Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Lay Audience

In interactions with lay audiences, we gather that news is sensational, unreliable, vicious and above all negative. 

Dharma Adhikari
As new technologies continue to flatten hierarchies and remove traditional barriers to participatory communication, the demand-side of journalism appears no less important. Journalists and news producers—the suppliers—have gotten plenty of attention and their share of applause and criticism.

In newspapers and news channels, what the audience get often amounts to a miserly space for readers’ letters, and occasionally, patronizing editorials. Digital audience as active participants is an emerging trend.

Certainly, some among the lay audience do give credit to the press for its positive watchdog role over the years, in promoting democracy, advocating the rule of law and demanding public accountability in the matters of the state. But for the largest section of the lay audience, passive consumerism is the way. No questions asked; no comments shared.

In close interactions with lay audiences, we gather that news is sensational, unreliable, vicious and above all negative. Media are politically and ideologically partisan. Journalists always manufacture outrage.

A middle-aged TV viewer complained recently that it’s always bad news on TV. That there’s propaganda, hype, fake news, distortions, and smear campaigns. Instead of the “right to information”, he gets to enjoy the “right to disinformation”. He feels short-changed by the media houses. Bad news gives him headaches, anxiety and stress. His blood pressure goes up every time he flips through news channels.

If research is any guide, women are more stress sensitive to negative news than men. The perceived increase of bad news is also attributed to the negative tone or framing of a story; dramatization or repeated exposure to bad news rather than entirely over-reporting.

But the stressor is often ignored. TV gained record number of eyeballs this year thanks to the torrential supply of bad news in the form of devastation wrought by the massive earthquake and the fear and panic caused by hundreds of aftershocks. The joy over the promulgation of the constitution was short-lived, as the Madhesh Andolan and the Indian blockade soon offered fodder for more bad news.

The fact is, as an overarching news topic and for its conflict value, politics has been the most prolific ground for negative news throughout the history of modern Nepal. Fortunately, for Prithivi Narayan Shah or Jung Bahadur, there were no modern news media to wreak havoc over their ruthless paths. Perhaps that’s why they managed to sail along. In the face of “free press”, and later under the scrutiny of 24/7 news cycle, other leaders—revolutionaries, moderates and conservatives included—all proved hapless mavericks. More prying eyes lie ahead.

In today’s digitally interconnected information age, lesser human beings, too, have more reasons to worry about media onslaughts and manipulations. The unfiltered gush of print, audio-video, images, and social networks as well as their formats present us with many challenges.

Disruptions are in sight for the audience too.  The coming together of earlier forms of media is not only professionally dislocating but is also socially and culturally a wrenching experience. The popular comedy singer Shreekrishna Luitel has to resort to begging to make ends meet simply because of the Facebook abuse:

“the evil Facebook, gosh, it turned me into a lunatic
the evil Facebook, gosh, it left me injured 
my sister eloped, my brother went insane 
all ‘cause of the evil Facebook, gosh, my father brought another wife
the evil Facebook, gosh, she too ran off 
all ‘cause of the evil Facebook, all ‘cause of the evil facebook 
Facebook has wreaked havoc in this Age of Vice...”

This is perhaps too sweeping in the eye of discerning media users; but it does echo the perceptions of the lay audience. Parajuli asserts that Facebook has wreaked such havoc that everyone has gone astray!

At any rate, a fair criticism of news and media—negative or positive—will require a shared understanding of the processes and experiences of media formats as well as production and consumption, between journalists and audiences.

The key questions for modern audiences are how to best access, analyze, evaluate and even create content. Simple as these may appear to media professionals, they are difficult questions to most media consumers who lack news media literacy. Not that they are not smart; but they exist merely as abstractions in the mind of their messengers. For many journalists, their primary audiences are their own peers and competitors, who already know the rule of the game.

Audience definitions and jargons are distinct. For many in the young generation, where does the news come from? It comes from social networks, mobile apps, family members or friends. Forget the arduous news gathering, research, drafting, writing, or verification process. News is something new, something on the radio (any program will do); something on the page of a newspaper; something in their mind, a thought action they can post instantaneously: “what’s in your mind?” Even culturally, it’s a state of being, not an event: ke chha halkhabar, how’s things?

What passes the test of news? Something with the condition of being, not necessarily an action. Anything you like; the metrics and clicks and shares. Information and meaning, education and engagement appear to be of secondary importance. Because of its conflict-orientation and developing nature, there is the illusion of chaos in news—but the real news design itself is orderly, predictable and labor-intensive, something attainable.

Implicitly, samachar (news), derived from Sanskrit, embodies a positive meaning. Sama stands for “equal” and aachar, translates as “behavior”. These terms combine to make news an equalizing moral enterprise. Thus, in that sense, news underscores the social responsibility ethos of the press, often emphasized in the critiques of media. Gorkhapatra’s motto “let all be well and happy...” somewhat reflects this ethos.

Who is a journalist?  Anybody who frequently appears on TV, or tweets often. Lay audiences confuse Rishi Dhamala with a politician, and MaHa duo with journalists.

As for jargons, the tussle, as we sometimes witness, is between headline and title, lead and topic sentence, sources and references, or bias and “biasness”, etc.

Next, how often do lay audiences assess a story for truthfulness, accuracy, completeness, fairness and balance? Journalism was supposed to resurrect the Age of Truth (Satya yug), not foster Age of Vice (Kali yug), which enabled a context for the Facebook song above. “Even the newspaper or TV has reported it” is often how some lay audiences confirm something is true. Reporters shift responsibility of verification to sources. Others emphasize on giving complete facts and evidence right away forgetting news is a developing story.

Those who believe in the authority of the journalist rarely seek disclosures on story process or context. Contending sources in the same story may confuse those who insist on confirming their own views. Brand name, byline, web ranking, visual and data authenticity have a sway over many consumers. Completeness is the overall unity of the story; what are those 5Ws and H?

Just because a story is transparently partisan does not mean it is fair and balanced. But apparently that is how it is seen in practice because the line between news and opinion has blurred. Audience criticism of this practice as well as of selective sourcing, plagiarism, distortions, visual manipulations and language insensitivity has fallen on deaf ears. Charges of bias based on political, economic or other self-interests are compounded by audience’s own bias seeking to confirm their preconceptions.

Both the messengers and the audience seem cognitively disoriented; stupidified by the powerful technological and societal forces that are reshaping news production and consumption.

Audiences are more than just clicks and shares.  The demand side also deserves a fair share of criticism and comfort.

Published in Republica, 29 December, 2015