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All That's Wrong With News Today: Tracing Yellow Journalism's Evolution

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”

This quote aptly highlights the behemoth power of media and the role that it plays in shaping its consumers’ thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. However, this power is also its own Achilles’ heel. With its immense potential to influence, modern media also has the power to conceive misguided and ill-informed opinions because of little to no control over the content that forms a part of the flow of news.

Having reared its head in the 1980s, ‘Yellow Journalism’ or sensationalism altered the way news would be consumed, forever. It refers to presenting news stories in an incendiary way by the usage of presentational tactics and exaggerated facts. These include using big, bold headlines and misleading pictorial tools as well as manipulation of facts to provoke public interest. Undertaken at the cost of accuracy, authenticity, and factual precision, it affords a view of the modern media’s distortion of values, principles, processes, and ethics.

The birthing cause of this phenomenon can be understood by reading into the broad patterns exhibited by the newspaper industry. These conform to the textbook rules of an imperfect competition market with a large number of sellers selling only slightly differentiated products. To stand out in this vast sea of black and grey, these leading agencies resorted to adding sections of sensational news to their dailies. These acted as their unique selling points allowing them to charge different prices for their hitherto similar products. Only a handful of brands have built their names and loyal consumer bases over the years to emerge as leaders in this market, while others gave in to sensationalism.

Over time, the problem of sensationalism has become bigger, and, for all purposes, scarier. News is important for every democracy. The reason? It helps one make informed decisions and make factual deductions from the information that is being laid in front of them. There needs to be a marked difference between news, which is reportage (and hence, an objective presentation of facts) and opinion pieces (which present a stance). This distinction has remained intact in some popular national dailies even today but more often than not, the latter is marketed as the former. And this is where things take a dangerous turn.

Why sensationalism?

The foremost reason is the advertising revenue model that most, popular news agencies today follow. A reader of a digital, social or press media piece unconsciously consumes two products simultaneously – news and advertisements. For publishers, this targets two birds with the same stone. The greater the number of readers, the greater the number of businesses that advertise their products on media platforms. It leads to higher revenue for the publisher because of an increased reader base and also from a stream of advertisement revenue. This enables publishers to sell their products at prices lower than the actual costs of production. If the news reportage is ethical and unbiased, this model sustains the process of relaying news objectively. However, with the advertisements lies an inherent conflict of interest. A newspaper receiving hefty revenue from an ad column for a state government couldn’t hope to write a piece against that government’s policies, and may even try to defend draconian actions of the state. Not only is this not unprecedented, but it is also hauntingly common.

As news agencies struggle to keep up shop, their dependence on advertisements hikes up further: it is swifter than enticing new readers. This degree of dependence is highlighted by the fact that the news to advertisement ratio has fallen successively over time to less than 50% today. Moreover, this joint sale provides instant statistics of reach to the advertisers. As news consumption, by popular demand, shifts from press to digital, this problem becomes bigger. By way of easy access to data regarding the number of clicks, readers etc, advertisers can conduct a quick analysis of returns from advertising on a particular platform.

In India, since the late 2000s, there has been a pattern of small media houses falling prey to negative networking externalities. They tended to succumb to penny journalism and ended up covering topics that have appeal to the primitive senses – revolving broadly around the themes of violence and sex rather than other significant sues. In addition to this, the mounting market competition had an adverse impact on journalistic performance. Even publishers with structured ethical bounds may have ended up in the rut because of repeated losses and/or low readership. However, this myopic approach to tabloidization and dumbed-down news in order to rope in readers resulted in compromising on a stable and loyal consumer base. This crippled the brand from being able to charge a premium for quality reporting in the long run. The problem got worse in the late 2010s.

Shifting tides in Indian News Media

While this association with penny journalism was harmful, it was contained to consumers of specific niches of news. In the late 2010s, established media houses running at the nation-wide level picked up this approach to journalism. As a certain media channel employee’s leaked WhatsApp chats suggest, all boundaries between sensationalism and journalism seem to have been melting. Ethics seem to have exited the scene entirely as rampant vitriol and disinformation is spread against the People, in the name of ‘responsible reporting’. A campaign of maligning is initiated against anyone who dares to raise their voice against the ruling government. Comedians, artists, advocates of the planet's health, transpersons, leaders and members of marginal communities have been incarcerated and denied due legal processes. If one looks at specific instances such as the ‘media trials’ of Rhea Chakraborty after Sushant Singh Rajput’s unfortunate demise, or selective relay of information in the Hathras Rape Case as well as during the more recent farmers’ protest in Delhi, things look bleak.

Why must one care? Because this isn’t news. It is propaganda. By relaying to the masses information that is selectively chosen to be a product of ‘entertainment’ rather than a ‘report’, these media houses have created narratives that are dangerous to the decision making powers and processes of a majority of the masses who take what they hear from reputed news anchors to be the truth. By presenting information that supports a particular cause or ideology, the power of the individual to make a decision for themselves is severely impeded.

The Infodemic: News during the Pandemic

Combining the terms ‘information’ and ‘epidemic’ gives rise to the connotation of an infodemic, which has come to mean the far-reaching and rapid spread of information, both accurate and inaccurate, about a disease. The way media houses tackled reportage in the COVID-19 pandemic, and in associated incidences, is interesting from the social, cultural, and economic point of view. In India, on January 27, 2020, a 20-year-old female came into the Emergency Department of General Hospital, Thrissur, Kerala, with a one-day history of dry cough and a sore throat. This turned out to be the first reported case of the outbreak in India. From there, to here, where ICMR’s report reveals 1 in every 5 Indians has been infected, we have come a long way. The scope of this essay is limited to understanding the role of news in this journey and hence unsound policy decisions or general apathy will not be touched upon.

Given the virus’ origin can be traced to a wet market, and the first center it emerged was China, world leaders ignorantly referred to it as “Chinese Virus” over and again. As people heard these incendiary views posed from a position of national authority, their perceptions were indubitably coloured. In the state of uncertainty that the emergence of the virus had caused, people’s dependence on television news media rose higher: as reported by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), news channels posted a 298% increase in viewership, year on year. While some good came out of this (such as advocates for telehealth and regular updates on the government’s mandate), the harm caused is overwhelming. News channels found a source of multiplying their revenues because earlier it was easier to increase earnings through advertisements, and now they had an unprecedented hike in the number of people consuming their content.

This is when news began to be treated more as a product of entertainment than as a tool to inform and educate. A dramatisation of live incidences, discussing hokum and spreading hate in charged, biased primetime debates, inviting celebrities for casual chit-chats: the run after TRP overtook the need for ethical reportage worse than ever before.

The power of Indian Media

The immense importance that India places in the media concludes to the fact that it is India’s “Fourth Pillar of Democracy.” This pillar is, however, crumbling down due to mistrust and disdain for its reputation of twisting facts, promoting paid media and enabling propaganda machines amongst a nexus of other evils. With a paralyzed Press Council of India, the powers of which are limited to being able to “warn, admonish, censure or disapprove” and with none to impose penalties for spreading misinformation, yellow journalism is thriving in the pool of its creation. Article 19 1 (a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees, in addition to the freedom of speech, the right to receive information on matters concerning public interest. However, by reporting controversies rather than carrying out in-depth, accurate analysis due to time, money, and human resource constraints, modern media prevents citizens from being informed participants in a democratic setup.

The need of the hour is the careful curation, which is a thorough and in-depth analysis of news selected from multiple sources, and then to pick the most relevant pieces. Independent reporters such as Faye D’Souza and P. Sainath as well as platforms such as Newslaundry and, in a more nuanced way, Pari Network, have found an increasing following amidst uncertainty as responsible news consumers look for reliable sources of information.

However, in the absence of a direct way for the populace to check the veracity of claims made by modern media, a panel with powers to keep the rapid flow of “burning” issues, click baits and fake news in check, is needed. A committee for awarding strict ratings to media platforms based on the evaluation of parameters ranging from quality and relevance to factual accuracy and authenticity of data would also help ameliorate the problem. Further, educating consumers about the need to question the ‘answers’ and drawing their attention to the existence of unbiased news platforms is the only weapon that could thwart the problem exactly at its base.

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Pallavi Singh, EIC at The Night Owl Writes.

The note on COVID-19 'Infodemic' has been contributed by Chetna Prakash. She loves to read, sketch, and present her ideas through writing. She is an avid animal lover and is actively working towards the upliftment of the underprivileged.


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