Though I handle complaints and examine The Hindu ’s compliance with its editorial values and core journalistic principles, there are compelling reasons for me to dwell on media literacy. It’s important not to conflate the fortunes of the news media industry with the demands of journalism. Yet, journalism and the news media industry are linked through a complex network of political economy, which contributes to a sustainable model for credible journalism.
The plague of disinformation is not new. In 1939, the journalist-turned-educator, Clyde R. Miller, delivered a powerful lecture, ‘How to detect and analyse propaganda’, at New York’s Town Hall. His major recommendations remain valid today. He said: “There are three ways to deal with propaganda — first, to suppress it; second, to try to answer it by counterpropaganda; third, to analyse it.” He established the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) which came up with efficient tools to sift facts from propaganda. The most potent tool of IPA was media literacy. I believe that it is true for the digital era too.
The lack of a sustainable model is haunting legacy media and also hurting new digital initiatives. If the steady decline in revenue is forcing legacy media to scale down its operations in multiple ways, the lack of a model is causing existential angst to digital initiatives. There are overt and covert pressures to convert public interest media organisations into government-led media organisations.
Bringing the curtain down
On November 24, Huffington Post closed its two country-specific news sites, HuffPost India and HuffPost Brasil. Interestingly, both India and Brazil are governed by strongmen leaders. The Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost India, Aman Sethi, tweeted: “Today is @huffpostIndia’s last day. Pound for pound, story for story, reporter for reporter, this is the greatest newsroom I have worked for; (and I still can’t quite believe I had the privilege to lead)”. From its exhaustive investigations into the controversial electoral bonds scheme to a story on how the BJP turned a women’s NGO, the Association of Billion Minds, into a secretive but highly influential propaganda machine, HuffPost India established itself as a credible, investigative news platform. The wide consensus is that the death of the portal happened because the Government of India tweaked the stakeholding pattern for digital platforms in such a manner that it was nearly impossible for international players to continue to be in the news sector.
The Sinhala radio broadcast service of the BBC World Service is also being stopped. Labour MPs Grahame Morris and John McDonnell have tabled a motion in the British Parliament expressing concern over this move. They argue that the accent on digital reach is misplaced because “currently 7% of the Sinhalese population listen to the radio service each week, compared to just 0.6% who use digital services”. The National Union of Journalists is also alarmed at the prospect of the closure. Its statement read: “BBC World Service radio remains an essential service in Sri Lanka, delivering credible local and international news to the population. The prospects of a government shutdown of websites and social media is real, and this has not been factored into the BBC’s plans.”
Sustainability of journalism
Given the magnitude of the crisis, the Forum on Information and Democracy, an international entity founded by 11 independent organisations from different backgrounds and regions, has created a working group on the sustainability of journalism. It aims to seek structural recommendations from experts, media stakeholders, academics and jurists on how to make quality journalism sustainable. According to the Forum, “the dramatic fall in income is threatening the survival of many news media, affecting the quality of their content and, ultimately, posing a major danger to democracies”. Hence, it has mandated its working group to identify “good practices (including business models, commercial cooperation and editorial partnerships), recommend a favourable regulatory environment (including an overhaul of the media economy’s legislative framework and innovative funding) and propose public policies of a non-market nature (such as state funding, non-financial benefits, tax concessions and development assistance).” While we wait for the recommendations, we need a cohort of media literate readers and viewers to distinguish news from propaganda.