I was at the Negombo beach this morning, doing what now seems to be the standard ritual for 2 AM on a Sunday – stare grumpily into the sea and wonder when Rodeo opens for breakfast. A lawyer chappie I’d just made friends with dropped by and we started to chat. Halfway through our conversation, he asked a deceptively simple question:
Why is our media so bad?
It’s true. Taken as a whole, Sri Lankan mainstream media is terrible, and it’s no laughing matter. This is especially true of the English newspapers. Even if you disregard the blatant misspellings, inaccuracies and frequently imbecilic grammar, the actual news priority makes you wonder what the hell our editors are smoking.
Consider the Daily Mirror of late. Groundviews recently shared this image of its front page. On a day when the Right to Information Act – arguably one of the most important things to ever happen to media in this country – is being pushed in Parliament, it dedicated barely more than three lines on its front page to the subject. As Sanjana Hattotuwa pointed out in this extensive blogpost, the anatomy of ye average Sri Lankan news service shows gaping holes in coverage.
There’s no one answer to why this is happening. Here are the reasons I’ve seen:
1) Underpaid, overworked writers and copy editors
Being a journalist does not pay. A friend of mine worked for one newspaper for three years; by the end, her salary amounted to around Rs 15,000. There seem to be a few journalists who make money, but by and large, even associate editor salaries – usually obtained after a decade of service in the field – seem to float around the Rs 50,000 mark.
This may have been decent fifteen years ago. Now journalism seems only viable if you’re young, living with your parents, with all your expenses covered. Better writers invariably tend to depart for advertising, leaving only the new, the incompetent, and a small handful of really dedicated ones struggling to keep the ship afloat.
2) A readerbase that does not understand quality
Gazala Anver of Roar.lk recently started a set of conversations online regarding the quality of the media, and this was one of the more interesting points that came up. I don’t think this is a problem exclusive to Sri Lanka, but rather to the entire world. More on that later.
3) Political and commercial overlords
Remember the media silence on Aluthgama? Remember how, when Coca-Cola polluted the Kelani River, most newspapers referred to it as ‘an international company’? It took the Nation and a blogpost from Vesses to highlight just how impotent the media actually was.
Sri Lanka is a small pond. While steering clear of the politician’s backroom ire, papers also have the make sure the ad money flows in. Unfortunately, we seem to have more papers than the economy can support. Lake House and Wijeya dominate the field. Newspapers are locked in hypercompetition with each other. As a result, pleasing the money men and the political goons takes a lot more priority than it should.
4) An actual lack of standards
How many times have you visited DailyFT and cringed? Blatant PR, without even a rewriting; articles ripped from global news sites – and the FT is not alone; everyone does this. Coverage is seemingly arbitrary; it’s only guaranteed of being picked up if it’s political gossip. Investigative journalism may as well be a myth. The few well-researched articles that come out are drier than the Sahara desert and worded with about as much finesse as a cup of Maggi noodles.
How this works in practice
The media is a numbers game. All morals aside, a media outlet is a business and needs to make money to pay its overheads. It does this with advertising. To attract advertisers, you need numbers. And this is where that uneducated readerbase comes in like a kick to the groin: if nobody reads that wonderfully well-written piece about the economy, but everyone eagerly laps up news of the Priyasad sisters, then at some point you succumb and start running more of what the people want. It’s a slippery slope and leads to hell. A very good example is Buzzfeed’s clickbait titles; those things, written for the lowest common denominator of readers, worked to a point where every other online media outlet now generates clickbait titles. Heck, even I try to write clickbait titles.
Some people have tried to expand on this – consider the Hiru system. Hiru Gossip runs shit and generates traffic. Hiru News clinches the awards. Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt – they’ve got advertising bucks coming in (at least as far as I know). As my lawyer friend pointed out, it seems that the media is very much like law: a few staunch defenders of the faith surrounded by a sea of those who have whored themselves out for the money.
This is not to deny that the media has its Lasantha Wickramatunges. Despite all these, people continue to push the system – one really good example is Awantha Artigala, who produces world-class political commentary through his cartoons. But there’s not enough of them and they aren’t being paid well enough.
This is a global problem.
I’ve come across only three newspapers right now that seem to be really committed to investigative journalism in the old sense. They are the New Yorker, the Atlantic and the Guardian. The Atlantic occasionally dabbles in editorials but keeps its main content rich and pure. The Guardian is funded by a private estate and will never need ads, and therefore has no pressure to conform.
Unless we manage to establish at least a small branch of the media that can steer clear of these potholes, we’re going to be stuck with a bad media. It need not be a paper: even a website will do. Our media is bad because of a lot of things, but mostly because it’s just not independent enough to be good.