Mastering Our Own Narrative: A meditation on mastering the media culture by Maria Amir

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

 Maria Amir teaches courses on Gender, Media and Writing at MGSHSS.


One loses count of how often ‘The Media’ is scapegoated as being the leading cause of policy glitches that range from party politics to the environment. The same institution is repeatedly touted as a global entity, one that informs, misinforms and allegedly manages universal concerns for the powers that be rather than the other way around. Often, when we categorise the term ‘media’ in these conversations it is in the form of a sinister monolith where ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ and you have no say in the matter. What typically gets left out of this equation is the dramatic shift in global media cultures from the organisation level to the person and by extension the juxtaposition of the personal and political spheres online.

Few of us consciously realise that in today’s environment we are equal parts producers and consumers of media. Policy paradigms have tangibly shifted to accommodate individual opinions in the same vein and more importantly, in the same space, as institutional ones. On The New York Times website, editorials and expert columns by the likes of David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof are just a click away from the Modern Love section. While this egalitarian environment is ideal for breaking down barriers and blurring the lines of bureaucracy, it does have consequences in what information we receive and how we receive it. The emergence of online blogs, such as this one, allows me to compete in the global marketplace of ideas on a relatively equal footing as experts who have established themselves in this space for decades. Whether or not we admit it, this shift in visibility and space has compromised standards of reporting, analysis and occasionally, even facts. In an atmosphere where all opinions and all voices compete for clicks, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine whose voice deserves to be heard louder than others. Often, as is the case in most modern discourse, the loudest voice equals the largest space. While this is a problematic turn for global policy debate, it has proven to be a disastrous one for Pakistan’s media climate.

The overwhelming impression one receives of Pakistani media, especially its electronic arm, is that it is ‘loud’. Everything is loud – from the aesthetic to the analysis. Talk shows largely reverse the age-old maxim ‘raise your argument not your voice’ and volume usually wins. Some of these problems can be attributed to a global breaking news culture that is amplified in Pakistan by virtue of terrorism coverage and constant political turmoil, but much of it has to do with our media approach being linked to market factors. In a country where business groups own most media channels, journalism as a discipline is constantly compromised in the interest of ratings.

Teaching media in such an environment is both challenging and exhilarating. Pakistan, for all its problems and conflict, is a journalist’s dream. A place where there is a story lurking at every turn if only one has the eye to spot it. For this reason, I always envisioned teaching media in a manner where students got to experience the practical dimensions of the discipline. This is why the core of the Media Writing course centres on investigation and exploring new technologies. In the spirit of tapping into a larger media climate directly, students are required to take out a fortnightly news publication, which they manage, edit and promote online. This attempt aims at promoting a lost tradition of student journalism that highlights education policy from the perspective of its lowest common denominator – students themselves. Students are required to investigate stories on their own, cultivate sources and make documentaries for the course. This time around, students will also be required to explore Pakistan beyond the media master narratives catering largely to the Punjab. Students will take on a province of their choice and analyse media coverage of various policy issues over the past 5 years to explore how grand narratives[1] are being framed in each context. The course will also include a session where students interact with other South Asian students from India, Bangladesh and Nepal to examine how media representations vary along socio-political and cultural lines. The real goal behind such an experimental approach where students are responsible for gathering information, contextualising it and eventually producing it for an audience and readership beyond themselves, is to examine how much of an impact education and training has on this overall exercise. In short, given the freedom to investigate and the resources to produce and frame information, can LUMS students perform differently than industry journalists?

In today’s media culture, it is often easy to overlook the fact that we are each, our own, media magnate. We all ‘produce’ media every day via facebook, twitter, instagram and by commenting on other peoples’ stories. This effectively means that we are each responsible for our own narrative and how it ties in with larger ones. This freedom is constantly redefining media culture, where journalist’ twitter profiles break news faster than television channels. The fact that students today can write an article, edit it and email it to any news organisation in the world in under an hour is a revolutionary development we often underestimate. Just a decade ago, publication was not an inherent right as it is today. It needed to be earned, a reporter would have to systematically battle with a hierarchy of editors and policy makers before passing muster and ‘making it to the page’. Today all it takes to get published is to produce content, email it to a newspaper and have it pass editorial standards. Students seldom recognise the power they have to ‘self publish’ and how essential it is that they do so responsibly.

Much of our relationship with the media depends on recognising ourselves as media agents. Whether or not one is a journalist, we are all sharing, liking, editing, shaping and producing ‘media’. The Doors rocker Jim Morrison famously said ‘Whoever controls the media controls the mind.’ Today’s media culture begs a qualifier ‘If you don’t control your mind someone else will’ and controlling our own mind requires controlling our own media.

[1] Grand narrative or “master narrative” is a term introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in his classic 1979 work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in which Lyotard summed up a range of views which were being developed at the time, as a critique of the institutional and ideological forms of knowledge. The term now applies to various branches of the social sciences and humanities and typically refers to pre-existent sociocultural forms of interpretation.



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