The individual convictions and material interests of media proprietors are fundamental. Yet, they are not always transparent and fully known to media audiences, especially when interests exist in non-media sectors. Professional journalists also have their own personal viewpoints and their own share of biases, often unknown, particularly to audiences. How a headline is framed, how some facts are given undue prominence, where a report is placed, the duration of a broadcast story, and much more.
In this comment, the focus is on the non-journalistic part of media content. In Pakistan, spheres in the private sector with considerable resources to buy advertising space and time include textiles, automakers, financial services, cement, chemicals, fertilizers, energy, housing/construction, pharmaceuticals, chambers of commerce and industry. When official policies or measures threaten such special interests, the commercial part of media content prominently projects the situation and identifies imminent dangers to the sector as also to the entire country’s prosperity. When the cause for concern is addressed, messages of thanks and appreciation also follow. Such methods are visible, audible, transparent and valid. There are also other methods that are not projected on the mass level aimed to influence official policy. Individuals with accustomed access to policy-makers, legislators and bureaucrats are engaged to represent sectoral interests or specific corporations to lobby for them in Islamabad and the provincial capitals. Such support reinforces campaigns or appeals projected through media.
The irony is that large segments of society, including consumers of those very products and services produced by the spheres named above, cannot afford to purchase media space and time to project their own concerns and views. These comprise low-paid workers such as nurses, lady health workers, clerks, teachers, trade unions, sanitary staff, pensioners, the disabled and others. In general, forums representing the views of consumers have fractional or no resources whatsoever to disseminate citizens’ viewpoints on deficiencies of products or services sold to citizens. It is in this aspect that journalistic news coverage and analytical editorial comment compensates for the disparity and conveys to the public at large the grievances and demands of the disadvantaged and the disregarded. This representational function of news media fulfills a critical need and contributes an invaluable dimension to the availability and dispersal of information in the public interest.
The State is a dominant player in the purchase of space and time in media and thereby in influencing – at times, even controlling – the flow of information. As governments act in the name of the State, and because in democracies elected governments always represent partisan viewpoints and interests, officially-placed advertisements can easily be misused to exaggerate or downplay, as the case may be, the aptness or actual impact of policies and programmes. From 2008 to 2018, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) governments at the Centre and in three provinces, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, made ample use of paid-for space and time in media to make claims about beneficial programmes and projects. The first two of these three parties gave special prominence, particularly in print media advertising, to the faces and names of their party leaders. To the extent that the judiciary had to intervene to prohibit the misuse of public funds to project partisan interests and images. Following the PTI government coming to office in mid-2018, a drastic reduction in such propagandistic advertising expenditure has contributed to the financial crisis being faced by media, which in turn had become spoilt (or addicted?) to the previous doses of largesse.
With only rare use of advertising in media, elected legislatures render a major role in shaping information flow. Through the daily question hour in the Senate, the National Assembly, and the four provincial assemblies, hundreds of facts about government or State-related actions become part of the public record – though question hour proceedings receive minimal attention by the media. It is only when the information being disclosed qualifies – by the arbitrary definition applied by media itself to what makes information “news-worthy” in the first place – for prominent reporting that the public is made aware of multiple facts and details on a given subject. In virtually all other parts of their proceedings, ranging from moving of adjournment motions to private members’ bills to debates on government-sponsored motions and discussions in standing committees, legislatures provide substantial volumes of information for the public record.
Media is enabled to transmit this huge output of political or legislative information because the business model by which they operate is principally dependent on advertising placed by both the private and the public sectors. Subscribers’ fees directly paid by citizens through newspaper distributors constitute a small part of media’s commercial income. In the case of TV channels, cable distributors keep the fees, making electronic media in Pakistan unhealthily and solely dependent on advertising income. This in turn, is based on unsatisfactory, yet widely used, ratings systems. Though the use of media for commercial purposes is rife with imbalances, it is advertising that facilitates the flow of non-commercial information through media.
One notable feature is the disconnect between, on one hand, the high visibility and loud sound of media, and on the other, the low level of media literacy in our country. With already limited levels of print literacy, lack of knowledge in general about media economics, scale of advertising budgets, non-media interests of media proprietors, the subtle unreported ways through which news reports are shaped by either the media or covert official pressures, create the curious spectacle of a big black hole of ignorance right in the middle of ostensibly glowing information.
In terms of volume alone, even as information entropy grows, it is pertinent to remember that due to inherent limitations of space and time in all media – for instance, the number of paragraphs which are actually printed in, say, a letter to the editor, which may have originally had a larger number of paragraphs , or the infernal mid-breaks in TV programmes that disrupt continuity and coherence in discussion or narration – the media provides only a small, even fractional part of information to their audiences. Thus, reality remains far larger than media-reported ‘reality’. This may help explain why when some part of information flow through media exhorts the people to do, or not to do, certain things people simply continue to do what they want to do – regardless of what the media-presented information urges them to do.
That stated, it is equally vital to stress that deliberately-tailored, precisely-focused, continuously repeated information has the potential and the power to change perceptions and promote behaviour as desired by those shaping a particular kind of information. This is why, on a mass scale, psychological warfare – psywar, for short – is a standard part of strategic operations by states. Those targeted are not supposed to be aware of the origins or ultimate aims of psywar proponents. Fortunately, in contrast, the use of advertising in media or by publicly identified lobbyists on behalf of special interests (not always known) to persuade consumers to purchase brands or make policies is open and transparent. The need for citizens to remain vigilant and for vastly increased media literacy grows in step with the phenomenal expansion of information, now more so by social media – which is another, separate, yet related subject altogether.