdog over other powerful societal institutions are now being called upon to exhibit greater transparency and accountability in their own affairs, especially by upstarts practicing web-based journalism.
Our country’s news-consuming citizens are changing in several ways. News consumers of traditional news outlets are getting older and older and I am not too sure whether younger India reads news through traditional media any more. The method by which young people are getting the information they need to make choices about our country, seems to be centered on the World Wide Web and entertainment. In addition, there is a growing disenchantment amongst Indians with certain pillars of democracy and media is no exception. The stability, credibility, and integrity hitherto represented by mainstream newspapers, news magazines and broadcast news organizations has given way to rising public skepticism about the media, along with skepticism about many other societal institutions. Increasing numbers have begun to look for news outlets that agree with them ideologically. This trend, in particular, challenges nothing less than the core methodology for Indian-style journalism: the impartial consideration of public information. These attitudinal, demographic, and technological shifts have made the journalism landscape deeply complex, not only for audiences but also for those in the field. Scholars and informed observers have long noted that rapid, reliable transmission of news and events and the public’s comprehension of that news are essential to the survival of a free and self-governing society. An inability by the media to reach and strengthen connections with audiences—and a puzzling, even worrisome lack of interest by those audiences, especially young audiences, to reach back—could be the beginning of death-knell for our future.
I think this is high time when collective wisdom must address the issue of bringing in greater transparency in journalism practices per se.
For more than a generation, newspapers, news magazines and broadcast news organizations helped establish public brands of stability, credibility, and integrity in the democratic mindset of our country. In recent years, citizens have become increasingly skeptical about the ways of delivering news by mainstream media. So far, there is no empirical evidence yet it cannot be denied that people’s trust in the mainstream news media has been dwindling. Widespread views demographically do not provide a very positive opinion about media.
The younger generation is turning away from mainstream journalism in all of its forms except one—the Internet. Communications technology now offers consumers so much information that news has become, for some, almost an irritant. For others, new communications technologies and applications offer a broader array of news sources, as well as the ability to take a more active role in the production, dissemination, and vetting of news and information of public interest. Moreover, increasing numbers of consumers have begun to look for news outlets that agree with them ideologically. This trend, in particular, challenges the impartial consideration of public information.
Hence, the call for greater transparency I can hear is getting louder, but it is not new. Mainstream news organizations can set themselves apart from non-journalistic information outlets and less-regarded forms of “pseudo-journalism” by showing a willingness to publicly self-examine their own methodologies. The whole media industry is caught in the war for numbers. News channels in the race for higher TRPs leave no stone unturned to compromise with the content quality. Every channel claims itself to be number 01 in some segment or in some city or in some age group. Actually one would get confused if all the channels are number 01 then who actually is at number 02 and so on ? Similarly, newspapers have a dog fight over which newspaper has more readers or circulation figures. Revelations about inflated circulation figures and advertising overcharges at several newspaper demonstrated an unhealthy lack of public accountability in non-newsroom organizational practices.
For journalists, the media environment in which traditional, public interest–style journalism mixes with other types of media content with display features resembling journalism presents serious challenges. Sometimes it becomes difficult for journalists to be journalistically objective in a world of ideological mudwrestling. Seeming decline in public trust is overwhelmingly reflecting in declining public support for freedom of the press. Now and then the issue of media regulation surfaces ostensibly.
Unethical practices which so far were not in public eye have also come to the fore emphatically after some senior journalists of national media houses were found guilty of trading confidential information from government files to the interest of corporate houses. One can hear voices from a large number of persons echoing sentiments of distrust towards media and critics.
Lack of transparency in Media and growing public cynicism are not the only reasons for audience movement away from traditional print and broadcast sources of news. Another factor is the rise of digital media technologies, advances in which have given increasing control to consumers over the time, place, and manner of their news and information consumption. These powerful tools are assisting members of the public in challenging the agenda-setting authority of the news media. The World Wide Web is the only news medium, aside from ethnic and alternative media outlets that is seeing its audience grow—especially among young people.
New technologies, including the World Wide Web, can accelerate the news process, helping to define which events get covered and how stories are played. In a technology-driven process of accelerated change, journalism is being transformed in the ways that it is produced, distributed, and used. We are witnessing the emergence of new tools and practices, phenomena that are yielding both a flurry of new ways to produce information and a redefinition of the place of professional journalism in this new information system. While there is widespread fear about the damaging consequences of these trends for the quality of journalism and the professional survival of journalists, I believe that current developments may, in fact, be paving the path toward better journalism and more independent journalists. In the digital environment in which journalists now work, new facts are being unearthed daily; more audience feedback is being integrated; more voices are being heard; more diverse perspectives on the same news stories are being presented; more stories are available, archived and searchable for longer periods of time; more men and women of power are being watched more closely; and more people are engaged more actively with the changes in the world—by taking photos or making videos of key moments, by commenting on blogs, or by sharing the stories that matter to them. This dynamic landscape of continuous and diversified witnessing and reporting does not represent a crisis of journalism, but rather, an explosion of it. In fact, the profession seems to be more alive than ever and going through a multiplication of both forms and content at amazing speed. If we journalists are in the business of gathering information, interpreting it, and spreading it, we now certainly have more means than ever to do so.
Alok Verma is a media strategist with 35 years of practicing experience across media platforms. He is currently CEO & Editor-in-Chief of Newzstreet Media Group. Earlier, he was Editor Zee News, Start TV Interactive and Aaj Tak.
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