Disrupting the myth of objectivity

Our media still shies away from expressing bias, while its counterparts in many countries do not.

Richard Thaler’s work, which brought him the Nobel Prize for Economics earlier this month, is a fascinating study of irrationality as a systematic, predictable phenomenon that “nudges” decision making. In our media environment, where television news channels are fast becoming a driver of behaviour, I see the emergence of a new mix of public sphere-like debates and appeal to irrationality.

The unresolved dichotomy between having our value-based behaviour 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, coupled with a legal framework that allows the media to regulate itself. Arguably, media bias is a deliberate instrument that triggers public bias, founded on irrationality.

This mix includes the freedom to cherry-pick the stories to tell through a process called gatekeeping. Until recently, Gurmeet “Ram Rahim” Singh was so popular that a top TV channel even invited him to a paid conclave, interviewed him, and even asked him to croon his favourite number You are the love charger. Once he was convicted, the 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 the political spin you listen to. Add to that the concept of “social media management”, and you have a potent recipe for mass galvanisation of seemingly irrational concepts.

Journalism evolved from the pre-Industrial Age concept of “public sphere”, a physical and conceptual rialto of ideas. That concept was soon muddied by the media’s commercial dependence on corporations. In 1947, the so-called Hutchins Commission, assigned by the US media to research and recommend the media’s functions in society, recognised social responsibility as its primary and overarching function. The Fairness Doctrine was soon introduced, placing equitable content regulation on television coverage to ensure a “free marketplace of ideas”.

While legislation legitimised the institutionalisation of the media in a political and social structure, public opinion lost out to the organised media, giving the media the power to be opinion-makers. In India, there is every opportunity for dissent and debate, but our TV news channels have frequently caricatured their potential as public sphere, creating a format of debate but snuffing out its essence by letting the agendas be dictated by extra-democratic values. Channels are often seen constructing a semblance of debate, but maintaining a pro-government stance. Yet those values are not driven by ideology, but by appealing to behavioural irrationality.

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 a legitimisation of conservative and neo-liberal values. The Indian media is in a transition between a conventional, watchdog media environment of information and critical inquiry and a new, partisan atmosphere of commercial and political pressures. But in our social media age, the news television media is heading for a split, dividing itself up on political affiliations. There are channels that are pro-government, and those who are more cautious. Objectivity is no longer seen as lack of bias, in an acknowledgment of what an observer calls “inherent bias”. Some channels with no apparent political intent behind biases have invested in a dialectical balance — hiring anchors and reporters with inherent biases on multiple sides of the divide, in a hope that these biases will cancel themselves out. This innovation takes them closer to defining the media space as a public sphere.

Given this limbo-like existence, our media still shies away from expressing bias, while its counterparts in many countries do not. So far, our channels do not offer a stated ideological or political affiliation, although they increasingly make it clear to audiences on which side they belong.

So how can the news media move with the trends and yet not lose complete sight of its role? It would be far more desirable to have a set of channels, each of whose programmes reflect inherent biases. It would ensure transparency with audiences and fearlessness of bias. 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.

If we are indeed gravitating towards a public sphere role in 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 is a different, dogged category fighting to keep a balance, either in a naive belief that objectivity does exist or avoiding trolls and government arm-twisting.

That said, the challenge is creating public awareness about truth as a factor of facts as much as that of media production and values. Recently, a popular actor said 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 arguments, even though there were factual errors on both sides.

There is no doubt, of course, that mere acknowledgment of bias is hardly enough. In a live environment, credible and sensible argumentation are the answer. As we consider possibilities of going beyond traditional news values in a new environment, there are some values that should be beyond debate. How do you build an argument — rationally? How do you attract viewers — through appeal to irrationality perhaps? The war between information and appeal is poised to take an interesting new form that uses a 19th century principle. How’s that for innovation!

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