The new old media

Growing up close to the Ratmalana airport during the 80’s, the noise from the pressurisation of large turbo-prop planes pierced the air at night and into the early hours of the morning. It was a sound we got used to. The other sound was of sirens, from ambulances. Endless streams of wailing sirens followed a few minutes after we heard a plane land. The ambulances didn’t stop. But after a while, the sirens did. Every morning, after one of these convoys of ambulances ruptured the night, the media – my father used to buy a government owned newspaper at the time – heralded some great victory for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Casualties, and ultimate defeat were on the side of the LTTE. Advances, and imminent victory, were on the side of the Sri Lankan military. And so the fiction went on – headlines in the media suggesting a narrative violently countered by the bodies of the dead and grievously injured airlifted from the North of the country to Ratmalana almost every night.

My distrust of media – electronic, print, mainstream, even new and social – is anchored to these nights, and the content published the day after. Over three decades later, the foundations of what gave life to blatant lies in the media remain firm and indeed, even more entrenched. New and social media on the web, and through our mobiles, do two things – they democratise narratives, allowing the discriminated, marginal or weak to take centre-stage. Two, for little to no expense or effort, the consumer can potentially go to a plethora of sources in order to find out more, determine the veracity of, counter or confirm a story. Has this helped media literacy? The jury’s out on this score, and what’s evident already is that access to greater choice, or the opportunities to interrogate more what one consumes, hasn’t translated into better journalism.

Readers of this newspaper may not fall into a demographic that takes for granted ‘news’ in the form of an infinitely scrolling section featuring video, text, photos and audio, conflating the private and personal with the public and official, on a single social media network. And yet many of my readers, at least in print, may have subscribed to one or two SMS news services. Others may get articles via email, sent by family, friends or colleagues. A few may still buy more than one newspaper – one State, one Private – in order to get a ‘balanced’ view. Rarer still are the readers who will go to a public library in order to read newsprint. Much has changed in three decades in the generation and consumption of news. Much remains unchanged.

Open for example a leading daily newspaper owned by one of the largest media groups in Sri Lanka. On most days, on the front page and continued within, there is a column dedicated to gossip. There is no effort to disguise this – the very title of the section makes it clear the content featured in it is as far removed from journalism as bulto toffee (remember those?) from an After Eight mint chocolate. This bears repeating – in our daily news media staple, idle-talk, unconfirmed stories, sexist bunk, unverified incidents from unnamed sources, the personal lives of individuals punctured with insinuations, innuendo and inanity – find their way on to a front page. Often, this content is published with scabrous graphics. We pay to read gossip. It gets worse. The media itself reports, without a hint of irony, various government schemes to help journalists purchase laptops, broadband connections, cars or motorcycles. To my knowledge, not a single journalist who has been the recipient of or benefitted from these easy payment and gift schemes has self-disclosed what they received. Some would argue that the majority of individuals who have benefited from these schemes are in fact worthy of supporting – journalism they will point out, isn’t a profession that is well paid or regarded in this country. And yet, the non-disclosure is deeply problematic. There is a clear conflict of interest, and an understandable barrier against independent reporting, if a journalist indebted to government is asked to critically examine governance. During Aluthgama’s communal riots – the worst Sri Lanka had seen in many years – official mainstream media output from both Private and State media chose to ignore the violence. This is excused by some who point out the awful political context at the time. Yet, how can we understand the hesitation to take on a leading multi-national soft-drink corporation after it polluted Colombo’s drinking water supply? Why is it that heads of mainstream media, summoned to the Prime Minister’s or President’s office, fail to disclose what was discussed?

In early January 2015, a leading media rights group – the Free Media Movement – approached a candidate standing for the Presidential election to uphold a five-point agenda on media pluralism. Maithripala Siresena was that candidate. As President, the change promised is more symbolic than systemic. Outmoded, outdated institutional structures and cultures remain intact across the media.

And so it continues. Instead of media that engages, helps imagine, sees laterally, visualises complexity, discloses, with reasons, its location on the political spectrum, innovates and really inspires, we pay for unadulterated gossip, atrocious design, poor writing, bad journalism and advertorials. Journalism as a start-up, married to civic media models – encouraging young, raw talent to write or produce what they want through digital tools, finding space for them to be featured in the mainstream – offers a way forward from the suffocating banality of the mainstream. In Sinhala, Tamil and English, creative productions and writing is blossoming. Careful curation and aggregation can help expand audiences. Digital tools are democratising the production of compelling stories. Old media is investing heavily in new technologies. Young voices are going back to long-form journalism, which is seeing a global revival. Data driven journalism is not just for economists anymore.

It is harder to hide ambulances at night carrying the dead and injured today, than it was in the 80’s. Much remains to be done.  It’s our media now. Let’s write its future together.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 17 January 2016.

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