Weaving inherent biases into news narrative

Weaving inherent biases into news narrative

How India’s news television can channel bias and still uphold values 

I see the emergence of a public sphere. I had this premonition about five years ago, too, when social media promised to be a platform for democratic discourse, where people of eclectic beliefs would pitch in and the intersection of those ideas would evolve into public policies or social values or other forms of social evolution. Well, suffice it to say I have revised my opinion of social media after the 2014 election in India, Brexit, and the 2016 U.S. election. Thankfully, new forms of evolution of news television have re-energized my optimism. But what I have to recommend is not some inventive rocket science—it is
merely a trend around the bend.

Until recently, Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim was so popular that one of the top news channels invited him to a paid annual conclave, interviewed him, and even asked him to croon his favourite number, “You are the love charger”. The exposure of this cult, with its mammoth following among all classes of people, merely endorses what we believe in, and what we accept as knowledge. Once he was convicted, media channels feasted on the opportunity to bury him. The self-styled baba reportedly had anywhere between
two and seven crore followers, depending on which side of political spin you listen to. Yet this so-called affliction they speak of is too widespread to be dismissed as mere madness.

The unresolved dichotomy between having our values defined by established social structures and the democratic right to form our own is the most lucrative space for our news media today. Irrationality, for example, has become a wonderful tool for the media to exploit. This is coupled with a legal framework that allows the media to participate in defining our values while regulating itself and selling products. This mix includes the freedom to cherry-pick the stories to tell, a process called gatekeeping. Add to that
the concept of "social media management," and you have a potent recipe for mass galvanisation of seemingly irrational concepts. There is a lot of emotion being spilled on user-generated platforms, often manipulated by communication managers to provoke more display of emotional and irrational opinion.

Let me provide a perspective to the new structures governing news flow. Journalism evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries through the Industrial Revolution, from the concept of public sphere, a physical and a conceptual marketplace of ideas. Soon, though, that concept was muddied by the press’s commercial dependence on corporations. In 1947, the so-called Hutchins Commission, assigned by the U.S. media to research and recommend media’s functions in society, recognised social responsibility as its primary and overarching function. The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in the same year, placing equitable content regulation on television coverage to ensure the “free marketplace of ideas.” Pro-government scholars somewhat uncritically observed how the social responsibility function legitimised the institutionalisation of the media in a political and social structure. On the other hand, the skeptics lamented that public opinion lost out to organised media, and that the media turned opinion makers of an undesirable kind.

Development communication emerged in the so-called third world as a somewhat necessary alternative to make the fourth estate help a nation in catching up with its western counterparts. In India, funded by the government, radio and television were envisaged to play this role, tying it to an invisible government string. A big ideological dilemma loomed before both the government and the media in 1982, when television went colour and added commercials as an additional revenue source. It was a “mixed model”, loosely combining developmental and commercial goals. By 1991 when media economy was (one of the first industries to be) liberalized, programming also reflected the emerging consumerist society. A study that compared the pre-liberalization Hum Log with the post-liberalization Swabhimaan found a stark contrast in the reflected social values. News channels on television, however, have floundered or basked (depending on which side of the debate you’re on) in the absence of any visible, external structures that govern them.

Today, we find ourselves at the cusp of the re-emergence of development communication of a different kind, in a very different format. The strings defining the values of development are only defined by the side that a channel takes. There is every opportunity for dissent and debate, but our news media has increasingly caricatured that value, creating a format of debate but snuffing out its essence by letting the agendas be dictated by extra-democratic values. For example, a popular business channel claims that its
goal is “not only about news, but about a rising India”. To develop this agenda, a channel may often be seen to create a semblance of debate but maintain a pro-government stance, perhaps in an attempt to create investment in the economy. Unfortunately, the values are ever-changing even within a channel, as exemplified in the Gurmeet Singh case.

So how can the news media move with the trends and yet not lose complete sight of its role? Let me first place the caveat that the media’s role of a socio-political watchdog is unfortunately at stake. Indian media is in a transition between a conventional, watchdog media environment of information and critical inquiry and a new, partisan atmosphere of commerce and political pressures. While our media still shies away from expressing bias, its counterparts in many countries do not. While they do not explicitly state an ideological affiliation, it is clear as day to the audiences of channels and newspapers where the
platform stands. This is especially so in developed media markets such as the U.K. and the U.S. In the U.S., a somewhat hegemonised inherent media bias is on the liberal side since most liberal values purport to uphold democratic values. They are now challenged by the emergence of conservative channels such as Fox, in turn pitted against the ultra-left MSNBC.

So we’re already in a politically partisan media world, where news television uses different yardsticks to select stories, because it has no hesitation in taking sides and supporting specific causes. It would be far more desirable to have a set of channels, each of whose programmes reflect inherent biases. The problem, though, lies in educating the audience about bias-based value systems.

If we are indeed gravitating towards a public sphere role of the Indian media, it is important to recognise what it stands for: a network for communication information and points of view—opinions expressing affirmative or negative attitudes. But that definition of public sphere has taken on a whole new meaning in the era of social media, competition, government-sponsored media (through advertising), and of course, inherent bias. The difference is that while a traditional news package was expected to provide opposing or diverse opinions or evidence, today the differentiators are the channels themselves. To
understand an issue in all its hues, a viewer is expected to scan across various channels, each providing a slanted perspective.

Stuck in a limbo are a third kind of news channels (an obvious example in my mind is NDTV), a dogged category that is fighting to keep a balance, either in a naive belief that objectivity does exist, or in the pretence to show lack of bias as the right value, or making a pusillanimous attempt to appease social media trolls and to avoid government arm-twisting. Acknowledging inherent bias not only removes the burden of the fallacious value of objectivity, it also tells the audience more realistically why all facts are, in fact, constructed through storytelling and gatekeeping mechanisms.

But today’s problem is to somehow create public awareness that truth is as much a factor of facts as that of media production and the values of its mouthpieces. This bias is sometimes blatant and audiences must learn to pick them up. Recently, a popular actor said that our Prime Minister is a better actor than him. Given the entertainment potential of that story, a channel picked it up for its prime time debate. In it, the anchor repeatedly cut off the opposition’s spokesperson while she sat silent through the ruling party spokesperson’s argument, even though there were factual errors on both arguments. Recently, the Congress Party lamented the media silence over its campaigns while providing undue coverage to the ruling party, thereby creating an unfair advantage.

The Congress’s argument is fallacious. The media is heading for a split right under our noses, dividing itself up on political affiliations. There are channels that seem blindly pro-government, and those who are less blind. Objectivity is no longer seen as lack of bias, in an acknowledgment of what an observer calls ‘inherent bias’. Some channels whose owners have no political intent behind those biases have invested in balance—hiring anchors and reporters with inherent biases on multiple sides of the divide, in a hope that biases will cancel themselves out. This must be lauded as a via-media innovation.

(About the author: Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is a media observer and an eternal, if frequently amused, student of communication. He has researched the political economy of media from India’s liberalisation period to the social media’s influences on media. Currently, he is an advisor to the upcoming J.G. University in Ahmedabad. Previously, he was the Director of Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication, founding Director of Indira School of Communication, and first Dean of India Today Media Institute. He has also edited newspapers and magazines in India and the U.S.)

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