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Transformation of media mindset in the electronic age

– By Col. R Hariharan

Journalists in 1970s used shorthand to scribble down reports and typed our stories on manual typewriters. Subeditors mercilessly chopped and spliced the reports to turn them into “proper” news stories. They worked in ill lit offices, under dusty fans churning out hot air with rattling tele printers providing the sound byte. In the late night, the rotary press spewed out the paper it was warm to the touch and had a peculiar smell of wood pulp.

Now that world of newspapers is changed forever and perhaps for good. But the tragedy is electronic age has turned journalism into mass communication. It has morphed the holy cows of newspapers into buffalos to be milked to make money than churn out wisdom from opinionated editors and columnists. In those times, the celebrated psychologist-philosopher turned columnist Walter Lippmann, better known for coining the phrase ‘cold war’, in his book Public Opinion wrote how most pervasive of all influences which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. “We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions….govern deeply the whole process of perception.” This is how media tends to convey complex news in understandable products to the readers or viewers.

Professor Richard Dyer explained Lipmann’s stereotypes  through four functions they perform : an ordering process (knowing little is better than nothing at all); using a ‘short cut’ to convey the meaning; way of referring to the world based upon the social construct; and an expression of our values and beliefs.

The four Lipmann stereotypes are being tested every day in the news stories that flood the internet and find their way into mobile phones, lap tops and newspapers. The morphing of the word journalism into mass communication itself provides the answer to the impact of stereo types. The semantic change is more appropriate because this is the century of mass communication rather than classical journalism. The knowledge era has irreversibly changed four things in the media:

  1. Media has to adapt to the requirements multiple modes of production in print, visual and social form to stay in business.
  1. Media news is no more the Holy Grail.  Editors are no more the holy cows and columnists have lost their oracular status. Now they have to dish out their wisdom in 300 words, or even worse, in two-minute speech in the midst of  talk show cacophony, interrupted by deo or tooth paste ads and the imminent threat of breaking news.
  1. Media has to cater to the mass audience seeking instant gratification within their very brief attention span. So the media story’s focus, right from headline, lead and display to catch attention rather than convey the whole news.
  1. Mass media has to rate its own performance, here and now, to stay in business. It has to use suspect devices like TRP ratings, print order, web hits and advertisers impact surveys. In short, every day the media has to ‘run’ like the deer running to escape the lion chasing it – to stay one step ahead of the lion of competition.

Given this reality, when we write or read op-ed stories, often we are confronted with a few troubling questions:

a) Does media affect the way society behaves?

b) Does it influence government policy?

c) Can the media remain impartial in its news coverage? Even the New York Times displaying “All the News That’s Fit to Print” in its masthead ever since Adolph S Ochs adopted it in1897 to proclaim its impartiality, is seen stumbling to live up to its “principle”.

Media theorist Professor Herbert Marshall Mc Luhan was a visionary who predicted the worldwide web three decades before it was invented and coined such expressions as “the medium is the message” and the “global village.”   In his 1964 pioneering study, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,  Mc Luhan said the medium and not the content that it carries, should be the focus of study because the characteristics of the medium rather than its contents affect the society. His postulate that content had little effect on society or to put it in plain language, violence in television broadcasts would not matter because all media have characteristics to engage the viewer in different ways became controversial. His theory on media has become relevant with the arrival of mass audience, real time global connectivity, worldwide web and the internet.

Even if we do not agree with Mc Luhan, his study can perhaps help us find answers to the troubling questions raised earlier to make media more meaningful to make the world a better place for the people to lead a peaceful life. So journalists have more reasons to be objective and less judgemental than ever before, because the characteristics of medium has ways of creating distortions unwittingly. Unless media managers understand their onerous responsibility, the process of holy cows of media being morphed into buffalos may become complete. Though buffalos yield rich milk, they wallow in mud and forage on what they can find. Surely, the media would not want to end up like that.

— The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute. Views expressed are personal.

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