News in the Online World

Introduction

Prediction 52:

In the future, everyone will be a news reporter.

– Scott Adams, The Dilbert Future (1998: 202)

It seems that the future that the above quote is talking about is NOW.

For a long time, gatekeeping has provided a dominant paradigm for journalistic news gathering and news publishing in the mass media, both for journalists’ own conceptualisation of their work and for academic studies of this mediation process. In media such as print, radio, and TV, with their inherent strictures of available column space, air time, or transmission frequencies, it is necessary to have established mechanisms which police these gates and select events to be reported according to specific criteria of newsworthiness, such as Galtung & Ruge’s news values (1965). Following Lewin and White, McQuail defines gatekeeping as ‘the process by which selections are made in media work, especially decisions whether or not to admit a particular news story to pass through the “gates” of a news medium into the news channels’ (1994: 213).

Lately, however, the effectiveness of gatekeeping has been questioned from a number of perspectives: on the one hand, increasingly ‘the practice of journalism is being contaminated from outside. The “fourth estate” is in danger of being overwhelmed by the “fifth estate”, the growing number of “PR merchants and spin doctors” influencing the news agenda’ (Turner et al. 2000: 29, following Franklin) and undermining the reliability of the gatekeeping process itself. This is also related to the fact that ever since the emergence of 24-hour broadcast news services and even more so since the advent of online news the reporting speed required of news services has also increased steadily, which has made gatekeepers even more likely to rely on prepared material from this ‘fifth estate’ rather than spending time and money on their own, independent research.

Indeed, McQuail notes,

the gatekeeping concept, despite its usefulness and its potential for dealing with many different situations, has a built-in limitation in its implication that news arrives in ready-made and unproblematic event-story form at the ‘gates’ of the media, where it is either admitted or excluded. The gatekeeping framework is largely based on the assumption … that there is a given, finite, knowable reality of events in the ‘real world’, from which it is the task of the media to select according to appropriate criteria of representativeness or relevance. (1994: 214)

Further, the addition of the World Wide Web to the media mix has meant that news consumers are now far less reliant on what passes through the gates of the mainstream news organisations, but can bypass these altogether and turn directly to first-hand information providers; further, such information providers now also often include news consumers themselves – as Keshvani and Tickle note, for example, technological advances are opening up opportunities for individuals to express themselves to a wider audience. The consumer is turning producer as the affordability and ease of operation of digital recorders, still cameras and DVCs emboldens non-journalists to record and transmit coverage of news events (a recent example is the Barkha Dutt and Nira Radia’s tapped conversation, which I’ll discuss at the later stage of this paper).

This disintermediation has meant, therefore, that online the gates are now located with the information providers (ultimately, with anyone who publishes a Website with potentially newsworthy information) as well as with the end user, who in navigating the Web constantly acts as their own gatekeeper – but no longer necessarily with the news media organisations.

News has become an important element of community – something around which we gather, connect and converse. In the past, these conversations have taken place around dinner tables, on group hikes or at book parties. Now, via cyberspace, those conversations have gone global – and they are happening in real time.

The first phase of online journalism in India –also called internet journalism, cyber journalism, or web journalism-started around 1993 with the mushrooming of dotcoms. The bubble, however, did not last long because most people associated had no professional nose for news. Sites like Goforindia, Gappu, and newspaperonline had to therefore shut. The second phase of online journalism started around 2003 and continues till date.

Now many Indian newspapers have gone online. The Times of India, Hindustan Times, the Indian Express, the Hindu, the Tribune, the Statesman, the Pioneer, NDTV, Zee News, Aaj Tak, and Outlook already have their websites. The sites making a mark in the journalism are rediff.com, indiainfoline.com, and sify.com. An example of the best online journalism in Hindi is the one of the BBC. Tehelka.com is however still acknowledged as the harbinger of real journalism online. Indians living abroad are the main viewers of these sites.

Internet is used both as a tool for exchange of information and of research by the news media. Further, the practice of web logs or blogging have captured internet users’ widespread attention. Using tools of new media-digital camera, e-mail, camera phones, and broadband connectivity-blog reporters have ventured into what is called ‘citizen journalism’. With the government of India taking resolve to take internet connections to the block level, the vast potential in rural areas in IT use is likely to be unleashed.

If we see news coverage in the recent time social media indeed have played a very crucial role. Through social media, we are all part of the evolution of a story now – expanding it with comments and links to relevant information, adding facts and differing points of view. In short, the news has become social. And it will become even more community-powered: stories will be collaboratively produced by editors and the community, and conversations, opinion, and reader reactions will be seamlessly integrated into the news experience.

News consumers have long dreamed of a world where they are able to view information through a highly personalised lens – a lens that allows them to see personally relevant news, instead of just popular news. That doesn’t mean the news would be skewed to one persuasion (liberal or conservative for example), but rather to a specific topic or theme. The days of publishing that dictated to us what’s important and what’s not are over. We now can get the news we want, when we want it, how we want it and where we want it.

Since most of the young middle class – the typical target audience for most advertising, and hence media, worldwide – is already on Facebook etc, these services have an opportunity to popularise the notion of subscribing to news sources, thus creating personalised news for the mainstream.

Facebook and Twitter already do a great deal of this with users getting large amounts of news and links from their friends as they share and comment on links. Hence, Facebook and other social media might be our last hope for the democratisation of publishing, which in turn might open up the world to niche voices and personalised story-telling.

The old media model – the inverted pyramid – has been undone. Old model, you find news; new model, news finds you. That is, we would look around for a newspaper or TV news show previously; now, we subscribe to the Twitter or Facebook feeds of those friends who have a passion for news.

The new model for news curation and selection will be a balance of professional editing and collaborative news filtering. In one incarnation, news organisations will look at feeds from highly respected news fans, and that will drive stories that are featured more prominently. The successful news organisations of the future will pursue models for news curation/selection which are a hybrid of professional editing and collaboration among talented consumers. Only social media provide viability for such models.

The future of social journalism will be driven by disintermediation, the replacement or removal of middlemen in the supply chain. As the newspaper industry consolidates, and social media matures, journalists will increasingly work as independents, forming transient relationships with multiple publishers. A handful of national brands will survive, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of new microbrands will flourish. The public good will be preserved, and society will be more transparent.

Against this backdrop, this paper will attempt to understand how online media have changed the way we consume news.

Barkha Dutt and Nira Radia’s 2G Spectrum Scam

Barkha Dutt, an Indian TV journalist and columnist. She is currently the Group Editor, English News at New Delhi Television. Dutt gained prominence for her reportage of the Kargil War. She has won many national and international awards, including the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour. She writes a column for The Hindustan Times, called “Third Eye.” She had earlier been centre of controversy during her coverage of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks on Taj Hotel.

On 18 Nov 2010, the OPEN magazine carried a story which exposed transcripts of Dutt’s and fellow journalist Vir Sanghvi’s telephonic conversations allegedly taped by the Indian Income Tax Department in 2008-09 with Nira Radia, lobbyist and self-proclaimed friend of former telecom minister A. Raja. Other prominent news sources like the Indian weekly Outlook also followed the story. The news gained prominence following sustained pressure on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook against an attempted blackout orchestrated by many prominent Indian TV channels and newspapers. The transcripts and audio tapes were interpreted by most analysts and common people as lobbying and power-broking by Dutt for the ruling Congress Party.

Electronic Media Blackout

The complete blackout of the Nira Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country than the talk shows in the various news channels and the breast-beating in all the newspapers about the 2G, CWG, Adarsh, and other scams.

The website, NewspostIndia.com has this to say about this phenomenon, “The self anointed flag bearers of the third pillar were caught red handed as the Nira Radia tapes were leaked online by Open and Outlook Magazine. These tapes show the corruption nexus between top journalists such as Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Prabhu Chawla and Vir Sanghvi and political parties and corporate lobbyists. Some print media outlets, such as Mail Today, and foreign media giants carried these revelations. However our very own prime time television news channels NDTV, CNN-IBN, TimesNow, Headlines Today etc. launched a cover up of the news from the public in order to protect their own.”

Why this gatekeeping has been done?

It is quite possible that Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi never lobbied for Raja or for anyone else. But it is quite clear from the tapes that they were by no means practising journalism in their conversations with Radia. What they were doing, is acting as liaison officers for political parties and business houses. In fact, if all those conversations were merely in the course of ‘journalistic duty’, why this strange black-out?

But what is really scary is that, despite living in a ‘democracy’ that boasts of a ‘free press’, if you were dependant only on TV and the big newspapers for the biggest news developments of the day, you would never have known about the Niira Radia tapes, and the murky role of mediapersons as political power brokers. Indeed, the main source of information on this scandal has been online media, such as newspostindia.com, various bloggers, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and of course, the websites of Outlook and Open magazines.

The question that the Barkha Dutts and the Rajdeep Sardesais of the world have to answer is: How can you purport to be a news channel and ignore completely the biggest news break of the day for two days running (Nov 18 and 19)? Sure, say that those tapes are rubbish. Defend your journalists all you want. Do whatever, but how can you pretend to your audience — many of whom anyway have been listening to the tapes from the Open and Outlook and YouTube websites — that they never happened? I mean, how daft is that?

And even if those tapes, reportedly recorded by the IT department, were not authentic, the very fact that the entire broadcast media (bitter rivals for TRPs and ad revenues on normal days) ganged up to black it out shows that they have something to hide. Just as politicians bail each other out in scam-time, it appears journalists do the same.

Outlook prefaces its tape transcripts with the comments, “Radia’s conversations show how even cabinet berths can be decided by this select oligarchy. Her interface with discredited (now former) telecom minister A. Raja, DMK MP Kanimozhi and Ranjan Bhattacharya, the foster son-in-law of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, shows how she successfully lobbied for several cabinet berths. The transcripts suggest that journalists Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt also lobbied for Raja with the Congress party. However, both journalists, in separate statements, decried the use of the label ‘lobbyist’ and termed their conversation with Radia as part of their normal journalistic duties.”

At the same time, it is worth noting that neither Barkha nor any of the other journalists whose names have come up have denied that those conversations took place. So why not let the reader or TV viewer read or listen to the transcripts and decide whether Dutt and Sanghvi’s conversations with Radia are a part of “normal journalistic duties” or amount to pimping for politicians and business houses? Or perhaps they were doing social service for the Congress? Play the tapes on your show, na, Ms Dutt, instead of tweeting about them? Why not let ‘We, The People’ decide, instead of you deciding for us all?

Story in Detail

Barkha Dutt ,a popular TV journalist of NDTV ; being exposed as a power-broker and lobbyist with nexus to Nira Radia ;a known corporate Lobbyist and currently under investigation in 2G spectrum scam involving over $40billion.It became hot topic on online media like Twitter after Indian media almost blacked-out story from electronic media. The tapes also exposed another popular journalist from Vir Sanghavi Hindustan Times having links with Radia for publishing articles in order to favour certain corporate interest. These tapes show power nexus between elite of India corporates, journalists and various ministers on various issues.

The mainstream electronic almost blacked out story while print media (Indian Express, Mid Day, India Today) continued to carry it. The story was originally broken by prominent Indian Magazine Open & Outlook almost simultaneously. However electronic media’s self styled censored of news where media-person caught on wrong side of law has put twitter and online media in India on blaze. The scam popularly called #Barkhagate is been trending #1 in India for 4 days at a stretch with over 10k tweets in short span (a record in India) and many blogs written criticizing hypocrisy and lack of ethical standards regarding this issue shown by senior journalists, however mainstream electronic media still keeping un-conspicuous silence.

There is widespread outrage regarding the double standards about exposing corruption in media and an alleged case of cover-up of this issue. Many blogs and some prominent editors like Nihkil Waghle of IBN on Twitter have asked both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghavi to come clean and prove innocence. While some like Rajdeep Sardesai from IBN had come forward in defense of Barkha Dutt many other editors chose to keep silent on issue. Bloggers have been severally critical of staged blacked-out in the era of “free press” suggesting that Media houses ganged up to black it out shows that they have something to hide. It also puts in question the journalistic duty of reporting a story in fair and impartial manner versus denying its existence altogether.

Apart from #Barkhagate itself and online media is critical of lack of ethical standards of Indian media houses with vested interested (like NDTV) and alleged to be favouring ruling Congress party. The complete black-out story is seen compromising stand on 2G spectrum scam involving top politicians, bureaucrats & now media houses and thus there by covering up the story of power nexus between Mr. A Raja and Nira Radia. Mr. A. Raja -a union minister accused of $40billion scam has links to Nira Radia who is also summoned by Indian agencies. These two journalists Barkha Dutt & Vir Sanghavi have been alleged to lobby for appointing Mr. A .Raja as Union minister during government formation in 2009.

Bakha Dutt in her defense on Twitter with respect to these allegation denied being a lobbyist & power broker called the allegations defamatory and tapes as part of journalistic profession. NDTV has called  allegations defamatory however had not denied authenticity of tapes.

Aftermath of Online Movement:

Rajdeep Sardesai slashes out at Open Magazine’s editor on Twitter:

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Barkha dutt defends herself that she was just “sourcing” and not “lobbying” and accuses the Open Magazine for “smear campaign”:

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Barkha Dutt continues to defend her stand on twitter and calls open magazine, outlook and mid day as lynch mobs!

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On Twitter,Barkha Dutt dares Arnab Goswami of “News Hour” to telecast and discuss the tapes :

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Netizens online

The comments posted by netizens on numerous websites give a deep insight into their psychology and show how cyber heroes can be made to bite the dust overnight. Here are some examples of what netizens have been doing:

” Can you please take BARKHA off air ” on Facebook has more than 5,000 fans; ” I hate Barkha Dutt ” has more than 1,500 and ” Barkhagate ” more than 1,200 fans. ” Barkha Dutt: powerbrokering stops here “has more than 300 fans. On Twitter, “#barkhagate” and “Bharka” have been two of the top five trending topics, with about 10 posts every minute on the subject. One frequently re-tweeted tweet on Wednesday was “Nira Radia grilled for 8 hours when Barkha dutt and Vir Sanghvi join her in jail?” The top Google search that starts with the word “barkha” is “barkha dutt nira radia”, not “barkha dutt” or just “barkha”. Then, there are online posts like “we need to teach the media who the real boss is … we the people”. (“We the People” is the name of Barkha’s show on NDTV.)

YouTube returns 31 search results for “barkha radia tapes”, the most popular of which has been heard by visitors more than 67,000 times. Wikipedia now has a Radia tapes controversy page.

The story has grabbed the attention of the international media – Wall Street Journal has run a news article and at least five blog posts on the subject (Does the Buck Stop with Barkha Dutt?, Oh Vir, What Can the Matter Be? , My Journalistic Code of Ethics , Q&A: The State of Indian Journalism and Phone Taps Draw Media Into 2G Spotlight ). Others news sites that have covered it include Washington Post , Chicago Independent Press , International Business Times , Gulf News , Arab News and Pakistan’s Dawn .

Discussion

The question of ethics in journalism and accountability of media (and media houses) is something that cannot be ignored. This question hits at the very core of the fourth estate—trust and credibility.

The subsequent `blackout’ of the `Radia tapes’ story by the major sections of the media gives us all a reason to despair. Instead of taking this story head-on and debating institutional mechanisms to maintain journalistic ethics, as well as evolving perhaps `ombudsman’ like check on editors, editorials and opinion pieces, a major section of the media has skirted this issue, and like ostriches have put their head in the sand.

Perhaps because of the large number of journalists involved in the controversy, most Indian newspapers and TV channels have not covered the Radia tapes at all. The Niira Radia episode raises questions about the boundary between legitimate news gathering, lobbying and influence peddling.

But in this paper we are not concerned about the corruption in media rather we are more concerned about changes in the mode of production and consumption of news in online media. And if we compare the internet with TV and print , we see that on television every news story has to pass through the gatekeepers and has to consume only what is available i;e what they consider is meant/important for us. But in online world gatewatchers fundamentally publicise news (by pointing to sources) rather than publish it (by compiling an apparently complete report from the available sources). Anyone who finds something important can post it on the net in form; print, audio, or video and if others like it they can comment/like/share it through different media available online. In this way, it’s we who decide what is important for us and what is not. Now we are no

more passive consumers but are active participants in the news process. Every citizen is a journalist in his/herself. And the citizens who are active on net are called’ netizens’.

The role of news is never merely to keep people informed. It is also a crucial facilitator for any action required on part of the administration at any level. Mostly, the coverage would be judged effective or otherwise on the basis of the following criteria:

  1. The time taken to inform people at large
  2. The time taken to prompt efforts such as rescue, etc
  3.  The quality of updates provided to stakeholders in the situation viz. families of people killed, injured, trapped, rescued, etc
  4. And eventually, the efforts/avenues that prompt follow-up actions viz. rehabilitation, inquiry, etc

Reception of News Across Media

Print Media: At most, newspapers and magazines contributed to criterion No 4. That’s because neither of these are live media i.e. their coverage is never real-time. By the time the first print report was published, the tragedy was already over and any rescue or updates were now redundant.

Also, the scope for attaining ‘complete surprise’ no longer exists. News in print is no longer new, except for investigative reports.

Broadcast Media: Radio and TV, both being live media, were respectively able to provide audio and visuals within minutes of the incident. But firefighting operations rarely allow microphones or cameras within close range i.e. all audio-visual elements of the coverage were restricted, one-dimensional (each channel has at most one cameraperson at the spot), etc.

Also, the peripheral infrastructure require for live broadcasts is complex and its setup is cumbersome. This dilutes the efforts’ focus on reporting facts by allocating considerable attention towards getting the right elements in place, editorialising, etc.

Most of the time in such incidents, the story is over by the time a broadcast crew is ready with its setup. In the Kolkata fire, there were no visuals on TV of the point when the blaze was at its worst.

Also, in complete contrast to print, broadcast media score the lowest on criterion No 4 – despite high scores on all other criteria.

Online Media: News coverage on the Internet is able to employ the best of both print and broadcast media. The reports are mostly text + photos as in print, but they are available and updated in real-time. News websites that are TV-based also have the advantage of including video elements in their stories.

But their biggest advantage is the amount of Related Information they are able to throw up at the consumer, by sorting and listing previous articles on the basis of keywords, meta-tags, etc. Their other unique advantage is Contextual Hyperlinks within stories viz. related weblinks that appear at relevant points within stories. These may be used to access further details regarding individual aspects of any story.

Cumulatively, the Internet is the only medium with fair scores against all four criteria.

Social Media: Facebook and Twitter have emerged as a unique category of news aggregators within Online Media. Their relevance was obvious in this fire incident, because the news first broke on Twitter.

The biggest USP however is the fact that people tweeting these facts/updates were not reporters or relevant officials but real people who were directly involved in the situation – bystanders who were close enough to the site to relate what was actually happening, and even people trapped inside the building. The most obvious advantage – there was no editorialisation.

And against this backdrop if we see the case study which I have mentioned earlier in this paper, it is clear that online media is indeed the most powerful media in the today’s world because if were dependent on the electronic media alone than we would have never come to know about this big story which every citizen of this country has the right to know about. And we can also observe that how powerful our online media has become by the fact that although all the television channels and most of the print media also denied to cover the story, still online media alone (especially social media) took the movement successfully and finally pressurised the big personalities of Indian journalism to face people and answer their questions.

Bibliography

  • Gunter, Barrie, New and the Net’, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers Mahwah, New Jersey, London, 2003.
  • Sahay, Uday, Making News, Handbook of the Media in Contemporary India, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Craig, Richard, Online Journalism: reporting, writing and editing for new media, , Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.
  • TNN, 2G scam sideshow: Netizens lambast high-profile journalists, , Dated, 25/11/2010, 02.52am.
  • NEWSPost India, Exclusive- Barkha Dutt-Nira Radia Curruption Tapes, Dated, 19/11/2010.
  • Media Crooks, Nira Radia Tapes – Even Hitler Upset At Media Black Out, Dated, 25/11/2009.
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About sadianasr

Road safety x digital, social, policy, media at SaveLife. AIR, Urban Justice, CAIR, ICGC, UNDP alum.

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