Not that long ago, two people from different walks of life would learn about the issues of the day from the same source. We relied on PTV and a handful of newspapers to bring us the news, and even this was vetted and censored by government officials. It was Gen Musharraf, ironically, who loosed the media from its chains and led to an incredible growth in the number of media outlets. The rich and the powerful who didn’t like what they were seeing in the media simply started their own newspapers and TV channels. Today, we live in a nation with over a hundred channels including dozens dedicated to news. But increased competition between media groups has not resulted in better reporting. In fact, it may be creating further divisions within society.
Mubasher Lucman and Najam Sethi may both talk about the same issue on their shows, but their viewers are likely to take away very different perceptions. Fans of Mubasher Lucman are likely to think that Najam Sethi is a liberal and possibly a paid agent of America. Fans of Najam Sethi, on the other hand, are more likely to think Mubasher Lucman is right-wing and possibly a paid agent of the establishment. They watch the person whose views align more closely with their own, and dismiss the views of the other.
This phenomenon is not confined to talk shows either. Are the same people reading The Friday Times reading The Nation also? How much overlap is there between readers of The News (Jang Group) and Dawn? While there is probably some overlap between readers of these large circulation newspapers, how many The News fans cannot stand Nadeem Paracha? And how many Dawn readers refuse to read anything by Ikram Sehgal?
But it’s not just the personalities that differentiate media groups. Each group’s editors also makes decisions about what stories to emphasise and which to play down. As an experiment, we looked at several major newspapers on Friday to see what was considered headline news. What we found was interesting.
In the English media, The Nation, Express Tribune, and Dawn each carried two front page stories about contempt charges against the PM. The News carried seven. On first two inside pages, neither Express Tribune nor Dawn published additional stories. The Nation added one, and The News filled almost the entire second page with two more bringing their total number of articles on the first two pages about the PM’s legal troubles to a grand total of nine – six more than the next closest paper!
We then looked at editorial pages. Express Tribune and Dawn both published editorials about the issue. The Nation did not. Here again, The News stood out by publishing an editorial right next to a major opinion piece by the editor, Mohammad Malick, also!
Things were even more interesting when we compared to Urdu media. Nawa-e-Waqt carried 9 front page articles about the issue, Daily Express and Jang both carried 11. The front pages of Urdu newspapers are notoriously crammed, but 11 articles on the same story?
Nawa-e-Waqt had nothing on the first two interior pages, while Daily Express added two more and Jang added an additional three.
This was fascinating to us. For readers of The News or Jang, charges against the PM didn’t seem like a story, it seemed like the only story.
It should also be noted that The Nation, the only English language newspaper that had no editorial about the issue, used most of its editorial space to write about Kashmir, NATO and the WTO.
What does all this mean? We think it indicates that the media may becoming increasingly fragmented. Rather than competing over quality reporting, different media groups are simply providing different groups ‘news’ that reinforces their point of view. Liberals have liberal voices to look to for analysis, conservatives have conservative voices, and with online publishing fueling the growth of alternative media, extremists and conspiracy mongers have their own media groups also.
As a result, society is becoming increasingly fragmented. People assume that those they don’t agree with are liars or hypocrites. They don’t understand how someone can possibly see things in a different way since everyone they read and listen to agrees with them. Certain positions become “obvious” or “undebatable”. What they don’t realise is that the other guy is thinking the exact same thing about him.
Fragmented media might be a good business model by allowing media groups to focus on appealing to one specific niche market, but the question should be asked whether it also creates problems for society. Readers of Jang are likely to think that PM’s contempt case is the most pressing issue of the nation, while readers of The Nation might think that national security takes center stage. How can we agree on how to solve the most important issues facing the nation if we can’t even agree on what the most important issues are?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers for this. The most readily available solution, though, may be to change our habits as media consumers. We should challenge ourselves by not only consuming that media that reinforces our own beliefs, but should also consider the points of those we disagree with. In order to do this, we should not limit ourselves to one or two media groups that we are comfortable with, but should venture outside our comfort zone to see how other media groups are reporting the news. And if we see that one media group, for example, is treating a story completely differently than every other media group, maybe we should ask ourselves if they are reporting the news…or trying to influence it.