‘The age of social media is also the age of fake news and disinformation’

Face2face Feature

The Executive Director of Bhutan Media Foundation (BMF), Needrup Zangpo, talks to Business Bhutan reporter Chencho Dema on the current Bhutanese media scenario and what can be done to help and support especially the private media, and measures to retain journalists in the profession.

1. Can you tell us about the current state of media in Bhutan?

Legacy media are shrinking and social media is growing. From 12 newspapers and six radio stations in 2012, we are down to five newspapers and four radio stations.

According to hootsuite.com, Bhutan has 370,000 active social media users (50% of the population) which have increased by 28% since 2017. That’s more than the readers of all the newspapers put together. A Facebook group called Bhutanese News & Forums, which is a cesspool of the lowest order of discussion, has 185,322 members, more than 23 times Kuensel’s daily print-run. This means shrinking space for professional journalism and growing space for unrestrained and chaotic space for citizens.

The exchange of news and information must be organized to multiply the positive impact and check the negative impact. In Bhutan, the bulk of news and information is exchanged on social media, often mixed with rumours and hearsay to form a heady concoction. The traditional media are not able to keep pace with the amount and speed of information shared and consumed by the citizens. More importantly, media and information literacy is not able to keep pace with the explosion of social media. As a result, the bulk of the population is not producing, consuming, and discussing the right news and information.

2. What are the challenges that the media faces and what could be the possible solutions?

This question contains two questions. By media, if you mean the traditional media, particularly the private newspapers, we are talking about a host of issues beyond the scope of this interview. We are down to five newspapers and four radio stations but we are still talking about their sustainability, meaning they don’t earn enough to pay themselves. For a population swamped by social media before it learnt to read, there seems to be too many media houses born of the government’s liberal licensing policy. The sustainability challenge leads to several challenges, including high attrition rates, falling professional standards, and declining public credibility, all of which will again lead to the sustainability challenge.

We can consider a few options to address these challenges. These are, by no means, ‘solutions’. There is simply no room for more media houses, which means it’s time to reassess the wisdom of the liberal licensing policy. Public funding of the media can be discussed in more detail as a viable option for a strong and responsible media. It must be noted here that some form of public funding of the media is already happening. It’s time for the media houses to think smart and transition online to keep pace with media production and consumption trends.

3. What is the role of conventional media in the age of social media?

The age of social media is also the age of fake news and disinformation. The conventional media can act as a counterpoise to the mindless chaos and mental junk that social media encourages. The most important distinction between the conventional media and social media is that the former comprises an organized group of professionals and latter, a mass – often mob – of often nameless and faceless individuals.

People who consider themselves ‘citizen journalists’ often undervalue the role of the conventional media. Some say there is no need of newspapers, radio, and television for they get all news, views, and information from social media. But experience tells us that the media content created, disseminated, and consumed by a diverse group of individuals can not only be unverified but also misleading. That’s when we need to turn to stories in the conventional media that carry bylines and are filtered through a gate keeping process. The simple fact that there is someone to complain to when misinformed or disinformed makes a big difference.

However, the conventional media’s role is not just to scavenge the social media landscape and verify news and information as we are often given to understand. They must lead the discourse and set the agenda.

4. Since the health of private media in Bhutan is in a critical stage, what interventions can help them? The Bhutanese mainstream news media industry has lost a good pool of seasoned and experienced journalists over the years. What could be done about it?

I have already answered the first part of the question in response to question 2. The media houses are losing experience and talent because they are not able to pay them adequately. This brings us back to the sustainability challenge. However, we must recognize that all professions lose experience and talent, and we must be prepared for that. Regular professional training and mentorship at different levels conducted by Bhutan Media Foundation is in response to the high attrition rate in the industry. Training and mentorship must continue to sustain professionalism.

On the other hand, the media houses must have retention plans and engage in strategic succession planning. In Bhutan, newsroom professionals hit the glass ceiling too soon, forcing them to switch career. This is lack of retention plan. And when senior professionals leave, the newsrooms are often unprepared and shift the responsibility to unprepared junior professionals. This is lack of succession planning.

5. The existing media legislation and policies have failed to ensure media development in the country. How far do you agree? And what could be done about it?

This is a sweeping statement. Whatever you mean by ‘media development’, it cannot be linked directly to legislation and policies. Several other factors are at play. Having said that, right legislation and policies can make a world of difference to the media. For example, the media licensing policy can hugely impact the development of the media. And enacting a public service broadcasting act will go a long way in strengthening and professionalizing BBS.

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