Sensationalism and ratings – Who is responsible?

Dec 25th, 2011 | By | Category: Ethics

It is a well accepted notion that one of the causes of media sensationalism is the desire to increase ratings. Ratings, however, are not a trophy that media groups seek simply for the sake of having good ratings. Rather, it is the basic capitalist drive to make money that makes ratings important. The higher the ratings, the more subscription and advertising revenue a media group is able to accumulate. In other words, media is a business that sells a product – both the information that is contained in the newspaper or TV shows and the advertising also. But if media is the seller, who is the buyer? The answer is you and me.

This creates something of a problem for those of us who want to see less sensationalism in the media – in a capitalist market,  will media owners and producers choose to reduce the amount of sensationalism if it goes against their profits? This question was examined in an excellent blog post by Kazim Alam for Express Tribune titled ‘Journalism and Sensationalism‘.

These days, such stories will most likely be about Memogate, Imran Khan, Zardari, judiciary, ISI and Veena Malik. Ever wondered why business stories are conspicuously missing from the three most popular lists? That’s because it takes extra effort on the readers’ part to understand hardcore business, economic and financial journalism.

Op-ed pieces on the politics of Imran Khan – awash with meaningless words like ‘undercurrent’ and ‘middle-class narrative’ – are a dime a dozen in our newspapers. That’s because one, the writer doesn’t have to research the topic; and two, readers love to consume frivolous commentary on politics.

Okay, so we love drama. If that is what the people want, that is what the media groups will provide to improve their ratings. It seems that everyone gets what they want.

Just because everyone gets what they want, though, it doesn’t mean we get what we need.

While most ‘news junkies’ – a fashionable way of describing oneself in Twitter bios – know the flip-flops of Mansoor Ijaz, I wonder how many of them have read about the government’s plan to import 1.2 million tons of urea.

The news that the state was going to import 1.2 million tons of urea because it couldn’t supply the promised amount of gas to Engro’s newly built plant would’ve caused public outrage in any other country. Not so in our case.

Spend all of our time on sensational stories, conspiracy theories and the latest drawing room gossip is like filling up on sweets and never eating any meat or vegetables. The media serves a function in a democratic society other than simply ‘infotainment’. We rely on the media to inform us of facts and developments related to the most important issues of society so that we can make informed decisions about how to transform the country.

Media groups have a responsibility as producers to provide factual and unbiased information about issues, and we, as media consumers, have a responsibility to seek out unbiased facts so that we can make informed decisions. There is nothing wrong with entertainment, either producing or consuming it, but we all need to take responsibility for making sure that the facts we need to improve society are available to everyone.

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