Self-evaluation for media

Shenali Waduge

In the age of information the role of the media plays an integral part to convey “what’s happening” in ones country as well as internationally. The information relayed in print or electronically is usually left to the viewer or listener to “decide” & “judge” for himself. However, of late, especially in Sri Lanka the very people tasked with bringing “information” to the people find themselves part of that very story. How do we then “judge” – how do we distinguish these from other such attacks which may be happening on a daily basis…are their plight less important than these media personnel purely because of their superior role & status quo as members of the “media”? By and large it is a difficult question to answer but at the same time no one has any right to attack another human being for whatever reason. Adding confusion to the situation is when the attacks on media immediately insinuates the involvement of the Government as perceived by “NGOs & rights groups” waiting for any reason to use as a means to justify their case against a Government they dislike. It is these “third party “judges” the ‘rights group” who are jubilant when “anti-Government media” personnel end up at the receiving end of attacks but remains silent when media personnel working for Government media channels too end up attacked. Selected justice & selected “rights” for “selected people” is not acceptable…would you not agree.

The “chorus” made by human rights groups is apparently evident even amongst the media world as unearthed by a research carried out by Cardiff University which analyzed the London Times, the Guardian, the Independent & the Daily Mail & discovered that 60% of stories consisted “wholly or mainly of wire copy &/or PR material”, 12% they classified as “enterprise journalism” or “shoe-leather reporting” & that a staggering 70% were materials picked up without any corroboration. It then becomes quite understandable when a media channel sensationalizes a story how easily it can carry across the country & even across the globe by “parrot-like” channels who end up duplicating the story through electronic & print media. No wonder they say news travels fast!

At the same time there are many reasons to be thankful to the media. Whether it is the radio, the newsprint or the television …vast strides have been made to develop their services to the public….Turning a story around usually not only markets the core idea but also highlights the artistic talents of the creator. Approaching the topic of bias we must therefore also understand that so long as humans themselves are biased we cannot expect media not to have elements of bias reporting either – it is the extent of the bias that is of concern to most for it becomes a detrimental feature in the light of their reach. It is often the opinion of the person reporting the news that eventually makes headlines. They say the US media lies in the hands of the Jews who are able to break or unbreak US Presidential hopefuls….we are well aware the extents to which the US media can go & how they are able to unearth the most secretive of plots across the world. In many ways the news media themselves, which should be exposing the corruptions of the system, is itself enmeshed in the system. Most of these media channels are owned by those who have sinister designs for their reporting. The journalists that are “employed” often have to write according to the instructions of these owners…eventually, everything is a tool of marketing, and everything is for sale, television news is now itself for sale, and engaged in endless efforts to shape its stories to conform to the demands of marketing. Virtually everything we are told is simplified, exaggerated, hyped and staged – the case of the death of a 14 year old (Aarushi Talwar) from India is a case in point.

In the Third World where unbiased reporting & unbiased thinking is very much in want off we must note that the owners of most of the channels are usually affiliated to a particular political party making unbiased reporting all the more difficult it becomes farcical how media channels with political affinity end up chastising politicians who oppose their leaders but no sooner the same politicos cross over the media are ever ready to shower plenty of praise – the lists of allegations relayed across print & electronic media against the same politician are soon forgotten. This is the type of reporting that should not be encouraged & this is the type of journalistic ethics that need closer attention upon. Similarly, in such nations the State media in turn gets transformed into a pro-Government channel….a good 5 minutes of the hourly news is often only about the daily events covered by Ministers!!! But, then journalists love to poke fun at Ministers in fact we all do! The media & politicians do have a love-hate relationship but undeniably they cannot do without the other….for a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.

Is there unbiased media coverage? While media should strive to present factual data we cannot expect them to present all sides of an argument. There are also occasions when the media need to exercise better judgment – this was evident in the US following the 9/11 attack. No sooner the US President declared the “war on terror” the media helped turn terrorists into only those that belonged to the Islamic faith. With the damage done most American citizens seven years on still have not been able to shirk that notion from their minds. Yet, the US media were united in ensuring that even the death toll of the 9/11 attack remains nothing but speculations even today – we still do not know the exact death toll of the 9/11 attack. Similarly is the case of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan….once again a completed distorted picture of Iraq & its people are built in the minds of the US citizens by their media. Taking satire to its heights was another US paper the New Yorker which has depicted in its cover Presidential candidate Obama as a Muslim, his wife as a terrorist, the oval office with a portrait of Osama bin Laden & the American flag in flames over the fireplace…. What can anyone make of such “freedom of media”?

There is certainly a need for the media to not follow the same systems of “misuse” other entities are guilty off – the media necessarily needs to tell the “truth” without distortion or manipulations. Today, large-scale decision-making in countries across the globe to a considerable extent fall under the control of a kind of virtual "oligarchy", made up of corporations, political groups, and media. All these groups manipulate the government to achieve their own ends and all use television and other forms of mass media to shape public opinion. In a scenario that all are not without scars it becomes an endeavor in itself for the media to override the tide & to provide facts in such a way allowing the public to decide. When media are often “politicized” themselves it comes as no surprise when media tries to force the people accept the “decision” of the media & not allow the people to decide for themselves. This is exactly what the “Rights Groups” are accused of doing.

Press Freedom & war coverage

It is rather naïve to think that the media in a democratic country is able to provide the people every inch of what the government is doing. In the context of a country facing a war situation this makes matters worse in deciding whether the Government or the Media is best to judge what the public should & should not know. Obviously the public would not be interested in the types of weaponry bought so long as the money spent on it is worthwhile, the public would also not be interested in where the items are being purchased from other than that it will serve its purpose, the public also would not be interested in knowing how the armed forces were planning their strategy so long as they are presented an acceptable & realistic timeframe …after all it is they who are paying to regain lost peace. The conflict of interest comes about essentially when both the Government & media feel they are the best party to decide what the people should know & should not know & use their “territory” to carry out “their agendas” making use of the public!…Making matters worse is the third player in the NGOs & other “Rights’ group who feel their “judgment” matters above all & it is they who know best.

Following the 9/11 attack a poll carried out by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center discovered that 7 out of 10 Americans agreed strongly that the Government ought to keep the media in check. The US has a history of instances where press freedom has been curtained & often censored.

Limitations to press freedom did occur in 1798 (The Sedition Act) which prohibited publication of “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the Government. The Civil War (1861-65) following the invention of the telegraph all battlefield reporters were monitored by the military, the Secretary of War suspended the publication of several newspapers, arrested editors or threatened to court-martial publishers. There were no NGOs or human rights activists to take up the “injustice” & even if there were they would have had little say in the matter. At the turn of the new century & the First World War in 1917, the President Woodrow Wilson introduced the Espionage Act forbidding the publication of any reports that could be construed as aiding the enemy. It was followed by the Trading with the Enemy Act which gave Wilson the right to censor foreign language press in the US. The following year amendments to the Espionage Act (Sedition Act) afforded the Government complete control of written & verbal communications – any negative remark about the government, military uniforms, and national flag were banned. More than 2000 people were arrested & 1055 convicted under the Espionage & Trading with the Enemy Act. By 1920, the FBI had files on over two million people deemed “disloyal”. In 1941, President Roosevelt declared, “Suppression of opinion and censorship of news are among the mortal weapons that dictatorships direct against their own people.” Eight days after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt established the Office of Censorship which had the power to control all international communications.

It was the Vietnam conflict that provided significant press freedom to the extent that the war was openly criticized so much so that the military still blame the media for portraying the Tet offensive, a strategic victory for the US as a setback.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein allowed only a journalist from CNN to remain in Baghdad to cover the 1991 Gulf War (Peter Arnett) – Arnett’s writing were all censored & as a result his reports covered damage to civilian areas & sufferings of the Iraqi people. Arnett was criticized by fellow journalists including Congress yet American reports in Saudi Arabia had to undergo similar situations by US military which controlled the flow of information going public.

There was a time when journalists considered themselves part of the war effort & not mere independent observers wishing only to report. However following World War II & with the start of the Korean War followed by Vietnam the press began to change its stand probably due to discrepancies in the manner in which these wars were handled. Instead of relying on the Pentagon versions thousands of reporters preferred to interview the soldiers directly & obtain their views this meant a lot of negative press accounts leading to the anti-war calls, so much so that journalists were barred when the US invaded Grenada in 1983 while only a handful were permitted to cover the invasion of Panama in 1989.

The Pentagon ensured that all journalists accredited to cover war zones were restricted to areas demarcated by them, they had to be escorted by a US military officer, no military personnel was to be interviewed with the presence of the escort & what’s more the violations of the rules would entail arrest, detention, revocation of press credentials & expulsion from the battlefield. One high Navy official, Rear Admiral John Bitoff, remarked: "There is a clear and present danger in today's instant-communications age, which may put our troops at risk. Our enemies are watching CNN-TV." Though news organizations objected a public-opinion poll after the Gulf War found 68% declaring military control of news was right while 17% suggested greater control.

It is evident that the US in particular has ensured all its military efforts overseas are carefully reported but a surprising phenomena in Sri Lanka is how not only the local journalists but the international media enjoy to portray Sri Lanka as if it’s the only nation denying the press to report on military efforts.

Just as much as the press love to be in the thick of things & become part of the battlefield reporting, we should understand that sometimes reporting specific numbers of troops, types of aircrafts being used, the location, divulging future operations etc…are likely to go against the troops & it is possibly these reasons that compel the military to enforce restrictions before damage control.

Essentially the role of the media is an important one & as historians, journalists need to be aware that what they report today “will go down in history” which should make any journalists “ethics” superior to just writing to make a living. Given the scenarios that surround journalists today & limitations as enforced by their “ media employers” we can perhaps empathize with them…but there are “choices” & just as much as we would advise anyone not to fall prey to petty political “bribes” & “promises” the same advise would be offered to those that “write by distorting the truth”. It is a matter of who will decide to hold the mantle of a free & unbiased press … the media is constantly being referred to as a “society’s scoreboard” & journalists as “score keepers” therefore there is greater need for journalists to cater to the truth of all areas…& not just those that their “employers’ want “prominence” for which groups like NGOs are ever ready to provide the financial clout by way of mass propaganda & to even take care of the well being of these journalists.

The media plays an important democratic role of educator, investigator, public representative, and watchdog of societal institutions. Performing these functions is not an easy task, & correct judgment is often called for & media themselves too should be ready to face criticisms on their performance & accept their follies as well & most importantly the media need to continuously evaluate how they perform…the BBC was once an envied channel today it has lost its glamour & appeal & is known as a channel that is biased & promotes distorted truth. Similarly all other media channels must note how the people are likely to evaluate what they “report”.

“The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” – Malcolm X


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