Imagine you have myopia. To take care of this problem you put on a pair of glasses. But what if there is something off about those glasses that you quite can’t describe? Or what if your glasses are smudged and you are unable to clean them? That’s what media has become today. Media relays information and enlightens you on things you might have not known otherwise but it is distorted in its own way. Most times we don’t even realize it and even if we did, we would have no power to change it. We are being showed what the influential want us to see, and reading what the influential want us to believe. The Big Brother is real.
According to Freedom House, only 15% of the world population lives in countries with a free press. Everybody knows about China and North Korea but governments in more than 40 countries censor the internet for its people (including India where the court ordered the blocking of the whistleblower Savukku’s website which implicated a political party leader). These startling figures should tell us something about how filtered the news is in the form in which it reaches us. It is a just one side of the whole truth – the aspect willfully determined by whoever is in power at that time. We could be subjected to smear campaigns or fake news without even realizing it, or it could be something much more subtle like not providing full disclosure whether any particular organization or government is behind the production, promotion or financing of a news item or disguising paid news as advertorials.
Let us look at the ownership of media in India itself. The Hindustan Times is owned by the Birla Group, the Information TV Pvt Ltd. (NewsX) has political leaders as part owners, the Network18 Group is has the Reliance group as majority owners, the Sun Group is the brainchild of the president of a political party and is currently controlled by a person from the same party, the Zee News Group is owned by the Essel group, NDTV’s co-founder is the sister of a very prominent politician. These are just a few examples among many others; the quid pro quo relations that already exist notwithstanding. Ownership by corporates or politically charged persons gives rise to the possibility for distortion, modification or even outright omission of news for protection of their own interests.
In the past, it has been used as a means of spreading propaganda. During World War II, The US made use of the mass media channels to put Japan in a very harsh light so that the public would not think twice before lending support to their own country. The book ‘War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War’ by John W. Dower corroborates this.
The media outlets themselves are subjected to great pressure from lobbyists and special interest groups. The book ‘New Class Society: Goodbye American Dream’ by Robert Perrucci and Earl Wysong states that in 2002 TIME chose Osama Bin Laden as their person of the year. However, they had to change their nominee after pressure from Walmart (who threatened that they would not house TIME magazines should Osama be on the cover).
Sometimes, these distortions arise out of the interests of the media outlets themselves. According to a paper on Bias and Distortion in Mass Media by Babatunde Oshinowo Jr., the publication of the memoirs of the last British governor of Hong Kong was put to a halt by Rupert Murdoch who used the News Corporation resources to do that. He wanted an in with the Chinese government who were opposed to this memoir.
This distortion also works in another way with respect to what we receive as news; what proportion of it is global and significant and how it shapes what we know of the world. The news we are subjected to depends on the kind of investment the media can and the returns they can expect from their assets. The CEO of Public Radio International explains the cause for this kind of unequal footage in the US – “Aside from one-person ABC mini-bureaus in Nairobi, New Delhi and Mumbai, there are no network news bureaus in all of Africa, India or South America -- places that are home to more than two billion people.” Then, it is no surprise if the American population has extremely outdated views about the developing part of the world. They have not been bothered to be brought to light.
News gives you the facts and the details with a squeeze of what you should feel about it. It takes popular sentiment and manipulates the facts around it. We encountered it recently with the JNU case in India. There were allegations about a reputed news channel showing doctored footage. Such propaganda usually aims to arouse hysterics among the population. However, one must never forget the kind of power the media wields to influence or even completely change people’s minds. It has become hard to find just plain objective news. We are living in a culture being forced to choose sides. It is, thus, a tool of great responsibility.
The media sometimes loves being the judge and the jury. News items are presented with emotions, prejudices, and seek to condition the masses. We experienced this during the Aarushi Talwar murder case where the media unhesitatingly pointed fingers at people possibly involved with no concrete proof. This becomes an obstacle in judicial proceedings.
We have moved on to an era where the internet is a major news source. It is faster and cheaper but laden with stiff competition. As a result, online news media houses resort to manipulative headlines for ‘click baiting’. Click baiting involves sensationalizing a headline to attract more clicks causing the public to form judgments without indulging in the facts. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, in his work, ‘The Waste Books’ says - “The most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth”. We are subjected to news which either has excessive information or misinformation.
The purpose of the media is to act as a watchdog of the governments and businesses. Their job is to provide people with plain, hard facts and nothing else. The structure of media is nothing without the pillars of credibility. Yet, we see that it works the other way around with governments and corporations using media to meet their own ends, systematically shoving opinions down peoples’ throats. Anger is good as long as it is for a cause. It is hard to fight something that people don’t understand and this is what makes the whole situation deplorable. The frightening question of which news sources to trust may always remain a grey area in a democracy.
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