‘Spirals of Silence’: The Unsavoury Monster That Is the Indian Media Today

For journalists, the year 2020 has been extraordinarily rough. Many have been laid off, others have seen pay cuts, and finding a new job has become harder. Then there are journalists who have been losing their conscience and humanity – with shrill TV debates and shoddy journalism that is more about harassment and noise than actual facts.

As a journalist, I stand aghast and ashamed at the level journalism has stooped to this year. It’s been this way the past few years, but this year has been particularly loathsome. Don’t get me wrong – I understand the nature of tabloid journalism. I also understand the very worrisome concept of “breaking news”. I know the need of the hour in terms of revenue models, and how consumerism works.

However, I believe in a certain kind of bedrock of journalism that I was taught about in my undergraduate studies in journalism, which equipped me to understand how consent is manufactured, or how a ‘spiral of silence’ comes into being.

I was 19 when we were taught about dominant ideologies, normative ideologies and opposing ideologies. When I look back at what I studied, and then look at the unsavoury monster that the media has become, I am unsure if I was taught a course more suitable to a different era.

Why was I taught about informing the masses, and bettering the awareness of an electorate? Why was I taught that media persons were opinion leaders who filtered large quantities of information in a synthesised manner to benefit the population, which in turn would help them make better calls about the working of a democracy? Why was I taught about the search for facts and truth being the most important tenets of a good reporter?

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Colour me dumbfounded.

Looking at the Indian media today, one would think that the pandemic has long been conquered. You would think our economy is doing well, and that we live in a country that has got everything so under control that the citizenry can take up the mantle of solving a suicide. Watching and reading certain sections of the Indian media, you would think that there was no other real burning issue at hand in 2020.

But we need to see through the facade – India is now the second most-affected COVID-19 country. We are seeing aggravated sexual assaults every day. We are seeing negative GDP growth, unemployment, and military and economic aggression from China.

We have relegated everything of pertinence to the governance of a country to the lowest end of the totem pole.

The term ‘spiral of silence‘, coined by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, speaks about the nature of drowning out opposing views. Due to the fear of isolation, a group that has opposing views or less “popular views” chooses to be silent or reserved in their opinions, while the ones with the dominant view are more vociferous and confident in theirs. Thus, public opinion is formed, and the mass media simply mirrors that.

Isn’t this terrifically true for what we see on our exalted “primetime” news slots? Don’t we see people of a certain ideology being loud and crass to drown out a particular opinion? Logic and facts oft get left by the wayside.

Over the past few months, the media in India has furthered the idea of leaning towards providing more entertainment and less news. Although the media family is largehearted enough to provide proper spaces for tabloid and yellow-page journalism, they are expected to stay within the bounds of correct nomenclature. Such leanings aren’t to be traversed across under the garb of being “revolutionary” news channels who will “unravel the truth” to the citizens of India. Today, the intersectionality of sensational gossip, fake or incorrect facts and tall claims with “news” has attained new levels of danger.

Also read: The Circus Called Grief

The relentless reportage surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and Rhea Chakraborty’s alleged role in the case has now evolved into a narcotics crackdown. The average Indian viewer is thoroughly invested in this case – reflected in the intrigue and “analysis” in WhatsApp forwards these days.

Conspiracy theories which abound today have it that the political big-wigs are using the media as marionettes to serve their cause in the upcoming Bihar elections; that the Centre seeks to prove that the Mumbai police is either incompetent or corrupt and cannot be trusted with this investigation. The sheer flood of information being thrown at the viewer has resulted in them having long forgotten that they are still highly vulnerable to exposure to a killer virus.

But entertainment has the merit not only of being better suited to help sell goods; it is an effective vehicle for hidden ideological messages. Furthermore, in a system of high and growing inequality, entertainment is the contemporary equivalent of the Roman “games of the circus”, as Noam Chomsky put it, that diverts the attention of the public from politics and generates a political apathy that is helpful to preservation of the status quo.

Ironically, the constant coverage about the Sushant Singh Rajput case is making the media actively culpable in contributing to the creation of an ignorant electorate and a misinformed democracy. There is border tension with China, minors are being raped in Uttar Pradesh, crores of persons are unemployed.

Meanwhile, a ticker runs across the bottom of some news channels to blandly inform us that over a thousand Indians are dying daily due to the pandemic. We are unlocking in phases with great enthusiasm; public transportation is resuming, and the viewer thinks that perhaps COVID-19 is something of the past. The statistics, however, strongly oppose that.

For a lot of us, these are anxious times which could undoubtedly result in mental stress, but if we were to look at our television news, we would be informed that mental illness is a farce.

So, truth be told, as a journalist, I stand beleaguered for not recognising my own profession anymore. I stand aghast at how low the idea of India and journalism has stooped, and I stand ashamed on how we have made dehumanising people a new normal.

Shiralie Chaturvedi is a writer who loves Murakami and Seth; indie cinema and bands; cries listening to patriotic songs, and is happiest at home with her loved ones.

Featured image credit:PTI