In an attempt to explore the numerous roles of media in the 21 Century, we have brought together perspectives of people from different walks of life. During the numerous discussions, even though many opinions were contextcentric, three prominent concerns surfaced: The control exercised by owners/management of media houses over the content they create and disseminate; which in turn, is impingent upon the operating dynamics between media houses and the various centres of political and economic powers; and, the immense power of media in shaping public opinion (how and what communities think and believe). From a global perspective, the 21 Century is characterised by two parallel and yet contradictory movements: the increasing divisiveness spewed by and among ideologues pitted against the drift towards achieving cohesion through accommodating, accepting and preserving difference and uniqueness. In this larger context of politico-cultural undercurrents, the role of media, with its vast reach, is in mitigating the former and strengthening the latter by presenting the multiple layers of facts, truths and perspectives.
If the freedom of press is to be preserved as vociferously as ever, with strict adherence to an ethical and moral code of personal and institutional conduct, the following questions may have to be raised and resolved: Is media a representation of vox populi (voice of the people) that constitute the democracy that is India? Is it upholding the fundamental values of a democratic nation? Is media playing stooge to the establishment? Is it a puppet in the hands of multinationals and corporate houses? What methods does it devise to preserve its integrity? How are circulation statistics and TRP ratings impacting the newsworthiness of content? Is it perpetuating patterns of thought that are detrimental to social welfare and development? Is media feeding and fuelling the baser instincts of mankind and thriving on satisfying its vicarious pleasures?
If from print to electronic media the change was drastic, with the advent of digital and social media early this century, the transformation was tectonic. In a short span of two decades social media changed the concept of mass media irrevocably. Technological advances in telephony has further spawned innumerable platforms and channels of communication, changing the very notion of ‘news’ and ‘news delivery’. Social media is a confluence of paradoxes: dynamic yet erratic, a tool for social change as well as disruptive trolling, a democratising force while also a potent polarising force, at times ingenious and at most others, vacuous. This inherently malleable and amorphous as well as anonymous nature of social media mocks at and is the greatest deterrent to its own credibility. While traditional media is still battling censorship, reigning in social media content and content delivery through policy regulation is perhaps the greatest challenge. Policy makers can no longer turn a blind eye as social media has burgeoned into fertile ground for perpetuating and metastising social disharmony, religious discord, political coercion and cultural hegemony. Accountable, credible and sustainable content creation and dissemination therefore should be reinstated into the content that media is creating and disseminating.
The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov for their efforts to ‘safeguard freedom of expression’, which quality of the political fabric, is now widely acknowledged as a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. Their fight for freedom of expression has been undersay in very different countries – Philippines and Russia. While both of them have fought long and hard against the abuse of power in their respective countries, they have used fundamentally different Media approaches to achieve the same. Dmitry is the Editor in Chief of the Novaya Gazeta, the most independent newspaper in Russia today.
Maria is the CEO of Rappler a digital media company focussed on investigative journalism. While elaborating on the decision to award them the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee adds, “Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.”
Hence it is important for us to remember the role of media that is referred to as the 4 Pillar. While the first three pillars The Executive, The Legislative and The Judiciary often divorce themselves from the social, political and economic realities and fundamental rights of the masses, the 4 Pillar can do wonders to bridge these gaps. We often take the 4 Pillar for granted, but should not forget the major headwinds that are threatening the very nature of media around the world. The traditional print and TV media houses are fighting an uphill survival battle in the ever disrupting changes effected by technology innovations. News channels and print variants are no longer occupying the prime position in the reader’s mind space. Monetizing attempts by traditional houses have been a mixed bag. Even seasoned news organizations like Washington Post have faced challenges recently in compensating thier staff adequately. Over 400 employees demanded “fair wages; fair benefits for retirement, family leave and health care; and a fair amount of job security.” These negotiations lasted over a year.
Governments across the world have used various mechanisms ranging from threats to intimidation to influencing the editorial decisions of news organizations. As was evidenced in the journey of Nobel Peace Prize winners of 2021, many of these were life threatening.
In the recent years, the amount of money available in the government departments for advertising has grown by leaps and bounds. In case of India, “Amount committed for advertisements by the Government through print and electronic media during the period 2018-19 to 2020- 21 was 1,698.98 crore.” Often many news organizations are blurring the lines between advertisements and editorial teams, and thus the mounting pressure on the editorial staff to fight off the advertisement teams.
Media houses have an uphill task of continuing to be the torch bearers for the voice of reason and represent the changing Media in the 21 Century needs to revaluate its orientation towards not just covering the facts, but also establishing a narrative. Most mainstream media have come to be associated with the reification of statist narratives. The role of media therefore appears to be perpetuating narratives of power, and erasing marginal histories. Has social media left traditional media redundant? No. Traditional media still enjoys a great legitimacy as is evidenced by the popularity and mushrooming of Hindi television media, and its patronage by the powers that be.