17 July 2005

What's wrong with the news?

Almost 40 years ago, Marshall McLuhan concluded, “the medium is the message.” In his famous book, Understanding Media, he talked at length about the effects media has on society and culture. He defined media as technological extensions of the body, including both the physical senses and the psychological dimension, and to the extent to which we depend on them.

He argued that, what’s important is not what we read in the newspapers or watch on TV (though that has its consequences), but rather that we read newspapers and watch TV. Because of our dependence on the media, the media is capable of imposing its own assumptions on our psyche.

If you think about it, most of what we know is actually second-hand knowledge – information and insight that we obtain from others. What we read in the newspapers or watch on TV, we actually believe to be true. But in most (if not in all) cases, the news is filtered and tuned by the media-source which disseminates it to us. It carries the media-source’s standpoint, and therefore, is not really an accurate report of the news.

For instance, BBC is anti-war, Fox is pro-Republican. Even sources inside Times of India, in Mumbai, tell me that the directive is not to carry ‘ugly’ news in their morning papers… to avoid upsetting their readers’ moods first thing in the morning. Strange, stupid or simply thoughtful, the news which emanates from these news channels is likely to carry their bias and not report news accurately. Is that fair to us?

So, who decides which news is accurate and whether it is fair to serve it to us the way these news channels feel it should be? In India, there doesn’t seem to be any recognized body or media watch group – private or government-sponsored – carrying this responsibility. However, in the U.S. there are several media watch groups. One such is Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, or FAIR. According to their website:

“FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information.”

It may not be everything, but it’s a start. Wonder when India will catch up.

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