In search of Credible and Reliable

    12-May-2020   
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The mainstream media is going through a crisis of credibility and the COVID-19 situation has exacerbated the situation

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Corona virus has changed the way we do a lot of things. How we get news and information is one of them. With most of the world staying at-home in a lockdown situation, people are living online. From telecommuting to teleteaching and shopping to telemedicine, many things now are being done online.
 
There is evidence to suggest that media engagement increases significantly during shelter-in-place or in lockdown situations. In 2017, Nielsen measured a 56 per cent increase in television usage in the US during Hurricane Harvey that battered Texas. The trend is being replicated in today’s context too. Italy and South Korea, two countries further along in their experience of the pandemic, have seen increases of 12-17 per cent in TV consumption.
 
Online news outlets too are seeing huge spikes in traffic on their sites as readers seek all sorts of information to make sense of this fast-changing situation. People are turning to media to find information about school closings, news, analysis, advice, and explanations from experts and scholars, etc. As a special value-add and as a means of creating goodwill among their readers, many outlets have pulled down their paywalls, at least on reports concerning the Corona virus. In India, people flocked to their TV screens to watch the reruns of the Ramayana, and Mahabharata teleserials. It broke all previous records of viewership. According to Broadcast Audience, Research Council (BARC) India’s weekly impression data, the viewership of DD National for week 14 touched 1.9 billion impressions.
 
This spike is not confined to media outlets and TV viewership only. According to The New York Times piece ‘Virus changed the way we Internet’ by Ella Koeze and Nathaniel Popper, Facebook saw a 27 per cent increase in daily engagement. It was 15 per cent for YouTube and TikTok each. There is also an explosion of online webinars and podcasts with several domain experts, including those in Yoga and Mindfulness. In a novel experiment, the Consulate General of India New York’s office has been streaming several Facebook live events, including Bollywood films during stay-at-home orders in the US. While the virus situation has given rise to some bright spots for media, it has also challenged the mainstream legacy framework of ownership, advertising, reporting, segmentation —local, national, international, business, sports, etc. Individual podcasters, YouTubers, have sprung up all across. Many of these are subscription-based service, many more have other models of monetisation.
 
As the economic activities come to a grinding halt as a result of lockdown, the overall economic situation has affected the advertising revenue in the media. According to a recent survey of the World Association of News Publishers, advertising has plunged between 30-80 per cent. Lifting restrictions on paywall has not helped the situation either.
 
The mainstream media is going through a crisis of credibility and the COVID-19 situation has exacerbated the situation. Rise of social media, too, has challenged what Ramesh Rao, a communications professor at Columbus State University, calls mainstream media’s “framing” through the process of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration.
 
Nowhere this credibility crisis more evident than perhaps in India. The growing gulf between the proverbial Bharat and India has exposed media’s inherent biases. Consider the Indian media coverage of the past few years — ‘church attack’, rising ‘intolerance’, ‘award wapasi’, cow-theft related violence and ‘mob lynching’, JNU-Jamia violence, anti-CAA protests and Shaheen Bagh, anti-Hindu Delhi riots. Many would consider this coverage both sensational and partisan. Even during the pandemic media has not been able to shed its bias. Ordinary citizens have been left scrambling to piece together a reliable and coherent message from a sensational and partisan motivated narrative. The post-Corona virus situation also presents opportunities for media. As themes of environment, gender, economic inequalities, etc. continue to dominate the media scene, rising interest in nationalist Indic themes has resulted in the success of alternative media outlets in the Swarajya, Organiser, OpIndia, Sirf News, etc.
 
There is no existing model available to project the economic impact of the Corona virus pandemic on media. However, we are witnessing some changes taking place in this arena as well. Australia, for example, has created a code of conduct for social media giants Facebook and Google,, which would force the tech giants to Australian media companies for using their content. The mandatory code being drafted will include penalties and would define what content would be included.
 
Today, people are creating content in growing numbers. More and more people are sharing photos, videos, and live streams across social media platforms in record numbers, and it’s these unvarnished and personal brand experiences - commonly referred to as user-generated content (UGC) - that potential customers crave and trust. This trend is expected to continue post-pandemic.
While the virus situation has given rise to some bright spots for media, it has also challenged the mainstream legacy framework of ownership, advertising, reporting, segmentation –local, national, international, business, sports, etc.
 
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning are set to play a much bigger role in future media. Hari Kiran Vadlamani, founder of Indic Academy and a keen AI and media watcher, believes that new technology will be particularly useful in detecting biases in framing. “New technology will be used to develop two important indicators —Truth and Bias on a simultaneous basis which will considerably reduce the time lag. Right now SM is doing it but with a time lag,” says Vadlamani.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic is not a mere public health crisis, but it has far-reaching consequences on social, economic, political aspects of our society. In such an extraordinary situation, people need news organisations they consider credible and reliable.
 
(The writer is JNU and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He frequently writes in several media outlets on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, Language, Culture, and Current Affairs)