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Free media is integral for the efficient functioning of any society – it has in the past acted as a messiah for those shunned by the government, has made meek, hesitant voices stronger and manifested itself into a force rallying for justice and positive action when needed. As the Fourth Estate, it has been upheld as a necessity for a democracy to function, and with good reason.

In light of the change in the socio-political environment, news, too, has evolved in the way it reaches us. It has spread its wings beyond conventional forms of reporting, namely newspapers and newsrooms, and found creative, approachable and efficient ways to percolate to the masses.

DEFINING NEWS

A simple Google search will give you varying definitions of the term – news is anything of significance (or not) that is highlighted via a source that usually has some sort of influence. This definition is vague – an accurate, practical representation that leaves plenty of scope for what can comprise news. 

Traditional news outlets or “mainstream media” consists of popular media houses that have gained the trust of the masses by virtue of their longevity in the industry or the quality of their content. Another branch is the “independent media”, which emerged following the identification of undue influence of advertisers, the government or corporations on long trusted sources. Independent media refers to any form of media, such as radio, podcasts, television, newspapers or the internet, that is free from such influence and personal interests. It has been on the rise across the globe as erstwhile predominant channels have become a victim of capitalism, Noam Chomsky points out. One major player in this neo-liberalist era is social media which has become an agent for revolution and exploitation at the same time.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS – AN INDEPENDENT INTERNET 

Social media has emerged as one of the most accessible and swift ways for people to put forth their opinions. As someone rightly said, “Social media replaces nothing but complements everything.” It has acted as a platform for movements such as #MeToo, which aims to call out sexual harassers and abusers. #MeToo found its origin in the United States but gained global traction as social media helped surpass the barriers of geography, language and culture to allow the cause to resonate with people on a fundamental level. This movement is just one of the hundreds of examples where social media helped connect people to the right resources at the right time.

As much as it can be appreciated for its wonders, its lows promise to be as challenging as the highs are exhilarating. Various researches done by the Pew Research Center show that social media sites outpace traditional avenues as a source for news in the United States, acting as a testament to the influence of social media in this sphere. Scandals like Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook was used for micro-campaigning and influencing voters in the 2016 US Presidential elections, have dented its glorious image. Doctored videos and deepfakes,  propaganda messages, fabricated stories and sometimes outright lies can now spread like wildfire at the click of a button, initiating vandalism and violence – especially in sentiment driven countries like ours. Pictures of innocent people have been circulated with claims of them being kidnappers, putting their lives at risk. With such a brilliant opportunity to express available so easily, many people on the receiving end are unable to differentiate between opinions and facts, creating “news” out of nothing. Hundreds of pages and forwarded messages guide unsuspecting readers away from reality and in the absence of verification, pose a threat to the idea of what news is. 

DID POWER CORRUPT MAINSTREAM MEDIA?

Our newspapers and newsrooms have undergone a drastic change from the times of DoorDarshan. Reporting is no more about presenting what has happened, but about propagating, painting a picture for an interpretation of the news that favours the stakeholder.

On one end of the spectrum, journalists like Sean Hannity (Fox News, USA) and Arnab Goswami (Republic TV, India) are unwavering in their support for the right wing and on the other, those like Christianne Amanpour from CNN make their presence known by unabashedly supporting the left. Journalists are letting personal biases enter their reporting, contributing to the rise of conspiracy theories and heated debates on news programs. They are lenient towards the ideologies of a particular political party or candidate and risk objectivity in the process. In these polarized circumstances, divisions are further promoted even within factions. Debate rooms in the States have observed an interesting shift from being just Democratic vs Republican to pro-Trump Republican vs anti-Trump Republican, perhaps making room for more perspective- but more importantly, for more dispute and controversy. 

News is no more the domain of politicians and journalists. Influencers like Ben Shapiro or Milo Yiannopoulos also formulate political thought. They are countered by commentators like John Oliver, or nighttime hosts like Stephen Colbert who present the liberal democratic perspective through satire. This is an indicator of how news has permeated to daily entertainment – something still foreign to India. Here, public figures are yet to take strong political stands as there is a genuine fear of the backlash they would face from people and the subsequent threat it would pose to their careers. 

In India, a majority of the debate rooms end in decibel competitions and render no value addition to the discourse, but there are exceptions like WION that try to create a more civil, objective atmosphere in prime time news. Journalists like Faye D’Souza and Ravish Kumar have emerged as champions of people’s rights in their scathing monologues and are vicious in their criticism of any wrongdoing. Novel to Indian reporting, many channels are trying to incorporate global coverage into their routine. There is a bid to create space for India in the international arena where it has been wildly under-represented, considering that it not only houses a sizeable proportion of the world’s population but is also an emerging player in the changing power dynamics. 

Even with these advancements, our television sets are rampant with news channels gunning for the next “breaking news”. There is a  focus on ratings and emotive response rather than genuine, unbiased reporting and analysis of what goes on in the country. The quest for hidden stories has taken a backseat due to paucity of funds, almost killing the genius that investigative journalism is. The few chances at redemption that are left are squashed by advertisers who would like things to go their way. Editors, who once commanded respect and authority because of their resolve to bring truth to light even in face of personal fallout have been replaced by those who are willing to succumb to the many pressures in reporting. Yes-men have demotivated the novice, rendering the quality of journalism that reaches us to fall. For those who dare to venture, there is someone with more power ready to silence them – with little to no support, their investigation is halted even before it begins, eventually leading to a culture of self-censorship.

A STITCH IN TIME – WILL IT SAVE NINE?

The emerging hero of this evolution is independent media – it has tried to make the best of the traditional and what has emerged as a by-product of technological growth. News outlets like Vox, Vice, The Guardian, Qrius, Newslaundry, The Logical Indian, Khabar Lahariya and The Wire among an ever-increasing list have tried to make news accessible and comprehensible to the public.  Prominent journalists like Ezra Klein (Vox) and Aniruddha Bahal (CobraPost) have moved to these avenues to change the culture of sensationalism in mainstream media. It has produced a generation of journalists who go beyond the usual, daytime-rut and have tried to break the limits on what is considered the daily update by highlighting stories of extraordinary people, and bringing to limelight important issues that have either been wrongly or under-represented. 

One such incredible man is Oobah Butler, who works as a writer with the Vice UK. 

Long story short, he set out to make the shed of his humble home in Dulwich (south London) the number one rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in the city without any experience in the culinary world whatsoever – and he did. In the duration of seven months, he curated fake reviews of The Shed at Dulwich on TripAdvisor. He took interviews to manage the restaurant’s marketing campaign, and turned down requests for reservations, spiking curiosity about this exclusive, new place that did not seem to catch a break. Food bloggers and enthusiasts called incessantly to book a table at the restaurant that had become the talk of the town – the only problem being, it never existed. The Shed at Dulwich surpassed the ratings of restaurants owned and managed by Michelin star chefs  by opening service for only one night and unbeknownst to unsuspecting customers, serving at the elitist, grandest, most happening eatery in London microwaved ready-to-eat food. 

Once the prank was discovered, news outlets across the world were astonished, and rightly so. Everyone wanted to meet the mastermind of such an elaborate trick, and Oobah was accordingly invited to give interviews for the BBC and the Australian TV, among other acclaimed media houses. And what did Oobah do then? He held auditions for doppelgangers and lookalikes(who in certain instances ended up looking nothing like him) to give the interviews for him – and managed to succeed again. Oh, and this is just one of the ways in which he has challenged traditional media – he also made his way into the elusive Paris Fashion Week as designer Georgio Peviani, without anyone realising that he had absolutely no connection to the industry. 

While his experiments (as he calls them) are always entertaining, they have managed to show the impact of fake news and the ease with which the general populace can be manipulated with nuanced brilliance – in fact his prank led to a debate on the same in the Singaporean Parliament.

In India, CobraPost did a sting operation called Operation 136, which exposed the duplicity of most, if not all, of the distinguished media corporations in the country. It showed their  willingness to accept money to not only create communal disharmony, but also help swing votes in favour of a particular political party by pushing for propaganda. Video and audio clips of influential people, like Vineet Jain of the Times Group and Kalli Puri of the India Today Group, accepting or being agreeable to manipulate the way news is shown in exchange for money were released. The sting operation went largely unreported on television or in print for obvious reasons but was applauded on social media for revealing the true identity of the apparent forerunners of truth in the country. Infact, on May 26,2018, the Dainik Bhaskar Group got an ex-parte injunction from the Delhi High Court forbidding CobraPost from releasing the story, following which they released it on their website (instead of doing it in the Delhi Press Club as planned) sans the expose on Dainik Bhaskar. However, the Court has on September 28, 2018, vacated the injunction and given them the liberty to release the story – a small victory for this emerging giant.

Thus, independent media not only challenges the mainstream but also fairly assesses what makes the rounds on social media, bringing important stories to the fore. It enjoys freedom from the direct interference of the government or private elements in the country, which have increasingly tried to manipulate news for personal gains. More often than not, young journalists are backed by strong, experienced editors who are willing to take a plunge for the greater good. As shown in the instances mentioned above, it has tremendous potential to enact positive change in various aspects of our daily lives. It manages to give individual journalists a platform for expressing what they feel, with the assurance that their voice – no matter how ridiculous it may appear on the surface – will get a chance to be heard by an audience as large as the entire world. 

Independent media is still in its infancy in India, and one of the biggest challenges it faces is that of outreach. Most outlets operate on social media or through websites, and are accessed predominantly by the middle and upper middle class of the country. This limits the impact that they can create. Another problem they face is that of a strong and stable financial base which is essential to maintain their independence and for them exploit their full potential. By keeping access to their content free and introducing voluntary, inexpensive subscription models, they are trying to widen the consumer base and are moving towards self-sustenance steadily. However, until and unless they find a way to reach the grass roots, media hegemons will continue to influence people in the absence of a strong challenger. 

Another challenge faced by Indian media is that of the freedom of press. Press Freedom Index, a ranking provided by Reporters Without Borders, puts India on the 138th position amongst 150 countries. Cases of McCarthyism and political pressures on those who highlight an unbiased perspective on news events are commonplace in India. 

Not only this, as media houses in India come under scrutiny for false and biased reporting, many people have started to lose faith in them and are on the lookout for alternatives . They look at this new avenue as a source of comprehensive, fact-based reporting which manifests itself in the form of articles that do the job without necessarily imposing an opinion. Assisted by a shift from the traditional newspaper to online news, along with the introduction of mobile applications and newsletters by various news outlets, the time is ripe for independent media to shine and it must capitalize on it.

Whether social or mainstream media will change its ways for the better or be made secure avenues for expressing one’s thought cannot be said, but with steady growth, immense opportunity and the faith of the people with it, independent media has the potential to be the most reliable, prompt and comprehensive source for our knowledge and awareness in the years to come. 

If we want to prevent becoming like the Orwellian Ministry of Truth, one must remember Jimmy Reid’s words, “The task of the media in a democracy is not to ease the path of those who govern, but to make life difficult for them by constant vigilance as to how they exercise the power they only hold in trust from the people.”

 

By Aanandi Arjun

2nd year Undergraduate Student, Shri Ram College of Commerce

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