The past year has been a bizarre one. Besides the turmoil and anxiety caused by the ongoing global pandemic, there were a lot of other overwhelming events that happened consecutively, causing an overload of information and news all around. Before one could even grasp and process one thing, it felt like the world had moved on to another thing.
In a world that is so fast paced and ever dynamic, it feels like newsrooms and media houses are always a step ahead, in trying to keep up with what is happening everywhere. But, from the plethora of information available, how do the media outlets decide what news to prioritise and what to leave behind? Who decides what makes the news?
For starters, the factors that go into deciding the news-worthiness of any piece of information are things like relevance, interests of the target audience , timeliness and prominence of the subject of news. These factors decide not just what makes news but also for how long it stays.
Certain stories stay in the headlines for longer, sometimes so long that they may feel like they have been there forever, while a lot of other stories struggle for proper coverage. In our own country we can see how larger issues like that of the farmer’s protests that lasted for months were often sidelined for nitty-gritty details about celebrities’ lives.
Since it is the media outlets that decide what citizens come to know and also what they talk about, they are one of the most powerful and most controlling organisations of the world. Holding the power to influence narratives and make stories malleable in whatever way they wish to, media houses even have the power to direct how people’s lives play out, with the way they portray them in their pieces. Even when more important issues are covered, they are only relayed in terms of violence — narration of gore and grisliness, leaving out the details, thus making them all sound repetitive and tired in comparison to the celebrity stories which are written in a more attractive manner. On the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, when lakhs of people all across India were losing jobs and homes, the SC rejected a plea to freeze rent payments. However, this issue, which affected millions of people across the country received less focus and was clubbed as another inconvenience during the pandemic, while multiple stories were being written about how different celebrities were spending their time during the lockdown.
By producing gossip pieces around celebrities’ like focusing on what they wore for an event, whom they met, or even what they ate, news media corporations commercialise news. The method of reportage, and especially the headlines also change the perspective of the public on a particular story. The recent Hathras rape case in August 2020 was not only poorly covered, but was also only talked about using vocabulary that conveyed the gruesomeness of the incident. It was also only talked about as an individual case, leaving out many other cases of caste violence that were similar in nature. Similarly, in the coverage of the CAA protests, police firing and lathi charge on the protestors was constantly presented as a “clash” between two sides, heavily influencing the way the audience interpreted it.
Recurring instances like this prove time and time again that there is a grave problem of monopoly of news in media houses — the media owns the news and the narrative, but who owns the media? In a detailed study under MOM (Media Ownership Monitor) conducted by Reporters Without Borders in collaboration with DATALeads, it was revealed that most of the leading media houses in India are owned by larger conglomerates that are still controlled by their founding families. Interestingly, these bodies invest in a vast number of industries besides media houses, unusually with some business or political affiliation. For example, companies like BK Birla Foundation and Realcon Ltd, associated with the Birla Business group, are one of the major investors and shareholders of Hindustan Times Group, the company that owns and controls HT Media. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs is also listed as one of their major shareholders.
So many political and business affiliations are often harmful for freedom and diversity of press in the country. Oftentimes political leverage can be exercised in the form of punishment to the media house, like the abrupt exit of editor Bobby Ghosh from the Hindustan Times group, which various news sources hinted at as being a result of Ghosh’s views not aligning with the investor’s interests. Oftentimes, advertisement for or a display of affiliation with political powers is also rewarded heftily.
This creates a chain of recycled news that lacks diversity and honestly — the whole point of freedom of media is lost if it is constantly living in the fear of producing content that might offend those controlling it. However, this is changing with the rise of the independent media, that is publicly funded, and thus is accountable to no one but the public. Most independent media houses work on the USP that they bring “fresh” stories that the mainstream media fails to cover. Another unsurprising game changer in the circulation of news stories is social media networks and the meme culture that comes with it. Almost half of the world is connected through social media and a large chunk of this population consumes its news on the internet. Memes provide easy access to information coupled with feel-good, sometimes absurdist humour that appeals to a large audience. With the internet and memes at their feet, there is less censorship and thus people do not have to depend on any big media house to pick up their stories — they are their own narrators. Often when these stories get more and more popular on the wireless platforms, bigger publications have no option but to pick them up for their headlines. This however does not last very long due to the power their investors hold. Very recently, Ashoka University’s professors resigned leading the students to hold protests for the lack of academic freedom in the country. The resignations were linked to the professors being vocal critics of the government. Initially, only independent news outlets like The Print were covering it, but as the story started attracting a wide audience, more mainstream media houses began picking it up and reporting it.
A variety of factors go into choosing which stories to cover and which ones to leave behind, different news outlets, independent and corporate-owned, are motivated differently to make these decisions, however they all have to cater to the interests of the average news reader. Social media and the lack of censorship is slowly changing this by giving the readers the power to pick the kind of news they want to consume, and the form they want to consume it in.
Picture Credits: Journalism.org
Author’s Bio: Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them.
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