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Old Monday, April 27, 2009
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Default Media and the reconstruction of reality

Media and the reconstruction of reality

By Hussain H. Zaidi

Of late, the media in Pakistan, particularly the electronic one, has come in for sharp criticism for allegedly twisting facts, spreading sensationalism and thus aggravating an already volatile situation. Media persons rebut this charge maintaining that they present things as they are and report events as they happen without malice or bias.

By virtue of their power to shape public perceptions, the media has developed into a vital political force as well as an instrument of social control. Perception is how we think and feel about the world. It is about how we interpret and reconstruct the social reality. Perception may be close to the reality or divorced from it but is important because human behaviour is determined not by the reality per se but how it is perceived. The media not only depicts the reality but also reconstructs it by presenting and interpreting facts in a particular way. For instance, while reporting the recent acts of terrorism in Mumbai, the Indian media by and large assumed that Pakistan was involved in that and thus reconstructed the happenings accordingly and presented Pakistanis as the bad guys.

The media can turn a hero into a villain and vice versa. Whether the media describes insurgents as terrorists or freedom fighters can make all the difference in the way the viewer or the reader perceives them. For example, the way Al-Jazira television channel presents Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda is different from how the western media project them. The way the Indian press presents Kashmiri militants is different from how Pakistani press projects them. The way the government-controlled media project the state of the economy, society and politics is different from how independent media present the same.

Though all media reconstruct the reality, they do so differently depending on how independent they are. The more independent a newspaper or TV channel, the more objective is the reality it reconstructs. For the media to be independent, they should be free not only of government control but also of a particular ideology. The media which are controlled by the state or wedded to a particular philosophy at best present only half-truths. Hence, the reality they reconstruct is deficient in objectivity.

State controlled media, like Pakistan Television (PTV), leave no stone unturned in extolling the policies and performance of the government. They never let their readers or viewers look at the debit side of the government’s balance sheet. The media which espouse the cause of capitalism present free market economy as the panacea for all economic ills. The press in thrall of socialist ideas propagates the class system as the root cause of all problems that afflict society.

In the former Soviet Union and other communist countries, for instance, the reality reconstructed by the media was almost always fashioned on Marxism. Today the majority of the western print media extol capitalist values as religiously as fascism was extolled in Hitler’s Germany.

Control of the media and background, basic assumptions and education of journalists are also important. How much independent is editorial policy of the control of the owners? Do the owners interfere too much in the editorial policy or leave it largely to professional journalists? On their part, are media persons professionally competent? Are they well-versed in the issues that they speak or write about? Do they have affiliations with a political party or an ethnic organisation, which makes them have vested interest or see things through coloured glasses rather than objectively?

Language is the vehicle for communication and understanding. But language can also be used to obstruct communication, conceal rather than facilitate flow of information, and create misunderstanding, confusion and ambiguity. By the same token, the media, a powerful instrument of dissemination of information and opinion formation, can be used to suppress information, disseminate misleading information and form prejudiced opinion. Media discourses may have an effect similar to that of an ideology — a readymade way of thinking can rule out alternative ways of thinking. The media discourse that some foreign hand is involved in an act of terrorism may rule out that the problem may be indigenously caused. The media discourse offering a choice between a market economy and a centrally planned economy may rule out having a mixed economy combining positive features of both.

Generally speaking, it is the power to reconstruct reality that accounts for the government’s love-hate relationship towards the media. The government loves the media, because the latter can help reconstruct the reality the way the former wants. Conversely, the government hates the media, because the latter can reconstruct the reality objectively, which may put the ruling party in a difficult situation. Thus every government loves compliant media and hates independent media. For the government’s media managers, the fundamental problem is how to use a carrot and stick policy to turn an independent media into a compliant one.

The government takes measures to woo, control, harass and intimidate the media. Such measures may consist in allocating government advertisements, press advice, censorship, threats to journalists, physical attacks on media establishments and persons, or complete suppression of a particular channel or newspaper depending on the character of the government, the prevalent political system, the power of the media, and the level of social and economic development.

In a democratic and advanced polity, the measures to control the media are normally subtle and moderate, while in a despotic and backward state, such measures are usually rough and extreme. On balance, a democratic government is far more tolerant of an independent media than a despotic one.

In Pakistan, at best a controlled democracy, governments by and large have been averse to freedom of expression. To them, a free media is anathema for it defeats their attempts to reconstruct the reality as they desire and would hence adopt all the available tactics to control them. These tactics notwithstanding, the media have gained in independence. A landmark development is the establishment of private TV channels, which broke the government’s monopoly over electronic media. This means that now people can view the counterpoint to which they did not have access previously, that they can see the other side of the picture which had hitherto been invisible to them.

During last one and half year, Pakistan has been passing through political and economic uncertainty. An uncertain politico-economic environment is the breeding ground for speculations, rumours and sensationalism. In a fast changing scenario, people are anxious to know more either to alleviate their anxieties or just out of curiosity. The media, particularly the electronic media with their round-the-clock and live broadcasts, seek to satisfy this need. Electronic media have a wider reach than the press as literacy is not required and influence is immediate covering a greater viewership. They can dramatise and popularise ideas in a way the press cannot. A society where illiteracy is rampant and which is markedly deficient in rationalism, electronic media, for better or worse, tend to exercise immense influence over the viewers.

Public need and desire for information has to be satisfied in a way that does not add to the volatility of the situation. The purpose should be to enhance public understanding rather than confuse them, educate the people rather than indulge in mere propaganda. This requires media which are not only independent but also mature. A free media may not be mature. However, only a free media can be mature. State control cannot make the media mature. It can only shackle them. A media in chain can be anything but mature. Democracy is a necessary condition for a free and hence mature media.

However, democracy is not a sufficient condition for a mature media. The maturity of the media is also linked to the society in which they operate. In a society, where the louder one speaks the greater attention and credibility one draws, the media can disregard facts in the race to break the news or swell the size of their viewers despite the fact that this can be a race to the bottom. This is especially true of electronic media with their live programmes, where anchorpersons and guests can dabble into debates on issues they have little appreciation of.

With more democracy, the media will become freer; with greater and better education they will gain in maturity. Thus the reconstruction of the reality by the media in Pakistan is going to be a function of democracy and education.

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