A drought, worst since 1987, hit 321 of 593 districts in the country. Has any editor toured at least a part of this parched earth? Why should they? There is no conflict there.
We read news in newspapers every day, watch it on the TV and some of us still switch on the radio to know what is happening around us. News thus becomes a frame through which we see the outside world, judge communities not known to us and accept or reject issues. If you sit and reflect you will realize that what food is to the body news is to the mind. If bad food harms the body, bad news too does the same thing. But in journalism bad news is good news. Do we, as consumers of news, have the right to decide what we should read in the same way, as consumers of food have to choose what food they eat? Doubtful.
In an economic sense, news is a paradox. News is the only product you can buy at a price far less than the cost of its production. When you pay Rs.50 for a 200ml. toothpaste tube, the quantity and the price remain the same for a long time. But news space offered to the reader changes in size every day though the price is the same. In another respect too news is different from other consumer products. News is not a commodity, though today’s trend is to produce and market news as any other consumer product. Let us see if the reader has a right to determine the quality and quantity of news offered to him every hour, every day.
At all desks and bureaus, a news process is at work that evaluates information for use as news. By applying a set of news values to every item of information that pours into their office, these desks and bureaus directly define what is news. In short, they decide what you should read and what not. This is the bone of contention between media owners and readers. I am using the term readers to include all media audiences. Ask yourself whether you need all that overkill about Ravi Kant Sharma or Sharda Jain only because they are a case of low doings in high places. Can you tell the media owner “No sir, what we need is news about the voiceless majority and not crime in elite circles.”
If editors carefully read the letters columns, they will find a gap between what the readers expect of them and what actually they deliver. There is now a clamour both in our country and abroad for a redefinition of news so that it responds to the concerns of the majority of the people and not the elite minority that controls both economy and the media. The death of Dhirubhai Ambani showed the clout of the market over the media, TV as well as print.
Sponsored textbooks have perpetrated wantonly nebulous, fuzzy and even trivial definitions of news. ‘Man bites dog’ and ‘bad news is good news’ belong to this category. Such definitions have no room for P.V.Narasimha Rao or Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visits to the United States. This aberration is not the monopoly of the American press but also an affliction that visits our press too often. A Clinton or Bill Gates visit is enough to deprive our media of a sense of news priorities. When the late Hansie Cronje got into match-fixing trouble, every leading newspaper in the country published an average of 50 stories in the first week of the scam. This was when a cruel famine was devastating Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Thomas Winship of Boston Globe (Nieman Reports, Spring 1987) complains that “the press half covers some of the biggest stories of all time chiefly because it operates under an outdated definition of what is news. Newspapers can no longer stay hung up on traditional definitions of news.”
According to the Times of India (Current Topics, 1 March 1987), “part of the problem is the elitist antecedents, class biases and urban orientation of news gatherers and processors. But much of the problem has to do with the definition of news. A slow brewing social phenomenon rarely excites the newsman or the editor or even the reader. For example, most newspapers highlight as they must any outbreak of communal violence but rarely any attempt is made to keep a tab on building tensions between two communities or which efforts are being made to increase or decrease ill-feelings.”
How truly said! The basic function of news is socialization. But see what happened in Gujarat. The media added fuel to the communal fires. Besides the BJP, the VHP, the Imams and Moulvis, the media too played a role in the polarization of the country’s two major communities. Aggrieved newsmen contended that they were only reporting facts. Agreed. But there are occasions, and the newsmen know what they are, when they have to suppress their overpowering urge to unload the truth on a society unprepared and untrained to properly react to it.
The problem lies in pushing conflict to the top of the news agenda. The ‘killing fields’ editors confirmed this by touring Gujarat. If fact-finding was their mission, why did they write all those editorials before they found the facts? They obviously came to get a post facto confirmation of what they wrote. A drought, worst since 1987, hit 321 of 593 districts in the country. Has any editor toured at least a part of this parched earth? Why should they? There is no conflict there.
Al Hester (Synthesis of Western Viewpoints) says that few scholars of the press seem to have given much consideration to the role of news or the media to help cohesion of the social structure. They seem to be concerned with the direct individual-media relationship. Most people believe that news presentation must make profit. Inherent in these texts is the idea that news must please the consumer. According to the Freedom Forum (The Indian Express, Hyderabad, 18 June 1994), a private American foundation, business concerns and not public interest are the driving force behind the Indian media.
We have imported definitions of news, which drive our desks and bureaus. All the battles at the Unesco in the seventies and the early eighties were around the definition of news. There is a demand that society should be the central focus of news and not the individual. Look at how personalities dominate news in India. Laloo Prasad or even Rabri Devi is more important than the millions of most miserable people in Bihar. It is this media homage to personalities that helps their electoral victories. This is not to deny the imperative of mediation or processing but to challenge the arrogance of a clique appropriating the right to define news.
Gujarat and Kashmir aside, there is a need to overhaul news concepts and practices in our bureaus and desks that ought to know that news is a prime carrier of ideology. It is a complex phenomenon involving several players in its production. Together, they construct social reality in simple and readable terms inducing a feeling of euphoria and familiarity with the texts. It is arguable, however, if the information collage that news projects approximates to the reality it pledges to mirror. There is a growing impatience with the ruling interpretation of news values, which is so limited that only the advantaged classes get noticed. The country has more than 5,000 daily newspapers giving the impression of availability of choices or diversity. In fact, disparate newspapers owned by a free market economy combine to present a common politico-economic viewpoint making a farce of pluralism. Choices have a meaning when a person can buy more than one newspaper. The average Indian is not rich enough to buy a second newspaper. Some of his ilk does not even know that there is a second newspaper.Newspaper circulations are well below the Unesco ideal of 10:100 ratio of the population. Newspapers seeking to practice alternative news values cannot even enter the media arena because of the economics of newspaper production. Shunned by advertisers, those few alternative media that survive exist on the verge of mortality. Patriot of New Delhi is an example. That leaves only the very rich to own and control media and their content. Sometimes, a dissident perspective gets space as evidence of pluralism and tolerance of alternative viewpoints. As a communication scholar surmises, “the ability to write the rules of the game in news concepts is intimately tied up with the ability to write ‘the rules of the game’ in economic and political spheres as well.”