Friday, 18 June, 2021
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OPINION

Role Of Audience In Media Accountability



Harsha Man Maharjan

 

Can audience be a part of media accountability in Nepal? I think so. This role of audience is possible more in the digital than in the print world.
Media accountability systems are the mechanisms to make journalists accountable to the public by pointing out mistakes and malpractices. According to Claude -Jean Bertrand, it covers various mechanisms such as code of ethics, letters to the editor, press councils, and media literacy programmes.

Popular mechanism
In the print world, one of the popular mechanisms is letter to the editor. In this forum, people often share their thoughts regarding news items or the activities they have noticed in the society that they want to bring to public attention.
Lekhnath Pandey has studied the letters to the editor published in three Nepali dailies, Kantipur, Nepal Samcharpatra and Annapuna Post in a month in May-June 2006. The main objective of this study is to find out the issues on which more readers were interested to write letters. This study found that 77 per cent of letters were related to news published in these newspapers. It also mentions that the space newspapers devoted to this section varies according to the need of the time and the interest of newspapers. Similarly, it discusses the main criteria that newspapers followed to choose and discard the letters. Generally, newspapers prefer direct and clear letters, and letters having authors' names. Though this study does help us to know the issues that these newspapers are publishing letters to the editor about, the researcher's main interest was not to understand the role of letters in making them accountable.
Usually, the letters related to criticism of journalistic practices do not get published in newspapers. This could be because newspapers don't want people to know about the mistakes the media make. Studies have shown that news media don't like to be questioned by the public by pointing out their lapses. There could be other reasons for not publishing many letters that audiences send to newspapers. There are limitations of space. Pandey’s research is helpful to know this reason. He mentions that Annapurna Post had published a notice mentioning that if a letter did not get published within a week, the writer must understand that it was rejected. So it becomes clear that in newspapers, letters to the editor that are critical to activities of journalists and media organisations could be rejected or are not published due the space constraints.
No doubt, websites don't have the limitation of space as compared to newspapers. The digital transformation of news media has afforded interactivity that was less possible in traditional media. Umesh Shrestha has studied the interactivity in four Nepali online news media: www.onlinekhabar.com, www.nagariknews.com, www.ekantipur.com and thehimalayantimes.com.
While analysing these news media from 15 to 21 January 2014, he found that among the four, only thehimalayantimes.com contains the information related to dos and don'ts of writing comments. He also found that these news media did not moderate content. Due to this, these interactions contain hateful and vulgar contents.
Milan Timilsina who was working in Onlinekhabar told the researcher that often audiences wrote comments just by reading headlines or not having knowledge of the issues. Umesh Shrestha concluded that such use of languages did not lead to healthy debates. He also argued that these news media could not move according to time as they lack information in terms of use, and the timeline by which interaction will be closed.
However, we know that genuine critical comments are not tolerated in such websites and they are often deleted. As in the case of letters to editors, these online media too could delete critical contents. Although audiences could act to make news media more accountable, this possibility is limited here, too. They could be removed easily.
How about the comments on the pages of social media, especially Facebook? My research on the case study of the reporting of Nepali vernacular daily Kantipur on the possibility of irregularities while directly buying LED bulbs from an Indian company by Nepal Electricity Authority in 2017 and the discourse of journalistic practices by audiences on the Facebook pages of the newspaper has shown that it is possible. It is not that news media persons who handle such pages could not delete comments. They definitely can. But it is not often done. My research has shown that the audience can get engaged with media criticism of journalistic activities. It is clear from their comments that some people have reacted without reading the news while others have participated in healthy discussions on the malpractices by journalists and media organisations.

Healthy discussions
So, the audience could definitely help in making media more accountable. However, we should not forget that anybody can write anything on social media. The discourse could also be uncivil, vulgar, and full of malice and hatred. The audience could also have healthy discussions by pointing lapses and requesting the media house to correct and be accountable. However, the key issue is: Do media organisations ever have eyes on these comments or are journalists interested in engaging with the genuine criticism of the audience?

(Maharjan is a senior researcher at an academic NGO Martin Chautari and writes on issues related to media and technology.)