Friday, April 22, 2011

News in the old sense is dead

On March 31, The Times of India and The Hindu both went blue. They let themselves be colour-designed by advertisers. Volkswagen had released ads titled “Think Blue” for the front page, two inside pages and the back page. Both papers could think quite blue, and chose to have blue headlines.

P Sainath had spoken disapprovingly of “the ABC of Media — Advertising, Bollywood and Corporate Power. Corporate barons and Bollywood stars own cricket teams. One IPL team is owned by a newspaper. Other dailies have become ‘media partners’ of IPL teams .” (The Hindu, April 17, 2010.) Now, one year later, The Hindu has itself become the media partner of IPL team Chennai Super Kings.

And on April 2, 2011, The Hindu came in an outer jacket dedicated to Cricket World Cup 2011, and a set of promotional pages loudly cheering the Indian team. “Go India Go—One Billion Cheers and Counting,” said the legend on the front jacket, vending cricket frenzy. On April 3, it had another jacket, this time celebrating India’s World Cup win; “Top of the World,” cried the banner title. On both days, the actual daily was inside, ensconced within the paper’s external lookalike. But of course, the extra pages also contained ads; the paper wasn’t selling the Indian team to the readers, but selling the cricket-crazy readers to the advertisers.

A legend on the front jacket the first day was: “The Hindu’s readers wish the Indian team a successful World Cup Final 2011.” The paper was not offering its good wishes but conveying those of the readers. In other words, it was speaking for the readers—not to them. This is a subtle difference, but it can be crucial in other contexts like election campaigns and business concerns.

Now let’s not pretend that The Hindu has completely changed. Far from it. It’s still the true newspaper, mostly objective and balanced. And that is exactly why its little changes seem to underscore big changes elsewhere. If even The Hindu yields to dubious shifts, one must sit up and take notice. One would like to call this change “featurization”. It is changing the selection and treatment of news, emphasising reader impact instead of factual accuracy.

Featurization makes story orientation flexible enough to be manipulated. K P Salim recently noted how, with just few months left before the European Union ban on Endosulfan, the Indian pesticide lobby got some media to maintain the lie that it is a cheap and safe chemical. The example of how The Indian Express tried (writing as many as four edits in a month) to promote the cause of corporate houses in the GM brinjal issue is also recent. After the imposition of moratorium on Bt brinjal, the multinational seed industry had moved fast, and their strategy included taking a large number of journalists on an “educational” trip to the US, and also within India. Media opinion started shifting in favour of GM crops. From factual hard news their coverage shifted style to promotional features.

The same public relations exercise must have helped the US canvass media support in favour of the nuclear deal with India. At the time when the UPA 1 was floundering on the issue with the Left opposing the deal, major media houses went on overdrive to save both the government and the deal. As Wikileaks have recently revealed, the US was very much active garnering support.

This is no aberration; it has been a trend. On issues concerning interests of established dominant groups – like the US, the Sangh Parivar, Israel etc – our media have developed a studied indifference to objectivity. The tilt towards featurization helps. Facts can be ignored or distorted, reporting can be selective, events can be shown out of context, and powerful establishments can be gratified.

News in the old sense is dead. It is no more something you haven’t heard. So the presentation rather than the content matters. And, to be readable, presentation goes the feature way—in flowery, emotional, exaggerated style. Perhaps an analogy would be the “cheer girls” in IPL cricket. They are in no way part of the game, but they have become part of the presentation—they are there for greater media effect.

Featurization is there for better readability, even at the cost of factuality. When presentation overtakes content, you have featurization. In essence, it means: give the reader not what is true but what he likes to read.
Featurization makes “news” selective. Items are chosen on the basis of their “featurability.” A beauty pageant gets hyped, while academic discussions and seminars hardly get printed at all. In the coverage of assembly and Parliament proceedings, substantive deliberations are set aside, but trivia are given box treatment.

On reporting of Palestine, John Pilger in 2010 pointed to a study by Glasgow University. More than 90 percent of the young TV viewers thought the illegal settlers were Palestinian. “The more they watched, the less they knew.” Hard news is harder to manipulate than feature news—and less entertaining. No wonder vested interests push for featurization of news.

Murdochisation and dumbing down are symptoms of featurization. So are fewer facts, more comments and perceptions; exaggerated style; and overly use of figurative language. The feature bug has invaded the “hard news” area, especially in regional papers. And the trend is growing. It is the style most amenable to the combined power of the media, government and business.

So what about editorial stand in the time of featurization? Mumbai’s Daily News & Analysis (DNA) on February 1, 2011 announced: “From today, DNA does away with the edit page”. Signed by Editor-in-Chief, Aditya Sinha, it pointed out that editorial content bores readers and “makes little sense in this TV/mobile/web age where you’re looking for more news validation and analysis.” There of course is some truth in the assertion that few readers look for the editorial, but if reader satisfaction is all there is to it, journalism is just entertainment—no more, no less. Should it be so, is the question.

Yaseen Ashraf in Counter media. More Here.

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