Ethics In Media – The Thin Line Between Reporting And Influencing
The institution of media is an effective tool for mass communication, telecasting information at real time basis to ensure seamless sharing of recent happenings across the globe. At a time, when the world is transforming into a global village with hardly any geographical and cultural constraints, the world of media is witnessing a huge surge in the viewership and acceptability. And this significant increment in the rating scale and scope of the industry have given a rise to some grave ethical and moral concerns that seems to blur the thin line between reporting and influencing.
Media ethics largely covers four broad aspects namely – truth & authenticity, sensationalism, conflict of interest and appropriateness of media contents. Any compromise on any of these tenets in the garb of freedom of speech and expression can have extremely detrimental effects on the thought process of the society. Truth and authenticity are the two prime principles of ethics that form the basic platter for any kind of media content. It covers not only the commitment to tell the truth without fear or favor, but also to resist from spreading half-truth or made-up information specifically intended to deceive the audience.
Sensationalism is a devil in disguise that seeks to promote the culture of TRP craving journalism and attempts to overlook the critical issues of the day by sensationalizing sequence of events, resulting in wilful manipulation of the story. Media ethics doesn’t preach any such tinkering with the facts and figures to suit anyone’s vested interests. Moreover, in order to portray the parent organization and the entire media profession in an accurate and impartial light, the reporting should be extremely cautious and devoid of any fear, favour and conflict of interest. Last but not the least, the contents shown on the print, digital and tele-media are required to be in sync with the moral and ethical standards of the society because they are perceived as the manifestation of the social realities of that country and act as an opinion maker for the audience.
In a sensitive & complex socio-political panorama like India, media has been playing a significant role in resonating the impulse of the country time to time. Apart from the traditional role of reporting, it has diversified its scope in recent times and has emerged as a dynamic entity having its own discretion, taste and take over a wide range of issues, often intruding into the veil of neutral and responsive journalism.
At a time, when the entire media fraternity is regarded as the fourth pillar of a robust and thriving democracy, it is imperative upon the conscientious section of society to ponder upon the need for accountability and self-restraint in this arena. In the last few years, there had been plentiful of instances where media overreach and hyper- activism had caused wilful influence and unwarranted media goof-ups. The live coverage of 26/11 Mumbai attacks by media houses came under extensive criticism for prioritizing vested commercial interests over national security.
The undue competition among themselves in showing exclusives on minute-to-minute basis had nearly jeopardized the strategic planning of the security forces out there. Even across the border, the wall-to-wall coverage of Nepal earthquake had come in for severe denunciation for the alleged disaster tourism and had brought disrepute to the entire fraternity. These two instances clearly violated the two ethical concerns of sensationalism and appropriateness of media contents. Notwithstanding with the authenticity and due diligence shown in the act, the scintillating and chilling effects coming from such human tragedies proved extremely embarrassing and eye-opening for the media.
With the paradigm shift in the way people perceive and elect their political representatives, meritocracy & performance-driven electoral politics has been in the limelight. And for this very reason, media houses are seen to be instrumental in offering a plethora of opportunities to political parties in the form of conclaves, studio debates, talk-shows and live telecast of the rallies and legislative business. Not only it acts as an effective check on absolute power and influence over the citizens, but also it counts for accountability and facilitates equitable opportunities to political parties. And in the process, this symbiotic relationship between the two has given rise to an ideological divide and political patronage among sections of media, posing serious concern to the idea of free and fair journalism.
Being an oligopoly market model, the setting of agenda and the flow of the discussion is often subjected to political considerations of powerful media houses that have the potential to the extent of transaction of business in the legislatures. No doubt, the new and hard-hitting talk-shows and live debates have changed the narrative of journalism by justifiably questioning each and every aberrations in public life, the dissemination of information lacks uniformity and suffers selective attention and distortion. With each passing day, the distinction between reporting and influencing is seemed diluted with the rise in verbal onslaught and online bullying in support or defiance of any contentious issue on social media, news studio and other digital media platforms like never before.
The selective attention and distortion of media contents exhibited in the TV shows is tantamount to breach of ethical standards. The irrelevant obsession with the corridors of power in Delhi at the cost of ground realities in the farthest corners of the country is totally unprofessional. This may seem contrary to the freedom of expression, but it carries the essence of moral obligation of journalism. The classic example of this preferential treatment was seen last year when non-stop coverage of high profile Sheena Bora murder case overshadowed the plight of flood victims in Chennai and Assam. The list is exhaustive and disappointing at the same time.
The eve-teasing incident of Jasleen Kaur that was much sensationalized and the morphed anti- India sloganeering video in JNU case was portrayed as twisted truth in the media which resulted in an extensive media trial in an aggressive, intimidating and brow-beating style treating the accused as guilty within no time. When outrage on beef consumption and sloganeering by fringe outfits was preferred to be aired on national media to critical issues like rising inflation and the farmer suicides, the gap in credibility widened. Today, when political melodrama & factless rhetorics surcharge the prime-time slots at the cost of other contemporary issues, the misplaced priorities of the both the media & the panelists become evident and it shows influencing over reporting.
India deserves much better. In a country of thriving intellectual capital, the institution that voices the opinion and aspirations of the people should be out of any vested interests. The media industry bears a huge responsibility in moulding the thought process and enhancing the conscience of the society which in turn demands integrity & accountability from them. Such is the impact of media that it can make or unmake any individual or an institution. Though it has the virtue of questioning others and has the right to collect information from primary authentic sources, it is mandated to follow certain ethics by ensuring authenticity, observing restraint on sensationalism and following fairness and objectivity in reporting. The principles administering media ethics can’t be followed cast-iron or absolute rules of law. They are a moral sanction which guide journalism towards the state of rectitude –
‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake’
(This article is submitted as an entry to Communique, the annual media conclave of XIMB organized by the IlluminatiX, the media and PR Cell of XIMB.)
About the Author:
Subhra Pratim Halder is currently pursuing his PGP in management at IIM Lucknow and is a core member of the Media & Communication Cell.)