Media: A mirror or a wall?

A person’s conception of reality is guided by his/her principles and belief systems, which are in turn determined by myriad aspects, media being one of them. Media is one of the significant facets of a sound democracy, a source of entertainment and information for all. Accurate representation of world issues in the media is vital. Most people get their world view from the mainstream media, hence it is essential that mainstream media is objective and diverse representations of what goes on in the world are transmitted.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), all humans are entitled to freedom of expression and information. However, this is far from our reality. In general, media reports are biased, thus steadily diluting people’s basic rights.  Violations, brutalities, and unaccountability go unseen and concealed viewpoints become routine.  Numerous journalists in India and other developing nations have been arrested or killed for asserting their view points or reporting certain news, which is conveniently suppressed from the masses. In developed countries as well, there is no guarantee that the news would be impartial and fair.

In 2016, Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters without borders or RSF) made available their worldwide press freedom index which stated that democracies ranked best in freedom of press, while totalitarian regimes ranked most terrible, as their media is controlled by the government.  Freedom of press is one amongst the several variables, which exhibit a healthy democracy. However, attaining free press is easier said than done, as the quality of media is determined by the troubles of political and other influences. Ideally, journalism’s role is to distress the comfortable and comfort the distressed.  Unfortunately, persons in power perceive the role of the media in a different way. Reporting is most of the times, bereft of objectivity and neutrality, and to a certain degree controlled by the privileged, in order to advance their interests.

Noam Chomsky observes that, there is a rising attentiveness to a problem, which he summarizes as a narrow range of discourse. It means, within the supposed views, there are many debates and contestations, but external to that range of views, there is less debate.  This gives an illusion to people that they are engaging in free thinking, while in reality, boundaries are put on the range of debate. A narrow range of discourse happens primarily because the press is owned by the affluent, who only want specific issues to arrive to the public’s knowledge. Besides, people are being socialized into the ‘right’ kind of thoughts. When one undergoes an elite school system, one learns there are certain things that are deemed acceptable and certain unacceptable. This is the internalization role of elite institutes, and if one does not accommodate oneself accordingly, he/she is perceived as deviant.

There are various studies by the University of Glasgow which testify to the fact that inadequate nature of coverage of the developing world, focus on conflicts and calamities creates off-putting stereotypes and generates a very impartial understanding of the developing world amid the broader spectators. Danny Schechter’s book, ‘The more you watch the less you know’ expresses that media engages in mass production of social production.

As laypersons, we too can readily concur this to be an undeniable fact. When we switch on our TV sets and flip through the news channels, in the guise of ‘BREAKING NEWS’, we get to witnessnews provided in the form of gunshot pellets.  Everything is so dramatized, without any explanation or contextualization, thus making it appear problematic. Only certain issues are focused on.  Where and what is the ‘news’ then? Outbreak of news coupled with long dreadful advertisements, and Page 3 gossip. This is what we get to watch on our esteemed news channels. Thankfully TRAI has restricted advertisement time on television to 12 minutes, per hour. Although the broadcasters will condemn the move, it is a blessing for the viewers. (Sidenote: Flouting rules comes naturally.)

India faces a massive problem of this perpetuation of misinformation and censorship of news and information. Many editorials have publicly criticized such curbing. For instance, not too long ago, Aseem Trivedi was arrested on grounds of sedition. What was his crime? He published a series of cartoons underlining corruption in India. His cartoons have been banned since. The legal system is so agonizingly sluggish, that anyone can be locked up for a make-believe crime, until he/she has finished the ‘under trial’ period. This urgency to curb freedom of expression has spilled into the online realm too. Social networking sites provide a platform to exchange ideas with one another.

Protecting freedom of press and free speech is paramount if we wish for a well functioning democracy. It needs to incorporate views from all segments of the society, instead of giving legitimacy to one group’s views and deeming others' invisible. There are other means to establish the desired ideal state, self-regulation and informed opinion being few of them. One way to guarantee that people’s opinions are well informed is by ensuring that there are few barriers to accessing news and information for all.

Kanika Sud