Sunday, May 30, 2010

Getting Past the Clutter


First some crude estimates based on available data:

On average, with 1,800 words a page, the daily weekday edition of Republica offers its readers close to 30,000 words. The combined 164 pages of the country’s 11 broadsheets produce around 350,000 words a day. Add to that the 78 smaller dailies (Press Council Nepal, 2010) in print today, mostly 4-page tabloids, 312 in cumulative pages. They produce nearly 300,000 words a day, with an average of 900 words a page.

At an average human reading speed of 250 words a minute, it will take about 48 hours non-stop for a person to read all our daily newspapers today. More words and reading time for the 425 or so weeklies and other periodicals.

At the average broadcast speaking speed of 135 words per minute, the 12 Nepal-focused TV channels alone produce over 2.3 million words a day, repeats included. Each channel transmits 25 unique image frames per second. By the same token, over 36 million words are aired daily by the 186 plus radio stations in action today.

On the virtual front, the active Websites among the 20,844 Nepal-specific domains (.np) registered to date by Mercantile Communications in Kathmandu and a few thousand Nepal-focused others from outside the country as well as many blogs and social networking platforms churn out many gigabytes of content.
And much more content is generated by the 7.99 million telephony devices, including 6.83 million mobiles in use in the country (Nepal Telecom Authority, April 2010).

Media penetration, with 82 percent for radio and 59 percent for television (Broadcast Audience Survey, 2007/08), is more pronounced in the broadcast sector than in print (13), Internet (1.7), and telephony (32).We are no doubt getting prolific in broadcasting although we may be way below the world average in our other media indicators. Our ever-more visually-laden informational environment is already dense, and the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words adds further effect to this situation. To a casual media user, the production landscape, in particular, appears diverse and chaotic.

Those of us who celebrate diversity may consider this a natural outcome of our progress in mediated communication. An individual media user may also pride in the choices offered by these outlets and their works. And for media professionals and advertisers, more is always desirable for its potential for creativity, innovation and competitive edge. But the notions of individual choice, professional freedom and marketplace of ideas remain merely slogans in a democracy if they are not constantly measured against the nature and quality of information in the public domain, most notably in the news media.

Irrespective of our ideologies, we must all agree today that our ever-expanding news media have evolved into major players in our public life, either as crusaders, instigators and actors or merely as manipulators or themselves as instruments in the hands of the socially, politically and economically powerful. However, our general understanding of their actual performance is often based on anecdotal observations or assumptions and rarely on current research or verified statistics.

Our reactive approach to media analysis is most visible in probing press coverage on touchy political issues and developing stories. It does more to add to the clutter. The frequent finger-pointing about systematic media propaganda against certain political groups, and recently the portrayal of the Maoist general strike are but two examples. The battle over the shaping and control of words and images reached a fever-pitch during the strike. The scenes in the streets received a close scrutiny by monitors deployed by various human rights organizations. The words, images and sounds in our pages and screens, so vital to facilitating public dialog during these testing times, failed to attract the attention of media watchdogs who have to exhaust their resources and energies more in compiling rights violations against journalists than on analyzing news coverage. In their rush to judgment, political leaders, their functionaries, and partisan commentators assumed the role of media umpires. It fell on the media themselves, finally, to vindicate their news judgments.

Yet, the issue of unfair coverage, and bias on the part of what the Maoist leadership later corrected as “some” news outlets, was left unresolved as it has often been the case in the past when it comes to accusations of media distortion, sensationalism, hype, favoritism or slant. We deserved from our media watchdogs at the least a snapshot assessment of the contentious coverage.

Unless, for example, we create an index of media bias, properly identify what exactly constitute bias for a given topic in our context, and analyze its coverage systematically and rigorously, we run the risk of seeing the forest for a tree. In fact, since bias is humanly unavoidable, our concern should be its nature and extent: How much is too much? This is an issue that will persist as long as our media are around. It will get more complicated as they expand manifolds in their content and competing political visions or public policy choices will collide even more, requiring of us nuanced and timely analysis.

Of course, academics or media analysts sometimes pick up where our pundits and commentators left off. Some notable works include a journal by Martin Chautari, a periodical by Press Council Nepal (PCN) and occasional thematic studies by a string of media watchdogs. There are others who keep a tab on media coverage of their interests, such as the political parties’ propaganda departments, government agencies, foreign embassies and (I)NGOs. Officials at PCN are always compiling newspaper clippings on a myriad of subjects. But such internal audits and largely obscure papers or publications remain beyond the reach of the general public or even the journalists.

As much as our leaders or the public deserve fair media, the media also deserve fair assessment of their performance on a continual basis. In this 24/7 news cycle with constant deadlines every developing story is potentially a shocker, requiring rapid response from media analysts. We clearly need an independent mechanism, to instantly capture content of interest, store, retrieve and analyze it, and publicly report the findings in the most accessible and timely manner. We cannot afford to wait a month or a quarter of a year to get an expert report on media performance on a topic that has instant impact on our often unpredictable public opinion. Our media deserve regular quality feedback to their works, to substantially inform their own internal reviews for self-improvement. I am not calling here for yet another regulatory body, nor for activism, but for a mechanism to regularly, objectively and professionally study our ever-expanding media works nationwide.

We have reached a phase of abundance in our media productions and it is now time we turned our attention to organizing, processing and analyzing the products for an objective, uncluttered and meaningful user experience.

A continual, independent analysis will help to separate the wheat from the chaff. It can also quickly identify and highlight excellent examples of works by our news media. Regular and periodic news analyses will not only help measure more accurately the changing volume and nature of information, they can also track the trends and topics in coverage, identify our shifting national news agenda, the gaps between public issues and their coverage, and above all provide a sense of direction and purpose to our understanding of journalism and its performance today.

Published in Republica, May 30, 2010.