Sunday, August 12, 2007

Just News? Or More?




News is assumed to be an objective reportage of facts and events. Is that ever the case? Ideally, never. In every case, views, opinions and thoughts do always get mixed up with news. Of course, that in itself is not a very wrong thing, as long as the news agency keeps in mind that the overall perspective it is taking is truthful, unbiased and for the general good. However, there are many touchy issues that cannot go fully unnoticed; at least in the current method of news coverage in the Indian media. Excessive preoccupation with celebrity life and marriage news, outrageous sting operations breaching all norms of privacy, 24x7 news shows, endlessly repeating the same thing. Do these some how present a distorted picture of what news is, or do they give us a wide palette, letting us choose what we want to see? SMS campaigns and public opinion do get featured on the media, but do they serve any purpose apart from the curiosity quotient they generate; even statisticians would be wary of these purely unscientific forms of sampling. How can we distinguish between the facts and the apparent facts? How are we to detect what is information and what is indoctrination? How are we to know what the public really wants to see, which the media, rather smugly, claims it does.

Those who support the media and media-persons themselves would argue, that they are bringing out hidden issues into the public purview, reaching places where media has never dared go before and rightly so, exposing corruption in high places, even within the judiciary through active participation, innovative means and the adoption of technology. The state of remote villages, news of crime, exploitation from far corners of the country, instant clips from unknown, ignored and largely forgotten social groupings, stories of wildlife on the verge of extinction and debates on burning issues of national and international concern – just a few things that the media activism effectively highlights. Doesn't the television news bring all of this into your living room, forcing you to ponder, maybe even propel you into action? If you prefer to switch channels and tune into a familiar soap opera, is the media to blame? Well- researched articles, exposes in newspapers and worthy, educative news programs are what can be attributed as a commendable job that the media does, ever so often. Information and expert opinions on the latest trends in technology, travel, food, health, lifestyle, and much more comprise yet another beneficial face of the media, that is often mis-annotated as frivolous forms of light entertainment.

The flip side that those who are opposed to the current stance media takes, would claim is also quite apparent. Remote-controlled state television channels operated by political parties (Sun, Moon and Star TV networks), news programs with a partisan, opinionated flavor, without an iota of credibility or objective news coverage, always wanting to show their side of the picture, censoring out all else. To keep patrons happy, presenting a biased news coverage in their favor, is the most unethical behavior a news channel can exhibit – however this happens more often than not. Certain language channels also tend to 'sell' sleazy, cheap, tasteless, untrue stories and programs with the tag, news; insisting that, that is somehow what the public 'wants'. The only thing going against such channels is the misnomer 'news' they use, let them drop the garb of news and that would leave them equivalent to any other entertainment channel, also less misleading. One can argue that freedom of expression with respect to news is acceptable, however crossing all limits of acceptability and not adhering to any code of conduct is certainly not. What newspapers and news channels cover and then propagate needs to be done in a responsible manner; for example avoiding generating communal frenzy or mass hysteria at all costs. There are ethics in place that are often bypassed or forgotten to sensationalize news, where the need is exactly the opposite - to sensitize.

Now something that can be done is to bring in archaic legislation, such as the new Broadcast Bill which was supposed to be introduced in the monsoon session of parliament. This bill proposes a content code and has specific clauses for news channels too. For example, an auditor would be assigned to each channel in order to decide which programs can be aired; agencies doing sting operations need to inform the person on whom the sting is being carried out etc. All this was seen as a curb on the media and a ploy to curtail the freedom of the press and was met with vocal criticism from all media quarters. As a result the information and broadcasting ministry has decided not to introduce it for now.

Like most issues, the news that media covers or concocts has both positives and negatives, which endless arguments cannot fully uncover and taking a stand is not always possible. So should the government regulate news or should the news agencies self-regulate? What's your take on the issue?

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