Ratings v quality – time for the media to do the right thing
It is three in the afternoon and in a small makeshift shelter in an urban community in the Philippines, a poor family is glued to a rickety television set, watching the daily soap opera.
There is endless screaming and cursing; the young girl in the family is watching all of this.
A favourite staple in local media drama, soap operas take prime-time slots in the afternoon and evening: they capture audience interest much more than the more educational television programmes.
But then again, it may be a chicken-and-egg situation. The audience may simply be watching what the television giants feed them.
In between these soaps, the audience takes a break by watching news programmes. Most of the time, these carry sensationalized stories – a kidnapper becomes a terrorist; a violent incident matters only because of the body count; stabbings fill the headlines instead of life-changing policy announcements.
The sensationalized handling of news by many media agencies is common practice, not only in the Philippines but all over the globe.
Thus, the question posed at the 2012 Global Media Forum in Germany last month to an audience of some 2,000 journalists, bloggers, media educators, cultural workers and artists could not be more timely and significant:
‘Are ratings more important than the quality of news or media programmes presented to the public?’
This is a question that begs to be asked in the present-day global media practice of cutthroat competition for ratings and advertisements.
It was also the subject of the first plenary at this year’s forum, which sought to examine the role of the media in a rapidly changing world.
During the three-day forum, experts from different parts of the world discussed the media’s importance in a world where millions are still illiterate, and said that media practitioners must strike a balance so that they may fulfil their duty in providing the right information to their audience.
Keynote speaker Franz Radermacher, Director of the Research Institute for Applied Knowledge Processing and Club of Rome Member, said favouring ratings or market success over educating the public is problematic.
Radermacher spoke on the much-debated issue of media practice around the globe in a session called ‘Ratings Versus Quality: Media caught between market success and the mission to educate.’
Media practitioners, he said, should strive for the right balance between these two important and seemingly opposing forces.
‘Look for the right balance in the different aims that you have to follow. Try to concentrate on what needs to be communicated,’ he said.
Deutsche Welle Deputy Director General Reinhard Hartstein said: ‘The media must have as its goal the improvement of educational opportunities.’
Unfortunately, it is not only media sensationalism that hampers public education.
According to Deutsche Welle, which organized the forum, millions of people, mostly from crisis regions and war-torn areas, are still illiterate – in part because of their lack of access to the internet.
‘Even in a highly industrialized nation such as Germany, 14 per cent of the population is functionally illiterate,’ Deutsche Welle said, quoting a recent study conducted by the University of Hamburg.
Marc Jan Eumann, State Secretary for Federal Affairs, Europe and the Media of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, said media and literacy go hand in hand.
Where the internet is available, the media must be ready to provide the audience with opportunities to tap the right information.
‘The challenges of the internet are challenges for all of us. Social media and mobile media are great opportunities for [the dissemination of] a great variety of thoughts and information. What we need in a global world is pure information,’ Eumann said, adding that education and literacy go hand in hand.
Whether or not the media groups which attended the forum will go on to improve their coverage is yet to be seen.
Examining one’s actions, at least, is a start.