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Monday, March 23, 2009

Jade Goody and Media Ethics

Star of reality television show Jade Goody died peacefully in her sleep last Sunday. Goody was made infamous in India by the media for her supposedly racial remarks against Indian actor Shilpa Shetty during the shooting of the British version of the reality show Celebrity Big Brother in 2007. She was detected with cervical cancer while she was taking part in the shooting of the Indian version of the show during August last year. Since then, media all over the world and especially in Britain have been subjecting her to close scrutiny and glare, at time even intruding in her personal life.The progress of her illness was chronicled in detail in the media.
It is appallingly sad to hear someone as young as twenty-seven dying of cancer. It was equally sad to observe the role media played during her painful and excruciating seven-month personal fight against cancer and her wretched attempt to get whatever was left of her life together. Goody was inching towards certain death as the British tabloids splashed their front pages with every minute details of her personal life. She was a regular item as the weather report. Media around the world more or less followed the pattern although news about her was not as frequent as in the British media. There was no second thought while writing about Goody. The terrific fact that someone is dying slowly being completely aware of it has completely failed to have any imprint on the media.
Death is certain; it will catch up with all of us one day. Death is also very personal. Still, we try to avoid it and possibly try to evade it. How many people have the courage to stare at death with calm, composed resilience? How difficult it is to accept death; when it is not someone else’s but one’s own? How does one prepare knowing that sooner than later she is going to die? Is it ethical to put her under public glare and scrutiny every day in the name of reporting and remind her of the impending death every moment till she dies? Does she not have the right to fight her own battle in peace without being subjected to public judgment for every single act? The media was not sure.
Goody and her family appeared to be more than willing to help media report her march towards death.She underwent surgery and chemotherapy in the public eye — filming part of the experience. She confessed she was doing it to raise money for her children. "People will say I'm doing this for money," she said. "And they're right, I am. But not to buy flash cars or big houses — it's for my sons' future if I'm not here. I don't want my kids to have the same miserable, drug-blighted, poverty-stricken childhood I did." But her mother Jackiey Budden told reporters Sunday: "Family and friends would like privacy at last."
The most common logic forwarded by British media in defense of their intruding into the life of Goody is that reporting the trauma and sufferings from cervical cancer will make thousands of other women aware of the danger posed by the disease and help them prevent possible death by timely and accurate diagnosis. This may be true to a limited extant. It is hard to understand how reporting in minute details on what Goody was planning for her funeral was going to make women aware of cervical cancer. The media was not acting as the Good Samaritan that it projected itself to be and wants us to believe. It was the urge to subscribe to the (in)human tendency of making most of other people’s suffering and thus increasing the circulation bottom-line that prompted media for behaving the way it did. Goody deserved a better deal from media.

Read what BBC has to say

The Strange life & death of Jade Goody

Friday, March 13, 2009

Western Railway Campaign

Opinion Engineering

One of my teachers talked about opinion formulation and role of media in opinion engineering in the class the other day. He was elaborate on the practice of newspapers trying to train its readers to read certain kinds of news written in specific language and style - and how this training goes to form a loyal and dedicated readership.
One may question why am I taking up this forum to talk about what the teacher said in a class of twenty students instead of saying whatever I have to say in the class itself. I have two reasons for it – first, I did not want to disturb the class and the second and most important, what he said is not so simple and innocent a statement and needs to be debated in public sphere.
People absorb attitude from the culture that surrounds them as they grow up. This absorption of attitude lead to formation of public opinion . When attitude are based on deeply-held personal values, persuasion can hardly influence attitude. Public opinion, once formed and set-in stick for years afterwards. It is during our college years that social and political ideas crystallize in our minds on the basis of our observation of the world around us at that time.
For Public Relations the biggest problem today is not getting noticed – the problem is getting believed and trusted. No Public Relations policy, however well planned it may be, can build trust if reality is working towards destroying it. It is foolish to assume that people’s mind are like empty can that you can pour whatever liquid you like to.
We are living in era where people’s trust in public institutions, policy makers, elected representatives and the whole gamut of governance is fast eroding. People in the government think because they have been vested with the right to do, people will believe what they do are right. A large majority of our own people are trying to remain blind to the growing cynicism and changed values of the new generation and like to believe that all their communication messages would have the same credibility they enjoyed three decades ago.
Edward L. Bernay’s defined Public Relations as - “Public Relations is that discipline that helps reconcile institutional or individual behaviour in a manner that accords with the public interest and when effectively communicated, creates opinion or attitude that motivate target audience to specific course of action. There are two distinguished part in the definition – behaviour and communication. No communication, however excellent it may be, can be effective if the behaviour of the individual or the institution is not good. The government today is not trusted not because of lack of effective communication but because of bad behaviour and performance.

Spin as a Career

I will not blame you if you decide to skip this piece and prefer to continue with more meaningful writings in this compilation. It appears that Cricket as a medium of mass hysteria has finally lived its time and people are replacing specialist cricket players with heroes from other spheres of life as their idol; especially so after the recent World Cup debacle of the Indian cricket team. Pepsi has replaced cricket legends with small kids in their television advertisement and other companies have either stopped airing their commercials with cricketers or have developed new commercials. There are other forms of rebuttal aimed at Indian cricketers reported in the media. Thus, I understand, it is not the correct time to talk cricket.
However, in case you care to read on, let me quickly clarify my intention so that I can escape the agony of outright condemnation and rejection. I am trying to talk about an altogether different career prospects here. In the field of Public Relations, spin is a usually an uncomplimentary term used to mean a biased, one-sided presentation of an event or situation through deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics to mobilize opinion in one's own favour. Traditional public relations practitioners generally rely on honest and creative presentation of facts for mobilizing people’s opinion. But, public relations people relying on ‘spin’ often do not care for ethics or rules and prefer to get public favour by all means. The term is dramatized and somewhat legitimized by media which more than often prefer to refer to all kind of public relations practice as ‘spin’. We, the public relations practitioners, are still not sure whether ‘spin’ can be called public relations or not. The debate is, in fact, raging hot now.
So, what makes ‘spin’ different from public relations? The term ‘spin’ is borrowed from cricket, where a spin bowler delivers the ball in such a way that it curves through the air, bounces and changes direction fooling the batsman and putting the bowler in an advantageous position to get the batsman bowled out. A public relations practitioner who uses cherry picking (selectively presenting facts and quotes that supports his/her position), equivocation, euphemism or phrases his words in such a way that assumes unproven truths to fool his public in believing him is said to be using ‘spin’.
According to Wikipedia, the term Cherry Picking originated from the fact that while harvesting cherries, or any other fruit, the picker would be expected to only select the ripest and healthiest fruits. An observer who only sees the selected fruit may thus wrongly conclude that most, or even all, of the fruit are very good. Thus, cherry picking metaphorically indicate the act of presenting facts that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related facts that may contradict that position. For example, proponents of some hair oil often cite rare cases in which hair growth was noticed after application of certain oil, whereas common scientific knowledge suggest that hair growth cannot be achieved by external application of any kind of oil available in the market. Cherry picking might be appropriate when a person is assigned to advocate a particular position like a lawyer in a criminal case, where it is assumed to be the responsibility of the opposing counsel to present any contrary data. Moreover, in common law guilt has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt and thus introducing 'cherry picked' evidence may be appropriate because, while such data may not prove something in general, it may be successful in introducing the needed minimum level of doubt to win the case. Cherry picking can also be justified in marketing campaigns where prime motive is to seduce customers to buy a product or service. However, when a person with a supposedly neutral position like journalists, public relations professionals, scientists, and judges cherry picks, it becomes not only inappropriate but also derogatory to the entire profession. A public relations professional need to be truthful not only to his/her employer but also to the public with whom he or she is communicating because the foundation of good public relations is mutual understanding and goodwill. Cherry picking in public relations seldom helps as ‘you cannot fool all the people all the time’. Besides being unethical, cherry picking might help the PR man to get some publicity for his employer in the short run, but once his bluffs are revealed he will never be trusted again; neither by the media nor by the people.
On the other hand, equivocation is often used to give misleading impression. Politicians regularly use equivocation when they say allegations against them are ‘ridiculous’ ‘misleading’ or ‘absurd’ without saying that they are false. Examples of use of euphemism are like not exactly thin for "fat", not completely truthful for "lied", not unlike cheating for "cheating" etc. Journalists are apt at deciphering equivocation and euphemism and so are common people now-a-days. Media manipulation for building favourable public opinion is not an easy task. Using equivocation and euphemism in ‘spin’ is a challenging task and needs superb command over the language and presence of mind. One also needs to be smart and unashamed to some extent to be a ‘spin’ specialist.
It may seem to be glamorous to be titled a ‘spin doctor’, but the glamour has its own peril. Over the last two or three decades, public relations has transformed from an occupation to a profession and has developed into a discipline in academics. This growth has seen the subject being developed as a management tool for such decision making which is beneficial for long-term objectives of both an organization and its public. This growth has also seen public relations being distinguished from blunt marketing, self-centered publicity or propaganda. ‘Spin’ essentially is a propaganda and publicity tool and thus should not be confused with public relations. A ‘spin’ specialist will be feared, ridiculed, suspected and may of course be financially rewarded. However, he or she will not be loved, revered, regarded and trusted. It is now your call to decide on your career.
Published in the Journal of Mass Comm Deptt, Gauhati University 2006

Epilogue to Great Disconnect

The Rocky Mountain News, the oldest newspaper of Denver, Colorado closed down on 27th February after unsuccessfully hunting for a buyer for several months. The cause of the closure - a protracted and severe slump in advertising and classified revenues, declining circulation and deteriorating financial numbers, the economic downturn, falling stock prices and, of course, the Internet.
Newspapers across the US - and particularly larger publications in big cities - are scrambling to adapt to rapidly changing business conditions. That's resulted in mass layoffs, employee buyouts, closures and a heavy dose of uncertainty.
Newspaper advertising nationwide dipped 7 percent in 2007 and has gotten progressively worse this year, climaxing with an 18 percent plunge in the third quarter. That decline represents the biggest drop in at least 40 years, according to the Newspaper Association of America. A report issued in October by a Goldman Sachs analyst estimates that newspaper ad revenue will fall 11 percent next year - more than the firm's previous prediction of a 7.5 percent dip.
The economy is certainly a big factor. But advertisers also are simply finding new ways to reach customers, while consumers are increasingly using sites like Craigslist to place classified ads. At the same time, more people are now getting their news on the Internet, where most content is free. Newspapers have been able to increase online ad sales, but not enough to supplant the print product. And even that growth is slowing: Online newspaper ad revenue rose 19 percent last year vs. a 31 percent spike in 2006.
Prices for newsprint, which represent about 10 percent to 15 percent of the industry's cost structure, also have been rising - adding even more pressure. Most analysts don't expect a recovery for years, and many believe the industry will change significantly in that time.
Given the current environment, analysts and observers said they aren't necessarily surprised that one of Denver's newspapers is for sale and could be shut down if a buyer isn't found. Perhaps the bigger surprise is that Denver has managed to remain a two-newspaper town for this long.

The Great Disconnect

The Indian Express's Delhi edition used a good quarter of a page to publish an advertisement last week to say that it was the first to report that the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was likely to resume office after surgery ‘next week’ - well before he actually did. The punch line was that this newspaper was the first to give the news (read speculation) even before the news actually happened. If, for a moment, we agree to forget the finer point that speculation can hardly be classified as news and carry on to believe that this newspaper indeed reported the time of the Prime Minister resuming duty beforehand, that piece of news was nothing so great to boast off. Dr. Manmohan Singh had a successful surgery, recovered as expected without any complications arising and was released from hospital for recuperating at home. He was in good health, recovering faster and in all probability was as eager to resume duty as any other person in his position would have been. Taking into consideration all other indications it was pretty simple to guess that he was likely to resume duty as predicted by the newspaper.
Now, the fact that newspaper space are apparently at premium at this point of time, especially when the country is heading for a general election, and there was hardly any need for the unconvincing boasting off with a loud advertisement proclaiming better value for the newspaper itself, the entire exercise underscores a more complex and urgent problem faced by newspapers – that of holding ground as a profitable business model. It actually exemplifies the panic of loosing out to online version of the newspaper, the proliferation of electronic media like television and the emerging social media.
When newspapers started their digital editions online and started giving their content away for almost free, they sent a strong but wrong message to their customers. The message we got was that the revenue generated by the print version was enough for the business model - to cover the cost of the newsprint and the distribution. The content in the newspaper itself have no value and that’s why it was given away for free online. That killed the value of news. When I get news free online why should I buy a newspaper which contains news that often become stale in the morning? Added to this the television is catering adequately to the need of satiating one with news and at times even surpassing our expectations.
The investment needed for running a newspaper is considerable if it is a daily newspaper with at least twelve pages. This includes the money needed to run the supply chain besides the daily variable cost. It is common knowledge now that the newspaper offer for sale two kinds of product combined into one – the news and the advertisement space. While the revenue generated from selling the newspaper had never been adequate to justify the business, the revenue from advertisement space has been the main forte. Newspapers throughout the world, or generally the print media, are going through a crisis for quite sometime gradually loosing readers, circulation and revenue – both in terms of sales and in terms of advertisements. With more immediate and intimate media like television, radio, Internet and social media gaining ground the newspapers management are groping with the prospect of not getting even the market rate of return on their investment for quite some time now.
The online version of the news media and the television or radio has the advantage of immediacy. They report the news as it unfolds. But their disadvantage is the lack of polish, analysis and views. Newspaper can fill up the void here and take up the role of specialised presenter of news adding values to the ordinary news. Everyday news can be given new dimensions with in-depth analysis and divergent views. That will increase the shelf-life of newspapers and create the need to buy them.
People familiar with the business of news media are aware of the struggle between marketing people trying to sell advertisement space and the editorial side trying to keep enough space for news. Perhaps this is a valid struggle, but it also is a valid point that the newspaper has to give adequate returns on the investment. If the newspaper shuts down there will not be any struggle at all! So, the editorial and the marketing people need to finally come together.
One point that we hardly can afford to miss here is the future of the language press. The present education system is highly biased towards the English language and relegates the mother tongues to mere second languages. We are gradually replacing ourselves with a generation which is unlikely to subscribe to the language press. This is definitely going to affect the circulation of the vernacular newspapers.
The media business roughly has a model like this – pay some people called editorial staff to develop a nice looking product called newspaper, hire some marketing people to sell advertisement space, hire some more people to manage the supply chain and deliver the product everyday. Two very pertinent points missed in this model is that newspaper is not a fast moving consumer goods and the shelf-life of a newspaper is not even twenty-four hours. The only guarantee for survival of this product is connecting to the people and the world around them. Newspapers connect readers to their community and they connect advertisers to their customers. Newspapers are the king of content. They need to be the king of all media too if they are going to survive and flourish.
The greatest advantage of print media is the high retention quotient. We tend to retain more of what we read then what we see or hear. This puts newspapers in a better position to connect with people and build up a band of loyalist followers (read subscribers). This high retention factor also gives newspapers additional advantage to make unique value addition to their content. Unfortunately, newspapers have completely missed the boat while utilizing technology to connect people. Online news sites, social networking sites, Bloggers and the entire band of social media have steadily siphoned off consumers and advertising revenue in a game that newspapers were well poised to win. That’s because they understand what newspapers seems blind to - connecting people to their immediate surroundings.