Thursday, January 10, 2008

Good News for News Media

By Dharma Adhikari

It's rare, if not impossible, these days to hear some good news about Nepali media. Afflicted as they are by insane and violent attacks from political and criminal groups as well as a customary indifference of the government, the least thing our press would want is the lack of public confidence in them.

To that effect, here is something that may leave our media beaming: Public respect for Nepali media is among the highest in the world. In fact, only three countries fare better than Nepal in public confidence in the quality and integrity of their national media, according to a global poll released about two weeks ago in the United States.

The findings are by Gallup, a pollster based in Washington, D.C. Seventy-two percent of Nepalis said they have confidence in their media. The national media in Rwanda, United Arab Emirates, and the Philippines enjoy the highest public confidence anywhere, with the public confidence of 86 in the case of Rwanda and 77 and 75 percent, respectively, for the other two countries.

What is striking about the findings is that the freer the press a country has, the lower the public confidence in its press. Gallup compared the poll scores with individual countries' Global Press Freedom rankings by Freedom House, a think tank on free institutions.

Countries with a "free" press fare lower confidence among the public with their media: Only 32 percent Americans, 25 percent Japanese, 38 percent Britons and French, and 41 percent Germans expressed confidence in their national media. Canada, with a 56 percentage point, fared slightly better, but still far lower than Nepal, with a "not free" press in 2005 and 2006, the period when the poll was conducted.

But higher public confidence in the quality and integrity of media, in that poll, did not always correspond with lower freedom ranking of a country or region. For instance, Pakistan, with a "not free" press, had only 42 percent residents expressing confidence in their media. In North Africa and the Middle East, where the press is mostly "not free" and a few "partly free," public confidence is lower than for South Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.
The good statistics come as a relief to our media's wounded self-esteem. The good news, however, should not end with those numbers. It will be at the advantage of Nepali media to sustain such comfy public support, and nurture more of that, for a triumphant journey ahead.

That will, in the first place, require a close reading of what "public confidence" entails in our case, as well as the meanings of "quality" and "integrity" of our "media." The Gallup survey, for its part, applies these markers universally. One may sense these imply favorable public perceptions toward national media (possibly the news media, also called the press) as regards the quality of their content (most probably their daring and revealing reportage) and their courage to speak up to power.

That sounds familiar to Nepal's experience as well. In many developing countries where there is systemic restrains on press freedom, it is natural for the press to actively try to play an adversarial role in order to gain an independent standing. And it is also natural for the (conscientious) public to sympathize with the press. Such sympathy toward the Nepali press appears remarkable also due to the fact that the poll was conducted during a severe clampdown on our news media.

However, the numbers don't come as a surprise in case of the developed nations with a "free" press. Mainly because of their media's growing inclination toward the lapdog role, and their increasingly cozy relationship with the power centers, more economic than political, media credibility among the public in many such countries has sharply declined since the early 1990s.

Power is suspect not only in the eyes of journalists, but also in the eyes of the general public. And the fact is, as times change, the centers of power change, and the meanings of words change. Prevailing public view of media quality and integrity will also change as the public shift their interest to more context and diversity, from the highly event-focused journalistic crusades during the height of historic conflicts.

New patterns of reality emerge. The powerful is reduced to a powerless and the afflicted becomes the comfortable. News media not alert enough to keep pace with the change and the corresponding change in public mood may afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable, a reverse of an old journalism edict. And that's one sure way to loose public confidence.

The best way to sustain public confidence in media is to identify the roots of public confidence in our media, track them and water them. A rare poll like this one from Gallup, though comforting, is merely a needle, not a compass. Periodic, systematic and comprehensive polls are necessary in effectively assessing the public mood that keeps fluctuating and is not stable for long.

The few public opinion polls conducted in Nepal focus mainly on perceptions on political developments, especially after 1990. Some highly publicized examples include Interdisciplinary Analysts, Himalmedia, ACNielson Nepal, ORG Marg, etc. Many journalists brag about their leading role in effecting the recent democratic changes, and few dispute that claim. And yet, a poll on how the public perceives their news media is so rare.

Since public perceptions on any issue these days are more or less shaped by news media, periodic polls in the country might consider including the media factor in their surveys. Doing so might help bring more good news for Nepal's news media.

Published in The Kathmandu Post, Jan 9, 2008, p. 5.