We’re back after a long newsletter hiatus! It’s been a busy year so far for the team at In Old News. We’ve conducted trainings in mobile, video, fact checking, artificial intelligence, data and open journalism in 6 countries and we’re prepping for more trainings over the next 6 months. But we’ve been missing this newsletter, and over the next few months we’re excited to bring you more interviews with journalists. Starting with tips on how to cover the media landscape, which you know is a topic we’re passionate about. If you know anyone who’d find this interesting, we’d really appreciate if you could spread the word and share this newsletter, which is now more than 1,030 subscribers strong! Let’s dive in.
Journalists are often described as the watchdogs of democracy. It can be a difficult career choice with poor pay and very real threats from those in power. And Al Jazeera’s show, The Listening Post, is working to keep tabs on what the world’s media is up to — from the stories that they cover, to the threats that they face. It’s not an easy job, there are thousands of news organisations worldwide publishing in hundreds of languages. But the Listening Post has been doing this work for its weekly show since 2006. In the last few years they’ve covered the aftermath of the Indian government’s ban on a BBC documentary series about the Gujarat Riots, the errors made by the US media covering the Iraq war, and many other stories from China, to Brazil and beyond. We asked Meenakshi Ravi, executive producer at The Listening Post, how her team approaches this global mandate when we met her at the International Journalism Festival in April.
You can listen to the full conversation here, or watch it here:
In Old News: How did you get started in media analysis?
Meenakshi: I think the entire reason I got into media analysis is really because I started working at Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera English was created very soon after the Iraq war, and the Iraq war is seen as kind of emblematic. One of our modern examples of media, especially in the Western world, really failing at doing its duty, really failing at holding people to account.
So for those of us at Al Jazeera English, this was a moment to really analyze and critique media as a center of power, just the way media is meant to critique other centers of power. We felt it was time for the media to be treated as a center of power in itself, because that's what it is. So I would owe my career as a media analyst, as a journalist covering the media beat, I would owe that to Al Jazeera English.
In Old News: Is covering media the same as covering other beats? Or is it very different?
Meenakshi: Covering the media as a beat in itself is not like any other beat because you have to come to it with your own biases as a journalist and have an understanding of the nuances, of the challenges of doing journalism in different beats. So, for example, when you are analyzing business journalism, you need to understand what are the challenges of journalism generally, but also the specific nuances of covering business.
What are the conflicts of interest? What are the pressures you go through? Then when you're doing war reporting, there are very specific challenges that war reporters are facing. How do you critique that fairly, given that you as a journalist, know all of the challenges and all of the various factors that influence people's reporting? So I think doing journalism on journalism is a particular niche in itself.
In Old News: How do keep up with all the different contexts of what's going on in the world?
Meenakshi: So I think, you know, for journalists who want to cover journalism, I think you have to find your specialism, right? Are you going to be looking at journalism in a particular region, in a particular language, in a particular beat? Choose your niche, because doing all of it all the time is not possible unless, of course, you have a large, diverse team with varied interests.
It's not going to be possible. So my advice would be pick your niche, work out where you have a good understanding, [where] you have some subject matter knowledge yourself so that you can critique fairly. That would be one thing. And then you've got to be a news junkie like no other. Like you've got to be a news junkie at another level because you are actually consuming not just news, but then you are consuming news about the news. You know, you're not just reading the coverage, you're covering the coverage. So for that, you need to be at another level.
In Old News: What is the importance of covering the media at this time in history?
Meenakshi: So I'm really lucky. I have been covering media as a beat for more than 15 years now. And there was a time at which I felt, do people really need their media interrogated like this? And I must say, in all the years that I've been doing it, I found the need has only increased. One of the trends I have seen is that there is this widespread mistrust that really needs media literacy to be dealt with.
You know, so in order to kind of combat a kind of amorphous mistrust in the media where all media outlets are lumped together, irrespective of their strengths and weaknesses, I actually think media literacy is a huge part of of the puzzle that we need to kind of fill in. Otherwise, we're going to constantly have these half baked and one sided debates about whether media is fake or whether it's trying to misinform us because people don't really know how to read the media.
In Old News: What are the trends that you're seeing in the media over the years?
Meenakshi: So as a journalist who's been covering the media for a very long time, there are some specific trends I have seen cutting across regions, across nations, across languages. One is definitely a very steady and constant threat to media that wants to function outside of state approval. All right? Sometimes we call this independent media, but I'll be honest, all of us have our own causes, our own missions.
I won't call them agendas, but the fact is, it's not so much just about independent media. It's about diverse voices. And more and more, I find across the world businessmen and people with vested interests are buying up these media outlets so that they can be silenced. That's one thing I'm finding. I'm also finding that in many cases, the ability for people to misinform and disinform at kind of a mass scale is becoming more and more pronounced. And that's because of the tools we have in our hands. The ability to combat that is going to become increasingly more difficult if all of us are going to give in to the belief that all media is fake. So that's where we have these problems of, you know, recurring issues that we are seeing.
Well, finally, I will also say far too many journalists find it really easy, cheap to get eyeballs by just spouting out the most fear mongering, the most anger inducing messages. From Fox News in the United States to you know, a channel called Republic in India. This is the same kind of echo we see. And it's also happening online. So we need to be really wary about the fact that our attention spans are getting shorter and our ability to differentiate between opinion and news is getting more warped.
In Old News: When it comes to media literacy, do you think we’ve reached a point where we’ve stagnated?
Meenakshi: I do worry at times that media literacy is really not high on most people's agenda, and I can understand why. News is complex and now you're telling people to do a bit of study about how to read the news before they read the news. That’s tough, you know. And for most people, news isn't the only thing they're consuming.
They're also getting their opinions shaped by popular culture. They're having their opinions shaped by a singer or by an influencer. So the important thing is that media literacy is so vital. But I don't think it's a high enough priority for most people and for and for some, you know, vested interests like big government or big politicians. It's actually better for people not to have media literacy because otherwise, you know, they're too “hip” to you.