Dr. Vinod Kumar Kewalramani*
(Research Officer, Shiv CharanMathur Social Policy Research Institute, Jaipur)
We live in an age where media has come to dominate our lives. A free society needs a free press which must help the citizens make the best choice at the time of electing their leaders. For this, the media has to present a true picture of the state of politics in the country. We probably cannot expect the media to be run on idealistic lines, as was witnessed during the freedom struggle, but society is ill-served where the agenda is set by the money bags who own most of the media houses.
It is interesting to know that Acharya Narendra Dev, the great socialist thinker, had forecast way back in 1946, in a newspaper article, that with the rise in literacy more and more newspapers will fall into the hands of industrialists and business houses. He wrote that when ‘Press magnets’ take over the media the aims and the shape of newspapers will be vastly transformed. Money matters will dominate, not for the benefit of the masses, but to safeguard the interests of the rich classes. The number of newspapers will swell but the aim of the newspapers will be to attract more and more readers with the help of ‘cheap’ news —about war and conflict, gossip, crime etc. By winning over the readers, newspapers will influence the way ordinary men and women think about issues, particularly politics.
Acharya Narendra Dev had said six decades ago that instead of always looking toward the past we should fix our gaze on the future. We should not be burdened by the weight of the past because the intelligent man does not fight for the dead. Quoting Karl Marx, he asked can a Press dominated by the moneyed class be called independent. The journalist or the writer certainly needs money to sustain himself or herself, but life is not all about only earning money.
Press has to be free of capitalist control. A journalist or writer who contributes to the downfall of the Press by making it a slave of the capitalists’ interests needs to be punished, said Marx. It is wrong to judge a man by his wealth.
Questions over Media Credibility
A former head of the Press Council of India, Justice (retired) P.B. Savant, once said that media was no longer the fourth pillar; it has become the first pillar of our democracy because it has the right to comment on the performance of the three other pillars-executive, legislature and judiciary. We cannot imagine a life without the media. The growth of media in India since Independence has been phenomenal, especially in the last few decades.
The impressive growth of media in India has been accompanied by a rise in complaints against the media. Not all of them may be justified. But the weaknesses in the media cannot be denied. Ethics are frequently violated. The media has to pay more attention to discharging its responsibility toward society.
The nationalist newspapers of India had played a valuable role in the freedom struggle. It was the golden age of Indian journalism. Gandhiji, who was not only a great leader but also a great editor, had clearly said that India’s fight against British rule could not have been successfully fought without the help of newspapers. In India, the rise of this perverse phenomenon called ‘paid news’ has considerably lowered the trust and faith people had in the media. What has made it more serious is the fact that it has blossomed with the blessings of the proprietors.
But with time changes everything, including the perception of media in the country. Even the newspapers’ character and outlook have changed. The idealism of the freedom struggle days is giving way to commercial, market-oriented journalism. The print media is gradually becoming a form of business. Electronic media has already acquired that look. The media today follows the dictum ‘everything is fair in love and war’ because of the stiff competition and the bid to outdo rivals.
As a part of the information industry, journalism today sees the reader as a customer and has no interest in making the reader a well-informed, responsible citizen. There is only one yardstick to measure the success of a newspaper: how much advertisement revenue it generates and what profits it earns. It undermines the effort to maintain high journalistic standards.
A newspaper with a large circulation is not necessarily a good newspaper. A good newspaper is one which helps readers become better citizens, a paper that is more aware of the problems faced by mankind. Good newspapers all over the world care about the respect and credibility their readers bestow on them; earning profit or pushing up sales is not their main motive.
There is no doubt that newspapers today are more colourful and attractive. But are they doing justice to meet the intellectual needs of their readers? It appears that newspapers are being given a coat of paint on the outside instead of making they are interior more meaningful and substantive. More attention is being paid to making the ‘product’ look attractive rather than improving its internal quality. Many newspapers have proved that circulation can be boosted by presenting news items that appeal to the baser instincts.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in recent years the credibility and influence of newspapers have suffered. Things are not very different in countries outside India either. In the US and France, for instance, surveys have indicated that people feel newspapers are not fully discharging their responsibilities.
In this context, it may be noted that the Western news media often looks prejudiced and one-sided. The so-called Third World is the victim of biased reporting in the Western media. Perhaps it is thought to be a service to the (Western) nations!
In India, more complaints are received against the media by the Press Council of India than complaints against the government. Most of the complaints to the PCI are against language and regional newspapers and publications from small towns. The complaints are related to news items that are published without verification of facts, including allegations against organisations.
Some of the complaints are about blackmail by journalists who resort to it as a source of easy money. There are complaints that journalists have been deliberately biased and have refused to print clarifications from the victims. Many journalists like to twist facts. English language newspapers are also guilty of printing unverified news items. Readers face a real dilemma when they find different versions of certain news reports, with wide variations in facts.
It is very strange that most newspapers hesitate to acknowledge their mistakes. A common complaint is that a news report criticising an individual or an organisation was published prominently on page one but its contradiction was either not printed or printed in an obscure corner.
The maddening competition for ‘breaking news’ has dented the credibility of the media, particularly the electronic media. To be ahead of the competition, the news is flashed without any verification or cross-checking. The worst part is that the unfounded ‘breaking news’ put out by one TV channel is quickly picked up by other channels. When such news is exposed as a concoction or baseless no apology is offered.
A way to protect the interest of all stakeholders—the reader and the viewer— is to encourage the media to appoint ombudsmen in their organisations. The effort so far does not seem to have made any mark. The Times of India group had started it with much fanfare but it was soon scrapped. The Hindu has appointed a Readers’ Editor. What exactly does that sign is not clear. The Press Council of India is a toothless wonder. Any official monitoring of the media is to be opposed, but has self-censorship worked satisfactorily?
Society and Media
A lot of concern is being expressed over the declining standards of the media in general and electronic media in particular. The question is: What kind of news should be given priority by journalists? If the subject of reporting is related to development then the stories can be classified into two categories-one, related to projects and development programmes and two, related to issues.
A power station built for a rural area, providing drinking water to a parched area, devising new ways of educating the people or introducing new techniques for increasing crop yield are all projects and part of development programmes that benefit a large section of the populace. In the final analysis, these programmes are about people and their welfare.
There can be a long list of issues that the media need to discuss and write about. But all the issues also need to be solved. Related to a project or programme can be the issue of underpayment of wages to women labour or a women’s cooperative venture which opens the possibility of women receiving better wages for their labour. Exploitation and trafficking of young girls are often the results of the poverty of their parents. Opportunities for better jobs for the parents can prevent their children from falling into the wrong hands and enable them to attend school.
An issue always worth focusing on is the craze for the male child and how it has disturbed the sex ratio in the country. There are many issues related to education, health and jobs that we can report for creating a better society. We can select ‘active’ or ‘passive’ stories that affect our society. ‘Passive’ stories are the stories which become available with little or no effort. Press releases and government and private sector handouts belong to this category. Only a little effort is required to write these stories which come in readymade, written form. These stories do not strain the journalists’ skills or test their real writing capabilities.
Accidents and calamities keep happening and the journalist has to keep his eyes open to know when and where they happened before reporting them. It is the kind of event that may involve a test of journalists’ skills.
‘Active’ reporting requires the reporter to scan the horizon, go to the root of the problem and keep his or her eyes open all the time. He or she has to feel the pulse of the issues which the reader may like to read with interest. If a large part has been inundated by floods the reporter has to explore the reason behind the flood fury. If a story suggests an increase in the number of divorces, it will also be necessary to see if it has any link to the rise in literacy and if it has anything to do with strain in relations between male and female members of a family. A more interesting angle to explore will be to see if it has anything to do with TV serials, now being watched in the villages too.
Those reporting on development issues must focus on issues, old and new, that confront the society. For instance, how is the unchecked growth of traffic in urban areas restricting the children from playing in the open? How is the increase in air and noise pollution affecting our health?
Development journalism encompasses stories and features that encourage progress, respect people’s achievements and fights against the oppression and suppression of mankind.
There should be no dearth of subjects for writing development stories. Inventions that save lives or reduce the burden on hard labour practices, ways to improve employment opportunities, ways to reduce crime and countering the many social ills are all components of development reporting.
News and Entertainment Channels
After the Supreme Court declared in 1995 that airwaves could not be used solely to promote certain individuals or institutions there has been a phenomenal growth of the electronic media-private TV channels devoted to both entertainment and news. It is one area where the growth of Hindi and other regional languages has perhaps left the English language far behind.
But a large number of independent news channels can perhaps be described only as a mixed blessing. Some may not be too enthused to see this growth. The private channels are engaged in a mad race to capture TRPs (television rating points). It appears to be a race for survival. The more viewers a channel has the more money it is likely to earn from advertisements. And you need plenty of money to run a channel.
As a result, the competing channels have to do all kinds of ‘experiments’ to grab the eyeballs. Journalism no longer decides what is best in the interest of society or viewers but market forces do. Crime stories presented with sufficient sensationalism have become a major attraction on these channels. Sociologists cry that this kind of sensationalism is bad for society. The youngsters are learning about crime. The issue comes up for brief mention in parliament too. But nothing much has changed. The TV channels have actually maintained that their crime shows actually spread awareness about crime in society!
A new tool to attract viewers is called the ‘sting’ operation. It has spared non-politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and even film stars and sportsmen. The frequent and excessive use of this tool has raised questions about journalistic ethics. ‘Sting’ operations do not look like going away. But the TV channels are aware of its decreasing credibility and popularity.
Never mind. They have found a new way to boost their viewership. They discovered another frailty in human nature-the fondness for watching witches, ghosts, spirits, genies etc on the screen. Indians, especially in rural areas, have been superstitious. It did not require much effort to use fear and terror as a good source for boosting both viewership and revenue! Many TV channels are exploiting it and laughing all the way to the bank.
Meanwhile, the news channels have a competition-from the social media. So what! The channels are marching ahead by taking the tabloid route. Gossip, particularly about film stars, partying, lifestyle, fashion shows, and vulgar displays of wealth-there is no dearth of subjects that appeal to the lowest denominator and guarantee viewership. It hardly matters that much of what is on view is urban-oriented. Indian TV channels can take credit for discovering TRP potential in the presentation of ‘news’!
Challenges Before Media
There has been a massive media explosion in India in the wake of globalisation. Easier and faster means of communication have altered the shape and character of media as we knew it. It is said that for a long time the world was dominated by agriculture, then came the industrial age and the 21st-century society will be dictated by the power of information and communication. The world is beginning to look like a village.
The fact is that the markets today have been invaded by Western culture, language, goods and techniques. The march of the West in markets like India is visible. After the era of liberalisation dawned in India in 1991, media companies from the West that have penetrated much of the world have been trying to enter the Indian media market with full control. They climbed the first step when the government gave permission for direct foreign investment in the Indian electronic media. It is not unrealistic to fear that the foreign ownership of the media will lead to more vulgar content with many issues of vital concern to the ordinary Indians being relegated to the background.
Issues relating to poverty, unemployment, illiteracy etc are not the first priority of most of our TV channels; it is likely to be less so if and when the control passes into foreign hands. A foreign media company operating in India cannot be expected to protect and promote Indian interests. There is going to be an escalation of coverage of crime and sex. That will be described as a compulsion to stay in business. There will be virtually no obligation to fight injustice and atrocities on the less privileged sections who are already pushed into the background by the media. Will a media under a new order be able to resist the so-called market demands?
While we mull over this question, it might also be worthwhile to worry about the steep fall in the credibility and respectability of the government-controlled media in India which is trying to be an out and out government propaganda tool with no care about falling broadcast and journalism standards.
Media watchers have watched with alarm and concern the greed of the proprietors to worry more about profits rather than arrest the fall in the credibility and respectability of the media by presenting fair and balanced comments and news. Editors are being used as public relations men for their proprietors. It is tragic that the media which is entitled to question the ethics and morality of our rulers and policymakers is not willing to play by the rules of ethics and morality. The dumbing down of the electronic media should worry us all, but how will it be arrested when neither our rulers nor those who operate these channels care about it.