“Why is the quality of media content today declining?” I asked, genuinely and urgently wanting to know.

The man representing the broadcast industry in Malaysia scrunched his forehead, his lips pursed as thoughts ran through his head. Several seconds passed. The hall was static with suspense. I started wondering if I had crossed the line with my question. I am a writer, a content creator, and I know how it feels like to be on the receiving end of a critical judgment.

It stings. Every content creator, every artist, will tell you that.

The man shifted in his seat and cleared his throat, “I disagree with your statement that the quality is declining.”

I was piqued. A running image of the never-ending slapstick comedy broadcasting in my campus’s cafe ran through my mind; all the mindless horror comedy films, the Islam-coated romance films, all the gangster action movies full of drugs and clubs and women being manipulated – and he disagrees?

“It depends on what you mean by quality,” the man explained, taking the cue from the skeptic look on my face.

“For you and for film critics – people who analyze and evaluate films based one journalistic standards -, the genres and content of the media today are of course sub-par compared to the past, for instance in terms of the intellectual component.

But for me, for people in the media industry, the quality of the media content are at an all-time high! Our yardstick for quality is audience engagement and profits, and the content we provide today are excelling in those measurements.

It’s not our fault that the media content is as such. It is what the people want: we track the numbers, analyze the patterns, and zoom in on the content formula that draws the most eyeballs and thus, money.

“We track the numbers, analyze the patterns, and zoom in on the content formula that draws the most eyeballs and thus, money.”

Our research shows that the Malay audience like gossip, popular artists, and comedy. So we play around with these components to see which has the best impact, and then we replicate the formula en masse across all programs.

Why do you think many programs now are hosted by a male comedian and a pretty female artist? Because it’s what keeps the audiences hooked.

We are just serving audiences what they want.”

I was dismayed.

I have always known that the media’s bottom line is profits, but to hear it from the horse’s mouth is something else. And to cement the idea that the nature of that profit is determined by us – the audiences – who actually chose to have ‘bad’ content?

An altogether different, upsetting, experience.

“People are basically illiterate – either “attitudinally” or “functionally”: they simply don’t like to do much serious reading or thinking, and they are hooked on entertainment. One only need look at the media in whatever country to see this “opiate” of the massess at work.” – John C. Merrill, Introduction to Global Western Journalism Theory

The same story is told even in online and print publications, from magazine content to viral lists spread on the Internet.

Last year, I conducted a research on the nature of Islamic women magazines in Malaysia. “Why are they full of fillers like hijab tutorials, make up, and clothes and accessories? Why isn’t there a mainstream Islamic women magazine that really builds on the Islamic content?” I asked a bunch of people well invested in the topic.

“Who wants to buy them? Publications depend on advertisements, and advertisements depend on circulation. Circulation depends on purchases, while purchases depend on the interests of the public. And the bottom line is, the public is not ready for the heavy stuff,” replied a lecturer with years worth of research backing up her claim. None of the interviewees disagreed.

And so as I sat opposite to the man from the broadcasting industry who had begun elaborating his case, a verse from the Qur’an tugged at the seams of my heart – that the destruction of the earth is that which is done by our own hands.

So when I asked why the quality of the media content declining, it turns out, like all of life’s questions, that the answer lies with and within me all along.