21st century media: Watchdog of society or lapdog of powerful elites?

Described as “fourth estate”, press plays an important role in society, as is evident from Thomas Jefferson's observation: “Where it left to me to decide between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate a bit to prefer the latter”.

A free and independent press is supposed to be the watchdog of society, custodian of public interest and a stimulus of political and social change.

The newspaper press is unarguably a great power, but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the countryside and devastates crops, likewise an uncontrolled pen serves, but to destroy.

Press has been traditionally hailed as the watchdog of society, which reminds all in public life of their accountability to society. It seeks to set everybody's house in order, except of course its own.

Seldom has it looked back to take stock of its own proceedings. It may not be hyperbole to note here that mainstream press has vested interest in chaos.

It emphasizes 'exceptional' rather than 'representative', 'sensational' rather than 'significant'. It pins its faith in Northcliffe formula that power, position, money and sleaze is what sells; and virtue, hard work, humility are to be thrown to winds.

Christopher Thomas of ‘The Times’ points out that this penchant for sensationalism is just one of the rudimentary principles of journalism per se. He says journalism of 21st century involves rummaging around in other people's closets to smell their duty socks. Stronger the smell better is the story.

For a long time, society has looked upon press not merely as a mirror, but a mirror that inspires the viewer, the mirror that reflects the reality. But, is press culpable of misleading the readers?

Sometimes roses make a good story but dung is what sells. Most issues of utmost social significance lie below the surface of what are conventionally regarded as ‘reportable incidents’.

For a long time, society has looked upon press not merely as a mirror, but a mirror that inspires the viewer, the mirror that reflects the reality. But, is press culpable of misleading the readers? The sad answer is 'yes'. This is not the subject you would read much about, because ‘fourth estate’ is not given much to introspection.

Today, news has been reduced to a business, a competitive business. Missionary gusto of journalists has been bulldozed by the profit-making mania of news organizations. It encourages exaggeration for the sake of sensationalism, and resorting to ‘yellow journalism’.

With consistently soaring competition in corporate sector following the opening up of markets, press has become a battleground of political and corporate warfare. It serves as a kind of leverage for vested interests via selective use of information to embarrass political and business arch rivals.

En way, it forsakes its traditional role as watchdog of society to become the lapdog of power mongering and influence peddling politicians and business honchos.

It also raises some prickly questions between reporting and exploiting the news. Many observers believe that manipulative market forces have put a check on the investigative zeal of journalists in combating corruption and venal politics. They ask with a deep sense of anguish, how long was it that a country's newspaper broke a major news story by its own efforts and investigation.    

The rise of species called ‘spin doctors’, who play all tricks in their kitty to manipulate media on behalf of political and business organizations has made press settle down to the comfort of being part of an establishment elite.

Journalism needs to switch back to its customary role of being the watchdog of society, agent of social and political development, stimulus to socio-economic change

The inevitable fallout of it is that image of press as guardian of society is being replaced by that of 'opportunists' out there to make quick bucks in troubled times. 

Apart from government, it is the market forces that have constrained big media to toe its line. It has somehow managed to shift the balance from editorial room to marketing room.

Today, it is the news-copy that must assimilate with more important advertisement-copy. It is especially true of small budget newspapers, which bank solely on advertisement revenues to survive and sustain.

Journalism needs to switch back to its customary role of being the watchdog of society, agent of social and political development, stimulus to socio-economic change, a forum of public debate, agent of mass communication and political socialization, and above all custodian of fundamental rights of citizens. It needs to draw a clear line between news and views.

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Afghan Zariza ( Millennium )

The Zariza is designed to inform, educate, and engage young generation inside Afghanistan. The Zariza’s goal is to empower Afghans to create better future through knowledge and actionable, positive and uplifting reporting and news. The Afghan Zariza was founded based on those needs and goals, and will fill this gap....

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