Thursday, March 20, 2008

Media responsibilities: a perspective of two specific examples

I will start by looking at the delicate balance of having to report on the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the right to represent the Democratic Party at November’s general election. With the two candidates running neck and neck, a balanced reporting aim by the large news media outlets is extremely difficult to ensure. A reporting journalist, by his very words could sound biased. A news editor by choosing the news story can influence one side over the other and either party can make claims of unfair reporting leaning to the opposing side.

I am certain that there are behind the scenes meetings to ensure that there is balance and duration of news clips and angles carefully calculated to back up the claim of fair reporting. Obviously if a media outlet comes out backing one candidate over another, it will get easier to justify reporting angles and biases.

Of course the alert listener, reader or viewer may interpret a bias in a different way to the editor who includes a piece of reporting. The subtleties of reporting can influence the user and in this tight race make a difference, which will eventually determine the candidate and in an indirect way the future president and the course of world events.

Only when one carries through this argument all the way can one realize the importance of the responsibility the media outlet has in influencing world affairs, through the future leadership of the US.

In Sri Lanka on a completely different note, the current controversy of the government and private media reporting on human rights abuses is worth looking at also. The state denies and refutes all allegations, blaming it all on LTTE backed NGOs and unpatriotic reporters sensationalizing incidents to promote their agendas, making the conduct of war much harder.

Even here some form of responsible reporting is necessary in a framework of informing and educating the public on what is happening. Private media also self regulate in order not to rock the boat too much and incur the wrath of state control, and the loss of state largesse in the form of advertising revenue.

It is noteworthy that there has not been one incident of the abuser being caught and owning up to who his patron is so that a finger can be pointed at the state. The seeming ability of the state machinery to get away with killings, and abductions is emboldening these methods of intimidation and abuse with the investigative arms of the police being singularly unable to prosecute any of these cases.

Therefore while the news of abductions is reported, it is up to international bodies to point the finger at the government. The recent incident where the US government country report cited Sri Lanka very poor in terms of Human Rights violations, which was vehemently denied by the government, maintained as fact by the Embassy, is a case in point. Of course one sides view of what is a Human Rights violation is another’s right to refute. Some appear to condone others to castigate depending on the moral stance taken. In a time of war the criteria can change from that in a period of peace.

When the reporter is culturally different it adds another dimension to the problem, bringing race bias into the argument because an outsider usually reports with a normal bias towards minority communities. It is done with the knowledge that power is on the side of the state and it is up to the state to defend the accusations if untrue as there is assumed the other party has less of a chance to present their views.

In the current furor over the reporting of the uprisings in Tibet, China has banned and censored all reports. The average Chinese takes the governments line and international media through the new technology of I reporting by amateurs, using mobile phones and uploading direct to the Internet from the site, to sensationalize reports without verifying the extent. An isolated incident in a village can seem in the news to be extensive.

In the same light, the Tibetan groups in Tibet, exiles outside the country and ethnic Tibetans in China seem to have come together in a planned uprising to bring world attention to their plight at a time when this is embarrassing to the Chinese government in the light of the impending Olympic Games and the disruption it may cause. It is an opportunistic move on the part of the Tibetans and here again it is up to the Chinese authorities to deal with it fairly, so as not to antagonize world sympathy for an ethnic minority that has been agitating ever since the Chinese takeover of Tibet for over 50 years. There is no doubt as to the outcome, as the might of the Chinese military will quell the agitation. The way in which China deals with the issue, will determine how they are perceived with respect to Human Rights abuses and tolerance of dissent from within.

In the instances referred to here, it is apparent that the Media is very powerful in shaping public opinion, and with this power comes responsibility to be as fair as possible to all sides as both sides present a different view-point. It is also true that journalists are mere employees trying to become more prominent in their fields and sometimes sensationalize a report to advance their personal agendas, just like any other employee in any other job trying to get a promotion.

The use of proportionate reporting is not possible as each news item carries a similar weight irrespective of the importance of the news, as that is the nature of the beast called News Reports.

The manipulation of news is common in all countries especially the West, with specific regard to the US, which is even more savvy at it than say either Russia or China and in my opinion, India has the most balanced reporting bias, with democracy and journalistic ethics to be admired and emulated. No one is perfect and the public should learn to be more cynical and able to sift information fed to them rather than believe everything they are told.

To conclude we should be aware of the power of all arms of media, and learn to read between the lines to take a proportionate view of the content and come to our conclusions based on our best guess as to the accuracy of what is being reported.

Bear in mind that what is not reported is also news, which we are not told about, and we cannot even imagine what we are not told! One can therefore subscribe to my current opinion that it is not worth watching reading or listening to news as it is not worth it as I can make the news in my head to suit my point of view at any time. This from someone, who was a news addict, not too long ago knowing what was happening in all parts of the world on a daily basis.

In fact my mind is now not clogged with news, and I am free to think.

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