The Media’s Trust Deficiency

Why people are veering towards social media as opposed to traditional media for their political news.

WrittenBy:Kunal Singh
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The Lok Sabha elections are coming and the one interface which will become most popular in days to come is that of the viewer and news media. Media houses are preparing for the grand event and have announced opinion polls, debates and discussions tailored for the elections. The print media too is doing its bit. At this juncture, the one thing that the media is competing for is the “trust” of the people. A word all of them use in their promos.

The persistent criticism of the Aam Aadmi Party by the media for some time now has fuelled vitriolic responses from people on social media platforms like facebook and Twitter. I have seen the same media criticising various actions of other parties in the past few years but the knives were never out in the same manner. It could also be owing to the fact that AAP’s online supporters come out aggressively in droves as soon as anyone – especially from the media – mentions even a single untoward word against the party, its leaders or their policies. Or could it be something more fundamental?

For a long time, the media bridged the gap between citizens and the representatives they chose. Earlier, the government had a monopoly on news that reached us through All India Radio and Doordarshan. When the sector was opened to private players, we began to see the world through a different lens. Since liberalisation of the media, we have certainly seen more anti-incumbency trends when sitting governments have been dethroned. There were many other factors contributing to it including the fragmentation of our polity represented by the rise of regional parties, but the media too played a stellar role by exposing the infirmities of sitting governments. The media not only conveyed the state of affairs in the government, but also fuelled a cynicism which was desperately needed. The Fourth Estate also gained more proximity to the people than the other three estates – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

While citizens elected the legislature largely depending on the previous work of the executive or the promises of the future, there was hardly any contact between the people and the elected representatives after the electoral process was over. The judiciary was something most citizens wanted to avoid. However, people embraced the media. The media was right there in their drawing rooms building up public opinion, and political parties began to pay attention to media management. In a society marred by a low level of trust,  the media too would have to struggle for credibility. As long as the media and people could find a common enemy in the form of politicians, the relationship flourished. Then came Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal and with them the hidden distrust of the media came out in the open.

Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal used social media with much ingenuity and managed to blunt the impact of traditional media to a large extent. Suddenly the promises of the incoming executive represented by Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal seemed fancy. Twitter, facebook and Google hangouts made sure that new leaders did not have to lean upon traditional media to reach supporters. And both Modi and Kejriwal began to strike at the roots of traditional media, if it tried to question or criticise them. Unadulterated Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal directly pouring on to facebook timelines, Youtube subscriptions and Twitter feeds seemed more enchanting than the spin doctored stories emerging from editorial rooms. The charisma of these two leaders exceeds the dexterity of TV anchors. Narendra Modi was selling dreams and Arvind Kejriwal was selling hope, while TV anchors continued to sell cynicism. The media largely remained unquestioned till our leaders were selling protection – protection of one religion from another or one caste from another. The cynicism of the media trumped the promises of protection by the leaders. However to compete against dreams and hope was always an uphill task. Indira Gandhi gave a taste of this medicine to her Opposition leaders. Modi and Kejriwal are giving it to journalists.

The media, of course, did itself no favours through the Niira Radia leaked conversations episode.

The corporate structure of media governance has come under the scanner. The agencies which ask transparency of others cannot afford to remain mired in suspicions about their own funding. The media was supposed to be the Fourth Estate working for the citizens. It ended up being part of empires and conglomerates increasing the value of shareholders. Citizens turned into consumers. The normal industry-consumer games could be played. The objective changed from earning trust to earning advertisers. The coverage or the lack of it in case of misdeeds of the corporates came under a cloud of suspicion. The ideological disposition of certain media houses is sometimes more rigid than those of the political parties they report on. Alternative and complementary ways of financing needs to be explored. If people want to avail the services of a media which could satisfy their expectations, they have to spend more for the same.

Not all the blame can be apportioned to the media. There is a huge army of supporters of different political parties on social media who take great pleasure in personal, abusive and defamatory comments on journalists. The journalist who happens to ask tough questions to their party leader is immediately termed as a traitor to the nation. The anonymity these platforms accord encourages this.

The larger relationship between the Fourth Estate and citizens definitely shows  that a larger number of people today do a background check of any media house before believing the things they read and watch. The predilections of media houses to certain ideologies, political parties and corporates need to be known. Many stories appear to be planted or motivated even if they are not. The trust deficit will have to be bridged if we want to preserve the vibrant media that academicians speak of in all the essays they write on the improbable democracy thriving in India.

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