Selective perception

When media tries to prove itself more patriotic than others, it tramples public interest.


The French statesman, George Clemenceau, who led his country in the first world war, famously said, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.” Well, times have changed. Mass media, considered to be a soft power for a long time, has assumed an active and over-reaching role in trying to influence matters as serious as public policy, diplomacy, and at times, war.

In the case of countries where media’s dominating role is restricted to commercial interests only, perhaps the situation is still under control. However, if the countries are involved in a conflict, the game becomes a little more complex, and dare I say, extremely dangerous. The jingoism being displayed brazenly by media, and the professionals running the show, in both India and Pakistan these days is a prime example of that. News television channels are particularly running wild in whipping up war hysteria with no regard whatsoever for the implications any such adventure might have for the future of either country in the short and long term.

According to a recent report issued by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, television news viewing in western countries has declined by 3-4 percent since 2012 and is likely to reach a staggering 25-30 per cent over a ten-year period. This reduction in news television viewership is in line with the decline in newspaper readership as the audience is showing an increasing shift towards online mediums. Not quite in India and Pakistan where news television in private sector is a booming business and has sown exponential growth during the last two decades.

Ratings-driven television stations, in their quest to attract eyeballs, are going to every possible length to form public opinion in favour of another war between India and Pakistan. Be it the framing of news stories, the choice of words, the selection of guests for talk-shows and sound bites, or the ever-frenzied anchors, everything is pointing in a certain direction. Anybody refusing to wear overt patriotism on his/her sleeve is being termed a traitor, and the governments are being egged-on to show more aggression towards the “enemy”.

Whether these media houses are punching above their weight or the viewers are taking this content too seriously is another debate, but a dangerous game is on for sure. The television channels are apparently pushing both the leadership, and the general public, in both countries to the brink where restraint is off the table and anybody hinting even slighting towards this option is frowned upon.

What is most amazing in this circus is that the basic rule of thumb — objectivity, has been thrown out of the window. The trigger-happy anchors, and the hyper-nationalist news managers appear to believe everything coming from the government and military circles without questioning the content or the rationale, as if any such move would brand them a traitor as well. To make matters worse, social media gossip has become mainstream news. Actor Fawad Khan was condemned by Indian news channels for allegedly saying “Pakistan first” after his exit from India. Nobody reported that this story was lifted from an unknown website that carried it first with the disclaimer that “it was not verified”.

The manner in which the Indian and Pakistani television stations are reporting incidents, and particularly statements originating on either side, is utterly questionable to say the least. Om Puri, Mahesh Bhatt, and Salman Khan were Pakistan’s hero because they spoke in favour of Pakistani artists but Humayun Saeed was not, only because he disagreed with the call to ban Indian films in local theatres. These double standards are sickening and hint at a tendency to take the audience for granted by playing on their emotions.

These news channels take pride in “informing” and “shaping” public opinion. Shaping? Yes. Information? Not quite. There are several surveys that have provided evidence that those who watch a lot of television news, or believe everything that they watch on the idiot-box, actually know less. In a survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2012 that aimed at gauging the knowledge of American public about current affairs over a ten-year period, the results were shocking and exactly opposite to the popular belief.
However, one finding from the survey that the “ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, were just talking to one audience” captures the essence of what is happening in India and Pakistan these days. Media in both countries is knowingly preying on a select group of audience that has been brought-up on a steady diet of hyper-nationalism and doctored history and is unable to fathom reality in any other way.

Another survey conducted by a team of researchers in eleven countries was published in 2013. The main findings of the survey were foreign news offered by the main TV channel, was quite limited in scope, and mainly driven by a combination of national interest and geographic proximity. This interplay of framing and securitisation is driving the content of mass media in India and Pakistan. When the national security interests take over, and the consequences of going against the tide are grave in nature, the media professionals tend to choose the easier route. It suits the interests of the powers-that-be as well because the blatant show of patriotism, and the game of accusations and counter-accusations, helps mask the actual issues like poverty and governance that concern the common man. The quest to please the pressure groups is real, and immediate, and the public interest, well, is not such a priority when it comes to “national interest”.

Most of the arguments here pertain to the electronic media, only because they have held the most sway overtime. The print media is no different though. They are trying to match their illustrious partner (news television) at every step in this tango dance, albeit on a war song. The kind of adjectives being used in the headlines and news stories, and the pictures being printed to go with the news stories, are nothing short of selective perception. The only agenda appears to be to prove themselves, and their organisation, more patriotic than others even if it means that facts have to be concealed, distorted, or made-up.

Those who suggested that the news anchors from both sides, who are crying hoarse for the use of force, should be sent to war first, are wise, but who cares for sanity when emotions are running so high. The ruling elite in both countries, instead of being cognizant of the situation and showing some restraint, appears to have taken the bait.

How long will they be able to resist the temptation to act the way media wants them to is a frightening thought. Whether the media professionals will take a deep breath and do some soul-searching is perhaps too distant a dream as things stand now. They have smelled blood and would settle for nothing less than seeing this blood being spilled in a theatre of war.

This article first appeared in The News on Sunday on October 9, 2016.