Media, Money, Manipulation: A new marketing strategy

The truth has no versions” – Dr. Phil

When you cross the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi one could read graffiti on one of its walls- ‘Who will watch the watchmen?’

We spotted the graffiti over a year ago, and it has stayed with us since then. It is a modern variant of a Latin phrase which translates to- Who will guard the guards themselves?

Media is a medium or a channel to disseminate information to the masses. Its sole ideal duty is to inform the public, not polarize them. Just like the teachers educate the students. But, what if the teachers start disseminating the wrong information? Who will be there to watch or correct them? The administration. But, is there an administration or authority to correct or watch over media? No.

Journalism is often quoted as the ‘watchdog of democracy.’ Why? Because it’s their duty to gather information about the wrongdoings in the society, and inform the public, so as to empower them to make their judgement, and stop the wrongdoings. It is also supposed to thoroughly fact check every information disseminated, so as to improve, and increase accountability.

As students of Journalism, we are taught certain nuances of the field, and practices which a layman would not dwell upon. The once respected field has been reduced to breaking news, and prime time debates with no conclusion. One of our college walls read a beautiful yet apt quote which stated that journalist should be right, not first. Because in the process of getting there first, truth or facts suffer.

Running a race of being the first leads many media houses to take certain unethical, or biased roads. Why does a channel want to be first? For TRPs and eventually, profits. When a channel 'breaks' the news, it attracts viewership from other channels, and eventually, where the public is, there the advertisers are. Therefore, making newspapers a more reliable source of information, and news. According to a survey conducted by CVoters[1], 66.5% of the respondents voted for the same.

TRPs are one of the core reasons why manipulative strategies are used by media. So, what exactly are the manipulative, unethical, or biased roads taken by them? These roads are called sensationalism, media trials, propaganda, fake news, and manipulation.

If unethical means are used by them, why are there no consequences? Simply because, these practices benefit the advertisers, media house, and the government or parties. If something is benefiting you, why will you disturb it?

In journalism studies, a theory of 'Hypodermic Needle' is taught to us. It talks about the media and its effects. The message is the metaphorical drug, and the audience is the patient. The media's message is inserted into the cognitive faculty of the audience. In this theory, the patient or the audience is a passive, submissive, and defenceless entity. This theory is the foundation of understanding how media's propaganda works.

Media has repeatedly proven to have misused the 'Hypodermic Needle’. As they inject their version of news to passive consumers and even to an extent that the active users start consuming the news passively. Thus, the notion that whatever media portrays has to be true is widely spread and this perception can be a major threat to the society.

When we say media and journalism here we are talking about mainstream media, because of their reach and influence in India. But talking about reach, we feel here is where the manipulation start, when you know that your voice is being heard by millions, it gives you a sense of pride and power. And as they say, with power comes responsibility, but what they never said was that power can be executed positively, that is by empowering the truth, or negatively, that is by manipulating by reporting and broadcasting what benefits the advertisers.

And these channels are not small town, regional news channels. They are big media houses who in fact manipulate, and cheat their audience. ‘Powerful’ channels like Republic TV, India Today, NDTV, Aaj Tak, and Times Now show the same 4-5 news daily. In a country of 1.3 billion, 28 states, and 8 union territories, why are they limited to just a handful? Why is their ‘India’ just limited to Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, and Bangalore? Even a class of 30 students won't have the same answers.

Well, it's because the channels pick and choose what they want to show, not what is important and mandatory to show. More specifically, what the propaganda demands. No channel is going to show you news about North-eastern states, or any non-metropolitan city. No channel is going to show you the plight of people who don’t matter. People like Dalits, farmers, natural disaster affected people. Why? Because people are not interested in seeing such news, and no people equals no advertisers, equals no profit.

While the nation grappled with cyclones, farmer suicides, fire, and rape, the news channels exploited the most they could out of high profile cases.

One can list down a good dozen national pressure news which were not taken up by top media houses. These news were brought to limelight, and given pressure in some by the social media platforms. In a way, they are doing a bit of journalism. If you keep aside the factual ratio of fake news to reliable news.

Journalism is a strong, social tool to bring any important issue to limelight, and to create societal pressure on certain issues, or events. The latter feature of the field, and its crusaders came into play with the Jessica Lal murder case. It gave rise to the now exploited term ‘media trial.’ The nascent thought behind it was to simply pressurize the law, and judiciary systems of the country to fast track, or actively work on cases where justice was, or was about to be denied. However, with the infamous media handling of cases like Aarushi Talwar, Pradyuman Thakur, and Sushant Singh Rajput, the media has misused its powers solely for TRP purposes.

In recent times, media trial has become a ‘verdict by media before the court and enforcement starts the investigation.’ Don’t do a job which is not yours, especially when you do not know the workings of it.

The media shows only one side of the coin to their target audience. Major news channels are inclined to affiliations for their own benefits. The audience doesn’t realize they are being manipulated. The media gives an illusion that the audience are an active consumer. That the opinions they harbour, and the inclinations they are having, are of their own ‘cognitive’ process. It’s not. The news, and the method used to disseminate the news is all well planned, and executed by the media houses.

So, is there a need for a strict watchdog for the 4th pillar of democracy? Yes. Journalists, and media houses have long gone diverted from their true essence. It is not about educating, and empowering public, it’s about manipulating, and polarizing public, and communities. After all, divided we fall, united we rule. But will they be able to get one? No. Talking from a factual, and a real point of view, and not from a view of just an article, we don’t believe they will get one. At least not any time soon. After all, why will you disrupt anything which fuels your power, and status?

Manipulation by news channels, and media is not only limited to a high profile cases, communal cases, or political ones. It is deep rooted in all of their reporting. It is seen when you were not made aware about the farmer protests at India Gate, the Amphan impact in Assam, Jeyaraj and Fenix, Goan protests, and several thousands of other news.


The author of this post is Abhinav Tyagi and Paromita Gupta (a student at Delhi School of Journalism, University of Delhi)

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the JEC Blog. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below.

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