Flood- affected people vis-à-vis chasing sensationalism: Vacillating position of the media

Syed M. Fuad
AS OF July 22, 2019, northern regions of Bangladesh have been afflicted by some of the worst floods in recent years. Rain-swollen rivers have broken through embankments, and according to International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), hundreds of villages have been submerged, thousands of hectares of crops damaged, over 66,000 homes have been made unlivable and nearly 200,000 people have been displaced. At least 30 people have died so far from flooding and landslide triggered by the torrential rains and a further 4 million people are at the risk of food insecurity and disease.
Nevertheless, if one were to visit some of the major news websites in this country, they would have to make quite a bit of effort to locate a full comprehensive picture of the flooding situation. So what exactly are these newspapers covering?
Apparently, very high on the priority list is the news of Mashrafe bin Murtaza being ruled out of the upcoming Sri Lanka cricket tour, the confessional statement of Minni from the recent sensational Rifat Sharif murder case, some woman named Priya Saha who apparently made a fuss to the US President Donald Trump about the precarious state of religious minorities in Bangladesh, and most surprisingly, news about a Bangladeshi man marrying an American woman followed by a what appeared to be a comprehensive and chronological list of Bangladesh men who married foreigners for love.
Yes, you read that right, and no, these are not from any tabloid, but from major newspapers in Bangladesh. These make one wonder if this is what mainstream journalism standards have been reduced to?
Extensive coverage in CNN and CBS
I of course do not want to give the impression that the flooding news stories have been ignored, nevertheless, apart from a few reports, most were unimaginatively brief and monotonous, appearing like they were written by reluctant people during their lunch break. Compared to this, the floods have received much more extensive coverage in some lesser known local newspapers and even international media, including Al Jazeera, Times of India, CNN and CBS (a news channel most Bangladeshis would perhaps be unaware of). It appeared almost as if to some sections of the national news media, the poor people stranded in knee-deep water and their plights were somehow not as important as the men who succeeded in marrying foreigners.
A very important distinction has to be made here. We have to remember that a ‘higher quality’ newspaper is different from a tabloid newspaper. The difference is not limited to the standard paper size, but also in the contents. Are these newspapers trying to reinvent themselves as tabloids that chase sensationalism? Perhaps that is what readers want. But one must remember there isn’t much moral value in sensationalism.
Historically, the news media has played a major role in bringing national issues to light and carried important conversations forward. The news media often has an unparalleled power to influence how and what people think. When people lose faith in the government, they turn to the media. And when people open a major news website and the prominent news they see is of the marriage of a Bangladeshi man to an American bride ––– something so banal and crass that it should not invite a second glance from a cognisant human being ––– this faith is compromised.
Perhaps then, the media may just be reflection of the subconscious desires of people who read it! Maybe more people are interested in (and inspired by) reading about a local man married to a foreigner! If that is the case, what does it reveal about us? But more importantly, and maybe I am being cynical, what does it reveal about the newspapers? Yes, readership is important because it brings more revenue from circulation and advertising. And at the end of the day, newspapers need bottom line growth to remain sustainable. But is that all? Doesn’t journalism, or the news media industry as a whole, serve a greater purpose?
Yes it does. Before we forget, the news media is one of the more rigid pillars on which democracy rests. It acts as perhaps the strongest counterbalance to unchecked government overreach. At a time when democracy is being challenged, the role of the media should be much more assertive and bolder. It should not be committed to merely entertainment value, sensationalism or profit, but to truth. It is very important that that truth is not compromised in the pursuit of publicity and greater readership / viewership.
It has been almost three hours since I first saw the news of the inter-cultural-national wedding on the first page, and this has not yet been relegated to the obscure section of the website. How much longer will it take before some good sense prevails? It’s time these newspapers take a deeper look at themselves and question the role they are playing in society.
[Syed M. Fuad writes from the Georgia State University, USA. He may be reached at [email protected]]

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