Media is considered to be the fourth pillar of the society, while the other three being legislative, executive and judiciary, sets to play as an important role in the welfare of society. According to the Malaysian context today, the traditional media comprising its print and broadcast components are increasingly being challenged by the new and modern media.
With the media ownership and capability of censorship by political parties and special interest groups as a form of control over the mainstream media, this brings the issue of bias and trustworthiness towards how society perceives the mainstream media today.
Background of Study
The mass media plays a vital role in the lives of society today in any country. It works as an informer, an educator, a form of entertainment and an opinion influencer. Some may argue that today television channels and newspapers are making fast money by cashing on the news in wrong sense and wrong way by breaking all the limits media must follow while serving to build a healthy and progressive society and due to this, society turns to an alternative form of media to obtain truth and information.
1.1.1 Mainstream Media
The mainstream media refers to the media distributed through large distribution channels, newspaper, radio and television, generally representing what the majority of media consumers are likely to encounter. In today’s age, a lot of beliefs are in some ways formed via the mainstream media. It is therefore worth looking at what the media presents, how it does so, and what factors affect the way it is done. (Shah, 2009) Whether it is political news or general news, the mainstream media has the capability to influence media users through the beliefs formed.
However, with the issue of censorship by political parties or special interest groups that controls the mainstream media together with the emergence of the alternative media; the mainstream media is slowly being pushed aside.
A research done by Public Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press in 2009 showed that 29% of Americans’ stated that news organizations like CNN, FOX News and MSNBC generally get the facts straight while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate. In the initial survey in this series about the news media’s performance in 1985, 55% said news stories were accurate while 34% said they were inaccurate. That percentage had fallen sharply by the late 1990s and has remained low over the last decade. Similarly, only about a quarter, 26%, now say that news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased, compared with 60% who say news organizations are politically biased. (Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low, 2009).
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The issue of credibility and biasness caused such drop in two decades as media users in the United States question the capability and credibility of the mainstream media. A recent survey done in 2010 showed that 57% of Americans have little or no trust in the media. Schechter (2010) says that too many reporters on mainstream media new outlets are simply giving opinion rather than reporting. People are no longer relying on their old network choices as media users are more aware of the gaps and omissions that the mainstream media has when presenting news. This happens mainly because the media institution normally reflects on the government due to the governments’ control over the mainstream media.
The reason why Americans doubt the mainstream media is because the people who are portrayed in the mainstream media are often government officials or people criticizing government officials making the reports predictable and babbly to a point where people turns againts it because it is not enlightening and they are not really being told anything they do not know, (Schechter, 2010) Due to this, media users are slowly tuning out the mainstream media and are looking for alternative media in the search for real truth.
1.1.2 Mainstream Media in Malaysia
After Malaysia gained independence in 1957, the mainstream print media was owned by private sector companies. Then the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) made a successful bid for the Utusan Melayu a few years afterwards. Over the years, the major English newspaper, The New Straits Times was also taken over by UMNO of the ruling National Front, while The Star was bought over by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and mainstream television channels like TV1, TV2 and TV3 were born, controlled by the government.
Recently a poll by the Merdeka Centre showed that six out of 10 Malaysians do not trust the mainstream media. The June 27 to July 25 survey commissioned by a research organisation to a total of 590 Chinese and 413 Malays as well as five focus group discussions with Chinese voters in Peninsula Malaysia. The survey showed that 57% of Malays polled said they did not trust reports in the mainstream media, while 33% trusted the media and 10% said they did not know. As for the Chinese community, 58% said they did not trust the mainstream media, 30% trusted and 12% did not know. The findings will provide sober reading for many mainstream media organisations. Recent circulation figures show that English and Malay-language newspapers like New Straits Times, The Star, Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia have all suffered significant drop in circulation this year compared to 2009, with some as severe as 20% (Asrul, 2010).
Malaysia’s Centre for Independent Journalism shows that local mainstream media has lost is credibility. A survey done by the centre revealed that Malaysians were critically assessing the content of the local mainstream media, upon which the majority relied heavily as sources of information. Asked to rate the performance of the mainstream media according to six indicators: ethical, variety of opinions included, variety of issues covered, objectivity, fairness and truthfulness and only 56% said they were all met. The figure plummeted to 35% when it came to fairness of reporting. (‘Public critical of media content, want more independence’, 2008) The credibility and dependency on the mainstream media by media users are growing weaker and the distribution of news through the mainstream media are being doubted.
Raja Petra (2010) stated the mainstream media was playing up on the issue of what PAS President, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang said that is he too supports the rights and privileges of the Malays. Hadi was responding to a reporter’s question about his comments on what Tony Pua said that there should no longer be a special discount for Bumiputera buyers of luxury homes or expensive houses. What Hadi said was Tony Pua’s view is his personal view and which was never raised, discussed and agreed by Pakatan Rakyat. The mainstream media reports that Hadi said, “The rights and privileges of the Malays and the bumiputeras should be retained because the majority of the poor in the country were bumiputeras and that they had a right to the privileges.”
UMNO and the mainstream media changed what Hadi actually said to make it appear like he too is now fighting for Malay rights and privileges, but Hadi made it very clear that we must fight for all needy Malaysians regardless of race and clean up the abuse in the implementation process and address the mismanagement of the economy. (Kamaruddin, 2010)
If the mainstream media is able to turn or change such words to make the public believe what the media wants them to, how would the media be able to trust and believe what the mainstream media reports? It is cases like this where the mainstream media ownership holds a sway in the reportage of national affairs and going-on in and out of the country, having society doubt the credibility and trustworthiness of the media.
1.1.3 Alternative Media
Silverstone (1999) stated that the alternative media have created new spaces for alternative voices that provide the focus both for specific community interests well as for the contrary and the subversive. Atton (2002) believes that the study of alternative media and of their organizations, production and dissemination opens up politically liberating approaches to these ‘media on their margins’
A survey conducted in 2004 by People Press showed that with most other media trends flat, the steady growth in the audience for online news stands out. As the public has moved away from traditional news sources local and network television news, newspapers and, to a lesser extent, radio online news consumption has increased dramatically. In 1995, just 2% of the public was going online at least three days a week to get news. That number had increased more than sixfold (to 13%) by 1998 and nearly doubled again (to 23%) by 2000. The growth has been slower since then, but still trending upward (currently at 29%). (News Audiences Increasingly Politicized, 2010)
1.1.4 Alternative Media in Malaysia
Online journalism only came into Malaysian attention in the period of 1997 to 1998 and tremendously flourished afterwards. The increasing numbers of online users suggests that online journalism in Malaysia is gaining more and more attention and places it functionally as important as the mainstream media (Ghazali, 2004). Over the years, society has been turning to the alternative media to obtain news as many believe that the mainstream media portrays news that only speaks for one side of a party.
A study conducted by Zentrum Future Studies Malaysia in 2008 involving 1, 500 respondents between the age of 21 and 40 showed that the alternative media holds a big influence on young Malaysians. In the study, 64.5% of those ages from 21 to 30 years old trusted blogs and online media for reliable information. Those between 31 and 40 years old, 61.7% believed that information in blogs and online media are true. (Study Shows Why BN Lost the War, 2008)
The parliamentary elections in 2008 brought the alternative media to a different level when weblogs, text messages and copies of Internet-streamed videos became the most influential information sources for voters ahead that resulted in a surprise blow to the Barisan National (BN) party, which has ruled the country for more than 50 years.
After BN’s worst election showing, in which it lost its two-thirds majority in the parliament, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged March 25 that his coalition “certainly lost the Internet war,” and added that it was “a serious misjudgement” for his party to rely solely on government-controlled newspapers and television in its efforts to attract voters, (Kaufman, 2008). The alternative media gave media users a chance to hear what opposition parties have to say as it is not controlled by the government.
Democracy is a political form of government in which it highlights the government’s power and shows guideline on civil rights protection. It is also a system, in the words of Abraham Lincoln- of the people, by the people and for the people, (Simon & Schuster, 2006)
Democracy as a system of governance is supposed to allow extensive representation and inclusiveness of as many people and views as possible to feed into the functioning of a fair and just society. Democratic principles run in line with the ideals of universal freedoms such as the right to free speech. (Shah, 2008)
Shah (2008) stated that there are many examples of successful democracies include nations that have had time to form a national identity, such as various European or North American countries. Other nations, often made up of many diverse ethnic groups, may find themselves forced to live together. A major example would be most African countries, whose artificial borders resulted from the 1885 Berlin Conference where European colonial and imperial powers, not Africans, carved up Africa, for the colonial ruler’s own benefit, not for Africans.
1.1.6 Democracy in Malaysia
Throughout the last decades, Malaysians have enjoyed regular elections and political stability. However, the stability slowly took a turn when the detention of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and the subsequent sentence of 15 years for charges of corruption, abuse of power, and sexual misconduct made the public lose its faith in the integrity of the government’s aims.
Adding to that, the growing number of detentions under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and other repressive laws severely threaten political competition, participation, and civil and political liberties. In the final analysis, growing public concerns about the government’s compliance with democratic rules are undermining the legitimacy of the regime. (Heufers, 2002) A rapid change in democracy happened after BN lost its two-thirds majority in the parliament in 2008 after a 50-year long rule.
1.1.7 Democracy and the Media
The media is essential in the modern world of democracy because it can inform the people and influence their decisions in private and public life. It may also seek to lay down an agenda for the nation to pursue. (Azizuddin, 2009) Shah (2009) stated that in the US and UK for example, there have been various cases of media outlet parent companies contributing to election campaigns or candidates or parties. Famously, Tony Blair got support by Ruper Murdoch and The Sun tabloid, usually a right-leaning paper, which helped him come to power in 1997.
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In Italy when Silvio Berlusconi became Prime Minister on more than one occasion, he was a powerful media mogul and was able to use that to good effect to promote his agenda and sometimes controversial views. As one of Italy’s richest men he was also embroiled in various allegations of corruption, including from the influential Economist magazine. Berlusconi has been able to use his influence in business, media and politics to avert much criticism and charges in various ways. (Shah, 2008)
1.1.8 Democracy and the media in Malaysia
With the mainstream media controlled by means of coercive legislations as well as ownership and control of the major publications journalists are suffering the same pressure from existing repressive acts as other actors of the civil society.
Malaysian newspapers are not uniform in their reporting nor do they express only a single point of view but they usually abstain from reporting about activities of the political opposition. If they do, then they present these activities in an unfavourable light. Furthermore, there is little critical commentary and analysis of political and economic developments. The members of the Malaysian middle class especially, are increasingly disappointed with this lack of critical commentary and political analysis. They turn to foreign media as well as the alternative press within Malaysia. The latter mainly comprises the publications of opposition parties, independent publications as well as those of public interest groups like consumer associations and human rights organisations, (Azizuddin, 2009). The power of the government over the mainstream media is strong and this influences the selection of news that is to be presented to the public hence the users opt for another selection media to obtain new from.
Earlier this year, NTV7 producer resigned in protest over his company’s decision to stop his talk show from commenting on the upcoming by-election at Hulu Selangor, following pressure said to have emanated directly from the ruling coalition. A TV2 documentary on the controversial Bakun Dam and the forced relocation of Sarawak’s natives was forced off the air, just before the Sibu parliamentary by-election took place. It is clear that open debate has little room to flourish in Malaysia, (Yeoh, 2010).
Since the major turn over in 2008, the role of alternative media has blossomed and become a highly dependent source of information. However, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak argues that the mainstream media has one strength which cannot be found in the alternative media and that is the mainstream media can be considered as fact based. The biasness and trustworthiness is a rising issue with the mainstream media leaving media users perplexed with the curiosity to have a better understanding or different opinion to what is really going on. This polarized state of the Malaysian media has resulted in society turning to the alternative media as a new source of information.
Questions whether the public space in Malaysia is being shut down after PAS’ weekly, Harakah, ran into trouble when ministry refused to extend its permit when that ran out on July 7 and now has the journal’s back against the wall for daring to continue publication. Also, the ministry’s threat to close down the DAP’s monthly, The Rocket. Here again, the excuse was the lack of an extended permit. (Ooi, 2010)
The mainstream media should be able to report everything that is going on the political scene of a country because this is what society wants to know. However, the mainstream media today is holding a sway and having restrictions to reporting a piece of news causing media users to be doubtful and to opt for a second opinion to obtain news. Even so, the alternative media is being constantly challenged by the government in form of permits and news being reported. Therefore this study would be able to obtain information on why media users chooses between the mainstream and alternative media to obtain news and by choosing the selected form of media, does it make a difference when it comes to democracy.
To analyze the dependency of obtaining political news though the mainstream media and alternative media by media users.
To determine the influence of public space towards democratic change through the mainstream media or alternative media
Which form of mainstream and alternative media do media users depend on to obtain political news?
Why do media users choose one form of media over the other to obtain political news?
Through past experience, has the dependency on one form of media over another influence public space and brought a democratic change through that chosen form of media?
What sort of changes has the form media brought to the media users?
Definition of Terms
Dependency conceptually refers to the state of relying on or being controlled by someone or something else (Dependency, 2010). Base on operational, it refers to the form of media that media users choose to control them in order to obtain political news, be it mainstream or alternative.
Change conceptually refers to a passing of one phase to another. (Change, 2010) Operational wise, to find out whether there has been a phasing of one phase to another in terms of democracy and social equality base on the society’s dependency on the mainstream or alternative media.
1.6 Significance of Study
The polarization of news media is not healthy; therefore the significance of this study is to properly analyze which whether media users depend on the mainstream of alternative media to obtain political news. This thesis will study the dependency of media users aged between 21 to 50 years old on the English and Bahasa Malaysia mainstream newspapers, The Star, The New Straits Times, Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and The Sun and alternative media, Malaysian Insider, MalaysiaToday, MalaysiaKini and Harakah Daily
As some media users shift towards the alternative to obtain news, there are some to still find that the mainstream media delivers the truth. This also allows future research on why media users prefer one from the other when it comes to obtaining political news.
Through this, this research will conclude on whether media users feel that the choice of mainstream or alternative media has brought any democratic change to their public space.
This research aims to analyze the dependency of media users towards the media to obtain political news, be it mainstream of alternative. This dependency would then decide whether the choices of media users have created a public space bringing any form of democratic change.