Thursday, October 27, 2011

Meta-Media Inc


It took me several hours to locate one editorial here and another there in the major Indian newspapers. I was looking for these pieces for any newspaper commentary on Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai’s visit to the southern neighbor. And I came across those few despite the fact that I used the latest Web search techniques and even clicked through the edit menus of the individual online editions of some the best-known Indian newspapers.

How, and if at all, a newspaper “editorializes” a topic has traditionally been a key indicator of the importance of that topic in a particular country or society. I came across only a few, including in The Economic Times, The Hindu, The Times of India, and The Shillong Times. Indeed, there could have been several more in other publications, but lacking a credible means that indexed the content or the sources, I could not be sure about their existence or their nature. In other words, there was very little scientific basis for me to comment on Indian editorial commentaries on Dr Bhattarai.

Any topic of public interest like the one above as well as many contemporary issues such as natural disasters, health epidemics, peace/conflict, corruption, and taxation often invite us for deeper, informed engagement. But the best we can do under current circumstances without the ways of indexing news is merely to offer our personal views or perceptions about media coverage of such important issues. One can only sympathize with our media critics who wish that they had a credible and reliable source to be able to enhance their “criticism” with inputs from empirical research, with concrete examples and cases to support their cynicisms, arguments, accusations, wild generalizations or imaginations.

Unfortunately, there is only so much an individual critic or commentator can do. Research is painstaking work, often requiring resources and time. These are always in short supply, amply demonstrated by the preponderance of shallow accounts and verbose in many opinion articles in our media. Only an institutional effort can offer a reliable means to serve as a common source of empirical, quantifiable data or examples to add meat of analysis to the skeleton of information.

Along this line, in this column, more than a year ago, I argued (“Getting Past the Clutter,” Republica, May 30, 2010) that we had reached a phase of abundance in our media productions and it was time we turned our attention to organizing, processing and analyzing the products for an objective, uncluttered and meaningful user experience. Indeed, we are fast evolving into an information society. As our media landscape expands rapidly and the information revolution advances further and accelerates content production by massive volumes, we will require ways to make sense of the content.

The key word is “understanding” as opposed to “misconstruction.” We can raise several important questions on this: What is the use of information if it only clutters our media ecology or muddles our cognitive experiences? What is the advantage of such information if it hampers our understanding? What is its benefit if it continues to maintain the traditional gulf between producers of information (journalists) and their consumers (audience), despite the blossoming of an interactive media culture?
It is a pity that our “information society” or “knowledge economy” comes with caveats of junk, misinformation, digital divides and propaganda.

These very limitations, then, underscore the need for ‘organizing” information and/for meta-media focus in our production and consumption efforts. Rather than beating about the bush and whining about politics more than anything else, meta-media or meta-journalism approach enables media’s own discourse/coverage on media (production to consumption and feedback). It ensures a closer professional perspective on the many issues confronted by the media industry and its users.

Besides, meta-media analysis yields insights into the level of professionalism of a press and helps measure the quality of its work against its own (implied) standards. It helps develop a compass on the many facets of media landscape today, from print to digital, from content to new technology, from news work to strategic forms of media practices in the corporate and non-profit sectors.

This is a powerful conceptual framework for Nepal especially because we have many media institutions in the country that seem to be drifting away from their declared goal of media development. A meta-media approach can enable a consistent media perspective not only on media matters but also on many contemporary cross-cutting fields like public affairs, human rights, inclusion, climate change and development. Such an approach can serve as a stable anchor to the declared communicative goals.

Research has shown that more meta-journalism in an outlet usually means a more refined demonstration of professionalism. Unfortunately, we know little about Nepali meta-media propensities. So far, media discourse on media in Nepal appears to be limited to self-reporting on some ‘feel-good’ stories such as the receipt of awards by a staff member, new investments or expansion of operations, private or official foreign trip by a working professional from within the outlet, etc. However, as regards its coverage of similar feats or actions by competing outlets, there is little one can find in a newspaper or a media outlet. When it comes to cross-media meta-reporting, we see an abundance of coverage of attacks on media workers, perhaps highlighting an incredible show of professional solidarity.

It is not surprising then that a large body of meta-journalism in Nepal focuses on professional constraints and freedom of the press. This is also clear from a year-long Media Foundation analysis of all major English-language dailies. The study Media in the News 2010, which I helped conduct as its lead researcher, found that such stories accounted for 46 percent of the newshole whereas stories on media development and technology made up 41 percent while the arts and culture garnered 13 percent. However, Nepal was not far behind regionally in its media-focused coverage. It ranked fourth among a list of nine South-Central Asian countries.

Clearly, there is the need to diversify Nepali meta-media propensities, beyond the ‘press freedom’ angle or policy drawbacks. It is not enough to write articles in newspapers, produce shows on television, post content on Websites, upload videos on YouTube or put updates on social media. A regular means of assessment or indexing of all such products and services is needed for a coherent, logical and holistic understanding of media. There is also the need to diversity analysis in terms of the foci, going beyond the content and embracing platforms and processes, such as developments in the digital front as well as emerging relations between the producers and consumers.

And the good news is there are already some individual efforts in this area and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. For example, now and then we get to read reports and analysis by promising technology writers. There are very few such reporters and writers, and we will need more of them in the years ahead. There are many sites online that aggregate news thematically, including some those that do so in the area of media or technology. We need to systematically index them for easy access and use.

The government effort in archiving all newspapers digitally via the Press Council Nepal (PCN) is also a welcome move in indexing. But it is only a preliminary task in the inevitable project of creating a comprehensive compass for media index, which will be useful in meta-media analysis. Much work needs to be carried out in the new technology front, from regularly mapping our media, including our national broadcast and cyberspace, to audience media habits, perhaps through comprehensive periodic opinion surveys. It is a pity that even as a democratizing country (since the early 1990s) seemingly respecting public opinion, we don’t yet have any such national, media-focused survey.

An inclusive, democratic society also speaks to the needs of the less-privileged and the differently-abled citizens. By one estimate, around 20 percent of Nepalis are deaf. Imagine the hardship they have to go through in their media use. Meta-media effort in this area would focus on introducing television close-captioning or subtitling in Nepal. This is a major task in media development in Nepal and I would not hesitate to call it a right of the many deaf.

Some major tasks have been achieved in software, notably the development of Nepali unicode as well as in hardware with the adoption of latest technologies (we don’t have to fly any longer into Hong Kong or Thailand to produce world class publications). Right now many of the endeavors in meta-media have been driven by market interests. This is a reality in any liberal market system. But as the media landscape continues to expand and its many aspects compound our society, the government will have to wake up to fill in the voids by way of supporting research, infrastructure and development efforts.

Because the social, political or corporate world around us today is increasingly mediacentric, nobody will be able to escape from these meta-media obligations. In this age of instant technology, one shouldn’t have to waste hours looking for some information or finding out more about a new piece of technology.

Published in Republica, October 26, 2011