Differing trajectories of legacy and digital media

When the Finance Minister was presenting her second Budget, we were interacting with readers in Vijayawada at an open house session. These interactions not only provide valuable feedback to the editorial team, but also help readers understand how a newspaper works. During these interactions, we have been asked about the demands of a deadline, the changing nature of the information ecology, competitive pressures from other platforms such as social media and television, and this newspaper’s emphasis on secular values, which one reader felt was a sign of bias.

Legacy media and digital media

I explained that the legacy media developed and honed its skills from a deep desire for change. From the journalism of Thomas Paine — an Englishman whose writing inspired the American rebellion against the British, defended the cause of revolution in France, and challenged slavery — each century witnessed pioneers across continents who yearned for free and open societies.

One issue that was discussed was of freedom of expression versus accountability. The idea of journalism is to empower people and minimise harm rather than widen the divide and fan violence. The editorial decision to not carry inflammatory content is a manifestation of this desire and cannot be termed as censorship.

Students were keen to know about the transformations caused by digitalisation. They asked what changes are being made in newsrooms to cope with these challenges. The legacy media had 300 years to define its role and refine it for the needs of citizens. The years also saw political movements such the anti-colonial struggle, resistance to fascism, the movement for democracy, women’s suffrage, the anti-apartheid struggle and labour movements that demanded less exploitative working environments.

On the other hand, the digital media revolution is less than two decades old. It started as a huge democratising venture. However, the emergence of behemoths at Silicon Valley and the ability of the state to selectively switch on and switch off connectivity are disturbing. Journalists are trying to negotiate this reality through multiple means. The means include challenging state-imposed restrictions in the court of law, spreading media literacy, and engaging in dialogue with technology companies.

What happens when disinformation spreads fast in cyberspace? Readers will be reading this column a day before Facebook’s 16th birthday. Facebook was launched on February 4, 2004, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The consolidation of technology companies in controlling the information flow has taken place in less than a decade. After denying for nearly 15 years that they are in the profession of publishing, platform companies now acknowledge their role in the spread of misinformation and malicious propaganda. For instance, Facebook has unveiled its plan to create an independent ‘oversight’ board to make decisions on how the network should be moderated. It insists that the panel, which will hear its first ‘cases’ in 2020, will have the power to override decisions it makes over contentious material and influence new policy.

Credibility of official documents

In this dichotomy between the market and metrics-driven requirements of the digital platforms, and journalism driven by core values, citizens are becoming oblivious to the deviousness of various state institutions. Official documents are supposed to contain carefully collated data based on rigorous methodology. Earlier, there was trust in the credibility of official documents. Journalists would analyse the content of these documents rather than looking at the process of how these documents were produced. However, in the last few years, there seems to major erosion in the way official documents are produced. Rigorous methods have given way for rhetoric and grandiloquence. For instance, Chapter 7 of the latest Economic Survey is supposed to assess public sector banks. However, pages 150 and 151 are based on reports from Wikipedia. If the defining macroeconomic document of the country is going to be based on Wikipedia entries, it makes a journalist’s job much more difficult.