Bias in media is pervasive. What makes it worse is journalists pretend to be neutral when they aren’t. Their criticism by readers/viewers is justified.
But what about our own biases?
In a column for Mint, Sidin Vadukut has highlighted the demand-side bias in our history writing, and that it doesn’t get the same attention as supply-side bias. He’s right.
Isn’t this true in the media as well? Readers and viewers berate journalists for their biases but don’t notice that they themselves always look to confirm their own.
Is it, then, a matter of my bias vs your bias?
Before we dive into media bias, a small digression. In discussing history, supply-side bias comes in various kinds. Historians obsessing over certain freedom fighters (say, Gandhi or Nehru) more than their equally-capable counterparts (say, Patel or Bose) is an example of personal bias.
Our history textbooks are a classic example of regional bias: Delhi is the centre around which our entire history revolves. If one were to solely rely on these texts, they could be excused for concluding that South India did not participate in the freedom struggle. For instance, I had not heard of a major revolt like the Vellore mutiny until I picked up a Tamil Nadu board history textbook.
There is also an institutional bias, as Vadukut points out. This was limited to colleges and universities earlier, but the flood of think tanks is bound to accentuate this further.
Indian historians’ fascination with the Mughal dynasty is often castigated. We wonder why they don’t tell us about great Indian empires like those of the Cholas and the Marathas. This may not be a bias but simply a matter of convenience. It is likely that Mughal records are more accessible than the Maratha or Chola ones.
This is also a major reason why there is not much research on foreign policy, security policy, wars and the history of administration since India achieved independence -- most files remain classified.
Vadukut’s story, while acknowledging such supply-side biases, also exposes the hypocrisy of ‘we’ the people. He asks, “Why does Bhagat Singh seem to get so much more popular attention than Rajguru, Sukhdev or even Batukeshwar Dutt, who was tried along with Bhagat Singh and then imprisoned in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans?” I don’t have an answer for that question. At least, not one that is credible.
Back to the media. We castigate reporters, journalists and newsreaders for their biases, be they political, economic or personal, and rightly so. After all, journalism is a highly responsible occupation with high expectations placed on the practitioners, and has immense significance in a republic. Journalists are expected to hold governments accountable. In the past, they have caused the downfall of once-invincible political figures (Richard Nixon and Rajiv Gandhi, to name just two). The media has exposed scandals that have turned the direction of polity in many nations, sadly not always for the better. In India and the United States, the bias in mainstream media is often too obvious to ignore. In foreign policy, for instance, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the views of journalists in the West and those of the US State department.
In India, the so-called church attacks in Delhi received more coverage in the media than the killings of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers in Kerala. Prime Minister Modi gifting Bhagavad Gita to a foreign leader is painted as an end of secularism in the country, while openly sectarian education laws like the Right to Education and bodies like the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions are treated like they don’t even exist.
The bottom line is that the criticism of media bias (supply-side) is mostly justified.
But what about the demand-side bias, that of readers and viewers? Most of them are only looking for a validation of their personal bias in the media. Who has written matters more than what is written. At Swarajya, readers sometimes threaten to unsubscribe when a prominent leftist is given space. More ‘likes’ and engagement comes from fluffy news pieces with agendas served in the headline itself. You have to dumb down the content to pander to the lowest common denominator. Wonkishness doesn’t attract readers or watchers.
So naturally, media companies invest more on beefing up views rather than the quality of the content. They don’t have a choice. Without mass consumers, one cannot build a sustainable product which can finance itself even in the absence of investors. Media is not insulated from market forces.
It’s not just about our bias. Most people have the attention span of a goldfish. There is a reason why Buzzfeed or ScoopWhoop grab more eyeballs than websites offering serious policy analysis. (To be fair, this is in part because of better marketing and signalling to the online readership.)
In the US, Breitbart, an alt-right platform that only publishes news with a right-wing angle and devoid of analysis, has more readers than rigorous right-leaning magazines like National Review. (As someone put it brilliantly, Reagan and Bush Sr were ‘National Review’ presidents, Bush Jr was a ‘Fox News’ president, and Trump will be a ‘Breitbart’ president). The Economist, which gives you more predigested news and views passed through its “extreme centre” sieve, is read more than blogs like War On The Rocks, which churn out high-end, exhaustive, extensively-researched pieces.
If Economic & Political Weekly, a leftist but exhaustive policy magazine, is able to survive, it is not because of its readership but the generous left-wing funders who care more about the ideology than their profits. The mainstream (but often left-leaning) newspaper, The Hindu, (lakhs of civil service aspirants read the daily given how many questions appear directly from its op-eds) has more followers than EPW. Mint is less popular than the Economic Times as it more policy-wonkish.
Also, don’t forget, the most-viewed prime-time news programme in India (to be resumed shortly in a new avatar) isn’t watched for its full depth of insights and information but for the anchor’s pugilism. The aam aadmi loves it when the boisterous anchor hands a good dressing down to our rowdy politicians. The list goes on.
Then, do consumers really have the grounds to complain about the degradation of discourse, click-bait headlines and bias in the media?
Supply-side bias is not bad. To be sure, a journalist biased towards neutrality is the worst. While discussing the 1984 riots, he will bring in 2002. While criticising dynasty politics in the Congress, he will bring up some dynasts from the Bharatiya Janata Party. He or she cannot condemn jihadi violence without alarming us all about the imminent threat of Hindutva fascism. Those who are open about their bias are much more tolerable than those who pretend to be neutral.
Demand-side bias is harmful. All of us either suffer from it now or have at some point of time. Nonetheless, we the consumers of media should make it a point to support platforms that try to produce quality content, resolve not to fall for click-bait headlines, engage intellectually with opponents instead of trolling them and willing to change views rather than being fixated on preconceived notions of right and wrong. If one is afraid to read other people’s views because it might turn out to be contrary to one’s current understanding or inclination, there is a problem.
Of all the things in life to be afraid of, fear of contrary views shouldn’t be one of them.