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Democratization of Information: The age of alternate media

To understand the current Indian media scenario, one has to look back to the time when it all started. In 1991 after the economy was ‘liberalised’ and Indian market opened up to institutions and investors around the world, the media industry flourished but not at par with other industries of the core kind. Coupled with the stunted initial years, government monopoly and red-tape over Indian broadcasting, private TV especially news suffered a substantial lot.

Slowly but surely it took off and now we have a situation where there are more than one hundred 24X7 news channels in 12 languages. This awe-inspiring number is in itself a dichotomy. On the one hand, this number ensures a pluralistic flow of information, on the other, this means the qualitative aspect of news goes down the drain. This was a matter of great debate since the broadcasting format takes away the required temper and approach of news and replaces it with haphazardly put together commercialized packages.

This was before the ever-increasing penetration of the Internet and along with it, the news websites. The core reason that the commercialization of news in broadcasting format is mentioned today, is to provide context for this section. News can make or break any political or social programme. This, in turn, makes the TV broadcasting format a very powerful institution, especially since Indian broadcasting companies decided to follow their American counterparts by making celebrities out of their anchors. This meant a huge amount of influence in the hands of a very few men.

Which was not the case right up to the early 2000’s but the trend shifted and with it the public perception of media and its credibility. In mass communication, there is a term – “gatekeepers” – who much like a gatekeeper at a complex, decides which news be made public and which not to. There are well-established metrics to measure one incident’s newsworthiness but in practice, it all came down to the gatekeepers, who we all know as editors or anchors in the broadcasting scenario.

A free press is believed to be a bellwether of a healthy democracy but when the talking points for a nation like India is decided by not more than thirty people then there is something seriously wrong with the setup. With the advent of the internet, the power to debate was restored to the masses. On the internet, people found a platform where they could skip the corporate structure and disseminate information without any hindrance from commercial interests. The initial online news dissemination was aimed at creating an alternative to the “mainstream media” in terms of fact-checking them, calling out their political bias, etc.

With the advent of various news portals, the allure of polished and suit-clad news anchors and Harvard English now lies in tatters. This medium has taught many Indian that speaking impeccable English or living in a metro city is not a pre-requisite for their opinions to matter and the portals are nothing but the actualization of their ambitions.

This is not an isolated event occurring in India, throughout the world the entire concept of media is being re-conceptualized. The portals are becoming the “The salons of Italy” or “The French restaurants” during the French revolution. More and more important topics are being discussed in these portals and their influence on real-life events are also increasing.

The ‘right’ leaning news portals are an example of this. Such portals have given a voice to many who would have otherwise been humiliated, name called and discounted simply because the established media is traditionally left-leaning and not predisposed to handling ideological diversity well.

Not long ago, the cost of communicating with thousands of people was an enormous and expensive endeavour but the internet has changed all of that. Many would call news portals a more structured form of citizen journalism, where citizens have taken back their representation from big corporate houses who are almost always burdened by economic considerations. As we all know, the media is to behave like a canary in the mine but if the canary is colluding with the mine owner then it is the workers who suffer.

Now, there are of course a few setbacks to this particular medium. The first and the most damaging one is the creation of ‘echo chambers.’ It is not entirely the fault of the consumer, the social media network’s algorithms track our likings and then floods our profiles with news related to that particular political or social lineage. This, in turn, creates a “fight reaction” where, everyone is an enemy and makes the user vulnerable to anger, conflict and paints a picture of a polarized world. Which in many cases is not the truth, the same for broadcasting is called “mean world syndrome”. This creates an unbalanced picture of the world to the consumer.

There is also another aspect that is extremely serious, one of ethics and editorial policy, where to draw the line between advocacy journalism and writing a petition. This is a serious issue both in TV and maybe more in social media because most of these institutions are still evolving and in process of creating their own editorial policies. If not done properly it could lead to loss of credibility. It is especially important for online portals as they are up against the big corporations who are just waiting for them to make a wrong move so that they can call for stricter regulation.

Going forward, the traditional media will continue to be on the decline and the alternative media will in time replace the traditional media. All said and done, the Indian media scenario has changed forever and one has to say for the better.

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