“The bias of the media is toward sensationalism, conflict, and laziness.” Jon Stewart
The media is said to be the fourth pillar of democracy. It exists to act as a second opposition to the government, question maladministration and discriminatory policies, and act as a review of the establishment. The freedom of the press is a litmus test for democracy and transparency in governance. As a result of the high regard with which the media is held, it shapes the ideas, and mindset of the society which gives it significant sway over the public at large. The media moulds public image and perception, and can easily transform the story of an ordinary man into that of a saint, or a sinner. The masses, in their almost-blind faith in the media, soak up the opinions presented by them and accept such stories as the truth.
Of late, however, the media has become a pillar to prop up increasingly totalitarian and authoritative regimes that crackdown on voices that expose the flaws in the status quo. This is reflected in the increasing communalisation of the media and the content surrounding minority communities. A real-time example can be the media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis and the Tablighi Jamaat incident.
A religious congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat at Nizamuddin became the centre of media attention in March as it became a hotspot for the COVID-19 virus. The government and media alike criticised the Jamaat for directly disregarding government advisories and lockdown orders, and continuing to gather in huge numbers. However, this incident has been a method to legitimise and amplify the voices of Islamophobia and communalism.
While the religious leaders of the Jamaat were indeed at fault, the incident has triggered Islamophobic sentiments among the citizens. The communalised, biased reporting has made way for anti-Muslim measures to be taken by the citizens, fearing them all to be infected with the virus, and branding the whole community as “evil” for the negligent actions of a few.
A group of former civil servants and members of the executive have written to the Chief Ministers and Lieutenant-Governors of States and Union Territories expressing their concern at the growing targeted harassment of Muslims. They severely criticised the Jamaat’s disregard for the Delhi government’s advisories against organising the event but also felt anguish at the irresponsible and appalling actions by the media in communalising the incident and extending it to the whole Muslim community. Muslims are getting harassed for their religious identity, and it has gotten to a point where a woman in labour was forced to give birth outside a government hospital in Rajasthan, and subsequently lost her baby, because she was Muslim, and not allowed to enter the hospital. Another Muslim man, who happened to be in touch with a member of the Jamaat, was driven to suicide due to the social ostracisation he faced, even after testing negative for the virus.
Minorities have historically been victims of an industry that severely misrepresents them for the benefit of the majority. The very purpose of media production is to achieve mass consumption by the public and is often twisted and manipulated in order to attain that goal. The easiest way to achieve that is by catering to the whims of the majority community, which has the purchasing power, privilege, and education in order to be the dominant group in society.
As long as the majority is appeased, and portrayed in a favourable light in media, the production of such media is at no threat of shutting down and collapse, since it is not threatened by the displeasure of the minority communities.
The minorities face the most casualties that come out of communalised media. The ability to shape the perception of entire communities, mustn’t rest in the hands of a handful of journalists and news channels, but sadly it does. That leaves us with the questions; “Is the information on which we base our opinions, truly neutral? Are our opinions really our own, or are they artificially engineered by the communalisation and biased reporting that is seen in the media today?