Aamir's 'alarm' and media bias

BY ANUP KUMAR| IN Opinion | 25/11/2015
The cliche ‘one is an anecdote, two is a coincidence and three is a trend’ explains the media’s ‘intolerance’ narrative,
suggests ANUP KUMAR

 

"As an individual, as part of this country as a citizen, we read in the papers what is happening, we see it on the news and certainly, I have been alarmed. I can't deny. I have been alarmed by a number of incidents," said Aamir Khan at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards.

It explains a lot why many apolitical people in the country feel that there is a climate of intolerance and despondency in the country. The quote is fascinating for theoretical reasons as well as from the perspective of critical media literacy.

Now as a social scientist I know that Amir Khan’s comment is only an anecdote and may be not even carefully articulated.

George Gerbner, a pioneer among communication scholars, argued that media portrayal of violence and social reality is not only exaggerated, mostly because of a certain media logic that privileges sensationalism, but the coverage also ‘cultivates’ an exaggerated estimation of violence in society above of what is actually portrayed in the media, and in the long run it has a mainstreaming effect on the viewing public.

The cultivation theory has been compelling in explaining how media association of identity with violence cultivates stereotypes of minorities such as blacks in America or muslims in India.

Although Gerbner was primarily talking about television in America, his ideas still have relevance to all types of media, especially if the time spent with the media is long enough and there are no alternative non-media sources of information. 

A contra view one often hears from those who discount the cultivation effect of long enough exposure is - “No, I am not affected, I am sophisticated and critical, it is those non-sophisticates and illiterate folks who are affected.” Media psychologists have explained this phenomenon as a third-person effect.

Today, compared to the past, we have, relatively speaking, more alternative sources of information such as blogs and social media, which you may think ideally must have some sort of mitigating influence on the cultivation effect of television news. Yet this is not always the case because the world of blogs and social media are either an echo chamber or a heightened sphere of selective exposure.

"Indian mainstream news media has a strong culture of protest, and we are lucky to have such a news media despite claims of creeping corporate control"

 

That is why scholars of critical media literacy have argued that consumption of media must be filtered through critical thinking. As media consumers, we must recognize the “constructed” nature of meaning construed from relatively objective facts and embedded discursive power.

So, whether we are witnessing a cultivation effect of news media in India is an empirical question that requires careful examination through ethnographic observations, content analysis, and surveys. 

In the last few months I have come across many secular Indians - in the Indian sense of the adjective, i.e. they celebrate India’s diversity and pluralism - who blame the news media for fostering the current memes of #intolerance, #petitions and #awardwapsi. They do not deny the ghastly incidents, but feel that the news media framing has been unfair in connecting the dots with the current government of Narendra Modi and the possibility that the country has become more intolerant since 2014.

The seeming dominant view inside the BJP and among its supporters, who are perhaps still a strong plurality in the country, is that the news media, especially the English-language media, has a hawk’s eye trained on the party and the government, ready to pounce as soon as someone errs.

Those who see the current discourse as a media-created conspiracy to defame the government and the country often knowingly or unknowingly overlook some unpleasant facts and the media logic behind it. The media narrative can be slanted, but it was not conjured up from a vacuum.

To understand why the media narrative seems to suggest India has become more intolerant since 2014, a cliché in journalism - “one is an anecdote, two is a coincidence and three is a trend” - may be helpful.

It is a fact that some within the BJP-allied organizations were emboldened by the massive victory of the party in the last election. The fringe saw the electoral victory as an opportunity to act on a majoritarian agenda such as more stringent laws on the slaughter and consumption of cow-meat/beef that they had been discussing for years in the shakhas. They were emboldened to act. They made overtly sectarian statements, may be stupid statements, which were echoed by members of the BJP and members of the government.

The actions of a few and the silence of many (amplified by the news media) fostered a climate of antagonism among communities that in at least two cases have culminated in the killing of Muslim citizens—in Shimla in Himachal,  and in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh.

Now some may be quick to point out, a-ha, “amplified by the news media.” There is truth to it, but this does not suggest there is a conspiracy in the Indian news media to undermine a right-of-centre  government.

I suggest we look at the news media coverage, not its cultivation effect, of the intolerance debate from the following three perspectives.

First and foremost, Indian mainstream news media has a strong culture of protest, and we are lucky to have such a news media despite claims of creeping corporate control. The culture of protest is much stronger than what we see in western democracies. Maybe it’s because social problems in India are much more widespread but just look at how the US media has for years covered structural racism in college campuses, streets and employment?

To understand the differences, look at how the American media has been covering the #blacklivesmatter debate, protests on college campuses, or the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric of certain politicians.  

Second, the news culture in India suggests that any value-framing of good vs bad in a news story will privilege victims, and should. This is what we would expect from any news media that speaks truth to power. Most Indian journalists, like most journalists across the world who too have joined the intolerance framing, are progressive in their predisposition. If we bracket ownership and nationalism, journalists tend to be against obscurantist ideas and traditions that often seem to be more favoured by conservatives.

Three, despite this predisposition, most journalists try to be fair to all sides in political debate over policy.  But they must not be expected to practise absolute objectivity; rather they are trained to work in the realm of bounded objectivity, although sometimes it may seem as if they are practising a strategic ritual of objectivity, especially in television debates.

Bounded objectivity is a central tenet for professional journalists that allows for a bias in favour of victims, who in this case were the minorities. The bias is not in presentation of facts, but in value-framing (Although rare, manufacturing of facts happens too).

That being said, there seems to be a wider problem of sensationalism in the news media, but then sensationalism does not discriminate between ideologies, political parties or even individuals. The journalistic adage, first do no harm, is often at the mercy of audience ratings and readership. 

So the BJP and the government should not be surprised by the sharp criticism in the news media coverage. Journalists are only doing what they are predisposed to do. The BJP and the government should have known that a progressive media will be sceptical of a self-avowed conservative government with allies among the Hindutva fringe.

Moreover, the BJP and its media spokespersons must be aware that the media’s scepticism about radical elements is grounded in their past behaviour, which also makes the comparisons with similar and definitely even more egregious communal incidents under past central governments or state governments, futile.

So finally, do we need critical media literacy and robust empirical research in media effects? Sure we do, but that does not mean that everything is fine with India’s culture of pluralism and diversity. It will be difficult because of the widespread scepticism in the elite media, and even cynicism in some cases. But the only way out and towards a relatively favourable narrative for the government is for Prime Minister Modi and his government to speak against incidents of violence and sectarian speech promptly, and to act against the so-called fringe with alacrity. It is not too late.

 

(Anup Kumar teaches in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University, Ohio).

 

 

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