Dec 312010

Lets face it, there is no such thing anymore as an unbiased news source in today’s world. Every piece of information which reaches you irrespective of how its packaged (Print, television, Internet, or even your friendly neighbour) has a lingering bias attached to it. The difference lies merely in the fact whether its in-your-face kind of right winged lies that Fox News peddles, or the more subtle, traces of leftist bias that is often seen in BBC news articles.

Till the infamous Barkhagate scandal broke, I had quite a forgiving view of the mainstream media in India. Sure they sensationalized their articles a bit too much, sure they had less news and more of entertainment in their programmes, sure they encouraged superstition by promoting pseudo religious crap. Inspite of all these flaws, I still believed that the media were good at heart and they relentlessly pursued the course of justice in the today’s contrived Indian society. But the Radia tapes turned out to reveal far more than what was actually said on them, they revealed how the media when confronted with a ethical fault in one of their own, chose simply to ignore what should have been the biggest stories of the year.

Given the sorry state of affairs, is it even possible to get an bipartisan view of the world today, where individual biases of another entity doesn’t cloud their judgement while reporting news. The good news is – it is. A few points below on how to go about achieving that

  • Dont rely on a single source Cellphone GPS doesnt depend on one satellite to get an accurate location, and you shouldnt do the same for your news either. I have a simple way to do it. Every piece of news has at least two stakeholders that have a deep interest in the issue and are most likely to be biased. For e.g. the Kashmir issue – The more commercial mainstream media in India (say TOI) and in Pakistan (Geo, The News) would probably carry over the top pieces reporting the same thing each consciously ignoring anything which might hurt the sensibilities of their respective audiences. Now choose one more source which has the least incentive to particularly please one party, preferably a news agency that operates in multiple countries or a media house which avoids sensationalism – something like Reuters, Christian Science Monitor etc. Even a cursory read/ comparison of these three articles are likely to present a viewpoint much closer to the truth than each one alone.
  • Separate Facts from Opinions: Every article in the mainstream media is full of facts interspersed with opinions to make the news suitable to one side even without making the article seem too slanted (in Vir Sanghvi’s words). An exercise to dissect any newspiece is by making a bulleted list of verifiable facts in each article. Any sentence which cannot be classified into a fact that cannot be verified must be done away with. Consider this article. Most of the content, including the headline has no connection whatsoever to what really happened and is present just to sensationalise the article.
  • Remove Facts which have  no relation to the rest of the news piece: I have often observed this technique employed in the more respectable newspapers (BBC, Dawn, The Hindu) and the bias is borne more out of ideology than the need to sell newspapers. It involves citing (actual) facts which are intended to cloud/distort the primary news item in the article hence leading the user to make his own biased inference rather than the newspaper relying on opinionated statements.

All this being said, its next to impossible to make media houses completely objective in their reporting. They are too much a part of the very system they claim to be guardians of. When its the choice between profitability/honesty, profitability will always come first for the stakeholder. However as end consumers of the news, it is ultimately our responsibility not to take anything at face value and make our own judgements based on hard-to-refute facts.

Oct 182009

At the recent World media summit in Beijing, the stage was set for a ugly confrontation between two pillars of the modern web and information exchange – content creators and aggregators. Content creators like news websites argue that aggregators like Google, wikipedia take the revenue away from the people who actually work to create the news. In short aggregators were accused of freeloading.

Rupert Murdoch spoke at the summit saying that the time had come for content to be paid and not free as it is now. I quote some of his harsh words

“The aggregators and the plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content. But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid-for content, it will be the content creators who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs will triumph.”

This was the general sentiment echoed by others at the summit. So does that mean next time I want to open an article for a news website, I would have to pay for it??  Thats simply not possible. So would news websites introduce a kind of subscription based service that would allow only paid users access their articles. That sounds feasible. But will it be profitable? Maybe a few websites like CNN, BBC might be able to attract a significant amount of users to generate some amount of revenue, but a majority of websites would be left in the limbo, with neither enough subscribers for revenue and nor any search engine directed traffic.

Come to think of it, news websites aren’t really content creators at all, they are merely aggregators at a lower level. They depend on politicians, sportsmen, the movie industry (sadly reality shows as well) to gather news. Their value addition comes when they are able to analyze, and prioritize the news and present it to their consumers in an effective way. Agreed they spend a good amount of money on gathering news and digesting it, but they have multiple revenue sources as well. Media conglomerates have a presence in television, magazines, music, radio, books and internet. Often content created can be leveraged across multiple platforms. So they are not as much at a losing end as they would like us to believe.

On the other hand, Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo are not exactly free to run either. These companies spend millions on research and equipment in order to keep their consumers happy. Its by no means easy to search billions of pages while returning the most relavent results in a fraction of a second. Wikipedia, which is also accused of content grabbing, is a non-profit organization which depends solely on its users for content. Youtube has tightened its policies of uploading copyrighted video as well.

Instead of going down a path of confrontation, media companies would do well by working with the content aggegators to identify methods to increase their revenue. Maybe popular “content creators” could negotiate better revenue for the ads placed on their websites by search engines.

Whatever happens, the end user cannot be expected to pay for every news article he reads, he will simply switch to the next best free provider.