Does the media – and indirectly Public Relations Companies in Sri Lanka – need a watchdog? Somebody to analyse what we write, what gets published and what is missed out?
From the point of view of what is missed out, we know that not everything that is researched for a story can be included in a report. That is why in the media we use a frame to present our stories.
But when it comes to bias or subjectivity, it is best to look at the criteria, media people or for that matter Public Relation (PR) use to create that frame.
I recently met a set of researchers from Verité Research who produce a weekly analysis in English, of matter published in the Sinhala newspapers of Sri Lanka. In one of their reports which highlight the Government’s crackdown on extortion rackets discovered in the newly-opened fish markets in Peliyagoda, they ask some thought-provoking questions.
The report asks: “The media reporting on this issue was noticeably silent on a few key questions – Why was the fish market moved from its previous location in the heart of Colombo? How was Peliyagoda settled on as a suitable alternative in spite of its distance from the main city?”
Verité Research also comments on the news reporting, saying, “It appears that the old St. John’s Fish Market premises may become part of plans to make Colombo more attractive to tourists and investors and therefore the moving of the fish market should be understood as part of the larger development agenda of the State.”
This is interesting as it asks questions on what the media has been silent on and why. Imagine somebody questioning us on the way we frame our stories!
We in the media know a story is influenced by the writer depending on who he/she is, his education, class, ethnicity, sex, etc., as well as how the media company is organised, i.e. its editor, location, team, company policy, newsroom management, colleagues, etc. The economic situation in the country, majority and minority issues and the dominant socioeconomic system will also affect the story. This is why different reporters will gather the same facts but write stories with different angles.
Herbert Gan, a Sociologist, studied how stories became news at Newsweek and CBS. His studies show that all stories have six cultural values. These are ethnocentrism – evaluating other races and cultures by criteria specific to one’s own; altruistic democracy – unselfishness, concern for other people; responsible capitalism; individualism; and the emphasis on the maintenance of social order; and leadership. I suppose we can find a few more to suit our local media arena.
Whether we like it or not, packaging is part and parcel of our journalist world. When we buy a pack of milk we don’t want to see coke in it – in the same way we use packages to warn our viewers or listeners, what paradigm/map/box we are using to capture this story.
There is crime watch, business news, local news, sports news, and entertainment. There are some who are against this kind of segmentation – too much segmentation, they say. But this is how news becomes a marketable commodity.
So with all this framing going on, there is always a chance of news losing its objectivity and therefore there is a need for an outsider to look at our news and advise us on how we present it. I am not talking about a ‘big brother’ who would have his own agenda to promote censorship, but more a friend of the media who would position themselves to see what we are missing out!
(The writer, a PR consultant and head of Media360, was previously a mainstream journalist in print and electronic media. He also edits a new media website.)