Promoting media literacy
By Manzoor Ali Memon
THE unprecedented growth of the broadcast media during the past decade and the latest communications technologies have ushered in a new era in Pakistan. They have brought about a paradigm shift in terms of media monopoly and the cartelisation of news gathering, packaging and distribution from the state- to privately owned media channels.
This repositioning became more visible when cross-media ownership laws were relaxed and enabled owners of the print media and advertising agencies to acquire broadcast media licences. Resultantly, the media and their power became concentrated in a few hands that were already in the business.
The news channels are credited with exposing the wrongdoings of the ruling elite and revealing the socio-economic issues of the citizenry. However, the channels are also criticised for promoting violence and fuelling despondency and political uncertainty. The trend and tone of reporting in general is rather tabloid. Talk shows are televised on three time slots during prime time, starting from 8pm and ending at midnight. The format and content of the shows is largely uniform, repetitive and monotonous. Their substance tends to be based on speculation by the participants and anchors.
Stagecraft and dramatic elements such as conflict, tension and sound, etc., are manipulated by the anchors and producers in order to engage the viewers. The anchors, often intoxicated by the power of their medium, pass decrees and sweeping statements. As a result, with the passage of time talk shows may lose their charm for the viewers. It is relatively easy and cheap to conduct programmes with invited guests but quality requires investment, research, diversity, objectivity and plurality, which is often lacking. As a result of all these factors, such shows are becoming purposeless for the public at large. However, they may be serving the purpose of media owners and sponsors.
The competition for being the first with breaking news and ensuring their organisation’s presence in remote areas has led channel managements to distribute equipment such as camcorders and microphones to those who have no prior credentials in broadcast media journalism. The hasty growth of the broadcast media, and the issuance of licences without taking care of basic requirements such as training, education and wages for broadcast media journalists, have shaped issues such as violations of codes of conduct, infringements of privacy, door-stepping (the recording of interviews without prior consent) and the killing of journalists reporting from the conflict zone.
Is it not unfair for media owners to send untrained journalists to report from troubled areas? It is unwise to expect unskilled and underpaid mediamen to look out for their personal safety and contribute to quality reporting as well.
The protection of privacy is ensured as a fundamental right in the constitution. Further, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects an individual’s freedom from arbitrary interference with his or her privacy. I leave it to my readers to judge the manner in which the local broadcast media covered the Meera and the Shoaib-Sania cases. Was this not a violation of the fundamental rights of these celebrities who are, after all, citizens and ought to be equal beneficiaries of the protection offered to them by the constitution? The international broadcast media justifies the intrusion of an individual’s privacy only when there is a question of public interest. Neither public interest nor the cause of freedom of the media could have been endangered by a decision to refrain from broadcasting footage of Shoaib and Sania’s bedroom. This is evidence that news channels are selling sensational, potentially harmful and offensive material in order to grab advertisement revenues. In this context, how can we expect viewers – especially those not exposed to education – to correctly decode, deconstruct and interpret the intent and substance of media messages?
Similarly, the increasing penetration of the Internet holds the promise of the new media playing a significant role in coming years. According to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority website, there are over 96 million mobile phone subscribers in the country while the number of Internet users is also rising. The convergence of print, broadcast and the new media, and interactivity in the form of social networking sites and blogs have introduced networked/citizen journalism in the production and distribution of information and entertainment. This media expansion is bound to bring changes in the media practices of users, practitioners and regulators.
These arguments demonstrate how we were neither prepared for the broadcast media revolution nor ready for a converged new media revolution. The question is how best we can make use of the newfound media liberties and advancements. The answer lies in empowering citizens and shifting their role from being passive to active, from being recipients to participants, through media literacy. The purpose of such a drive would be to equip citizens and journalists with the skills and abilities “to access, analyse, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts”, as defined by Sonia Livingstone, professor at the media and communications department at the London School of Economics. Media literacy aims to educate citizens and journalists on media production processes and systems, and fosters an understanding of how and why media messages are manufactured, packaged, distributed and regulated. Such a campaign could be launched along the model of Ofcom, the broadcast media and communications regulator in the UK.
Media literacy has so far not garnered the attention of policymakers and other stakeholders. It should be a fundamental component of our media and communications policy. The public sector should lead this drive under a public-private partnership scheme involving broadcasters, regulators, media organisations, press clubs, educational institutions, media professionals and citizens’ bodies.