Journalism at its best can even have a leading role in the “agenda-building” process though this should not be confused with “agenda-setting” and “propaganda,” N. Ram, Editor-in Chief, The Hindu, said here on Monday.
Speaking on “Media as Protector of Public Discussion” at the opening session of a two-day roundtable on Markets, Media and Democracy, organised jointly by UNICEF and the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, Mr. Ram said a very key function of the media was that related to “agenda-building.”
Elucidating the more crucial functions of the media, Mr. Ram said if those related to “credible information” and “critical assessment investigation” were done well, there was tremendous potential for what he described as yet another of the functions — “the educative.”
The credible information function could be seen as a prerequisite to that of critical assessment investigation, which “is the more progressive role,” he added. “If it weakens as it appears today the media will get into serious trouble.”
“The fourth function — that of agenda-building was very, very important,” Mr. Ram observed, even as he described as “very negative” the “manufacture of consent function,” that of “propaganda.”
“If these roles are played well, the media can make a difference to the public agenda; can become an autonomous, pro-active force in relation to society on issues that matter,” he emphasised.
Making quite clear that his intent was not to talk about the media in general but about the news media, he said that despite the “brutal impact” of recession and the global meltdown, the circulation and readership of newspapers was still rapidly growing in the country as was the viewership of news television.
“But we do not know when the momentum will slow down,” Mr. Ram said, even as he pointed out that the “hyper-dependence on advertisements” because of the revenue it brought in “is an area of vulnerability.”
There also “must be a ‘lakshman-rekha' between the editorial domain and the marketing, business domain,” he said. “The more corporate it gets the less independence to editorial functions.”
On the question of the role of politics being a “trigger” for newspaper circulation, Mr. Ram said this “could be good or bad. It cuts both ways.”
Regretting the phenomenon of “paid news,” he said the media had gone corrupt to a considerable extent with “newspapers being given equity in certain companies to promote products [of the latter] as news.”
“Yet we have a considerable democratic segment in the Indian media. Good journalists are in short supply but in good demand,” Mr. Ram said.
The role of the editor may have been “devalued if not destroyed in many newspapers,” but all is not gloom. “I believe much of the strength of the Indian Press is the strength of history — of struggles for reform, social and radical.”
But also imperative are “codes of practice which our industry lacks,” Mr. Ram said, underscoring the need for institutions like that of an “internal news ombudsman. What is very important is “self-correction, being open to readers. We still hope external regulations can be avoided,” he added.