Uneven news media coverage cast a shadow over its influence in society. A cursory glance at existing state of news space shows large sections of society to be rarely regular sources of primary information. Government briefings and functions, statements and activities of major political parties and excessive dependence on foreign news to fill print space and broadcast airtime of subjects like business, sports and entertainment occupy news outlet contents. Sense of belonging and feeling of participation, thus, goes missing to most people most of the time.
Media coverage relentlessly forgets and renders voiceless large sections of society. Why the news outlets of print or broadcast branches as well as their cousins in the online news portal business turn blind and deaf to the existence of the vast numbers who neither belong to the core city centres nor the top crust of the elite categorised as opinion makers is baffling.
The mainstream media focus largely on so-called socialites, celebrities and other shades of the club of the famous. Even the infamous are accorded huge attention. Consequently, the lapse hits the media hard and deep. It also risks gradual desertion by traditional news audiences while the new generation, brought up with the arrival of the multiple alternatives for obtaining information dissemination, do not get enamoured of the traditional ways of information gathering and presentation.
A real danger lurks round the corner to let loose a debilitating disease on a sector hailed as hallowed since centuries. The deference accorded the media echoes public expectations and the ideals the news disseminating institutions profess to uphold.
In Nepal, sustained decline of news media is eroding the vital sector’s standing as a credibly reliable platform of public trust. At first, the pace of decline in the faith the public reposed in the news media was slow in surfacing. The recent times have witnessed it takes faster strides, much to the chagrin of people seeking free, fair and professional disseminators of information on current affairs and related views and background material.
Are the basic tenets of widely agreed upon professional practice not sustainable or are they irrelevant today? Well, it has lost relevancy to increasing number of people, including those in democratically advanced societies with two or more centuries of news media history. Presently, the media sector is tottering as multiple avenues of information, education and entertainment abound, thanks to new technology, including digital innovations.
Determined drive and hard work will always work. Professionalism produces permanence for the media can be as platforms of public trust. The new media age offers opportunities for specialised forms of news and other information outlets. At the same time, social media take up more than 25 per cent space for people seeking information in many advanced countries. News media in Nepal are capital-centric rather than being oriented to the newsworthiness of their coverage matching the pledge they make. Local, regional and national news outlets exercise their rights legally but not professionally. They aspire to reach the same audiences but without the backing of clarity of purpose and support of the necessary input.
Contents being their prime identity, the big news media should not be notional but national or local in coverage. As an all-embracing service for news and current affairs, they should not lose sight of the proximity factor in selecting and angling stories that are interesting as well as relevant to the target groups. In Nepal, the many district dailies and hundreds broadcast media airing news bulletins defy the professional logic of proximity playing a primary role in not only attracting audiences but also retaining their maximum attention span. Addressing this issue enables the media outlets to strengthen their credibility among the reading, listening, viewing and surfing audiences.
ABC (accuracy, balance and credibility) plus news value should be the acid test for coverage. In Nepal, weeklies, which far outstrip the dailies in numbers, are hardly ever seen in the newsstands. They might claim to be exclusively subscription-driven. Multiple choices mean the media face mass audiences migrating to new alternative genres of messages, not necessarily — or invariably — news messages. Music, cinema, skits, knowhow and a host of other genres of media contents compete for audience attention. And the poorer target groups have much to do in their daily grind of life beyond the news outlets that number several formally thousand registered as such.
Hence the various forms of news media can complement and supplement one another within the declared scope of their respective focus in terms of geographical reach, contents and broadcast/print periodicity.
Adequate financial investments and independence of the newsroom are essentially the minimum requirements for addressing the basic professional needs with the hope of standing out as truly all-embracing platform for public trust. Failing on this score invites the fear that floats the idea of preparing obituaries of one sector of the news media or the other. The ongoing developments regarding the traditional forms and methods of information dissemination are disconcerting to media critics, scholars and practitioners. Some of them worry whether time has arrived to prepare for early writing obituaries of journalism in general.
In December 2022, Gautam Adani, took over NDTV, till then recognised as one of the “last news channels known for independent reporting” in India. One of the world’s three wealthiest persons, Adani’s close proximity to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi added to the jitters of media critics. “A scared journalist gives birth to dead citizens,” said Ravish Kumar, one of India’s best-known TV news presenters. “India’s media space has changed. Think of the thousands of youths who are studying journalism, but will have to work as brokers as there is no institutional space left for journalism.”
Of note is also the fact that the Paris-based Reporters without Borders lists India below Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal in press freedom index. Radio news bulletins, with the robust exception of Nepal, are still a state monopoly in South Asia. Even the so-called “advanced” outlets find their credibility erode since years. Limiting news coverage to a small section of a given population while ignoring the universe of potentially a far larger section invites indifference, and even wide public distrust. It is a lesson to be ignored at the media’s own long-term peril.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)