Whenever I tried to dwell upon what was happening to the media in the United States and Western Europe, some readers wondered how relevant it was to the Indian media experience. The history of Indian media is a part of the global media history. Earlier, the media’s growth was incremental in terms of numbers, reach and cross-country influences. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Indian media was a curious mix of the British and the American models. While most of its writing style and overall package came from the Oxbridge model, the fledgling Indian media’s strong anti-colonial strands drew from the U.S. model.
In the last two centuries, Indian media metamorphosed into an institution in itself. However, the last two decades marked a major departure from the past. Technological development has reduced the time lag between innovation and its impact on media in developed economies and developing economies. Satellite communication, 24x7 news channels, digital platforms and the internet communication have brought in a new, accelerated change, where the changes felt by the developed countries reach the developing countries much quicker. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, Indian media is bound to catch up with the crisis that is gripping the media of the developed world and hence it is imperative to take note of the challenges faced by media elsewhere to prepare ourselves to address them effectively as and when they surface here.
Lessons from Pew study
In this context, what lessons does the latest Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s study “The State of the News Media 2013” hold for us in India? The savage cuts in news gathering spending has impacted the quality of reporting. The study says: “a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. And findings from our new public opinion survey released in this report reveal that the public is taking notice. Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.”
After meticulously analysing the biggest story for the U.S. in 2012, its presidential election, the Pew study reveals that “that campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans. That meant more direct relaying of assertions made by the campaigns and less reporting by journalists to interpret and contextualize them.” The study further establishes a shocking fact that “only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans.”
I am very disturbed by many findings in this report because it will take no time for this malaise to contaminate Indian media, which has already permitted some abject commercialisation to take precedence over ethical journalism. Let me just share one of the numerous unsettling findings in this important report. It states: “In circumventing the media altogether, one company, Contently, connects thousands of journalists, many of them ex-print reporters, with commercials brands to help them produce their own content, including brand-oriented magazines. In early March, Fortune took that step, launching a program for advertisers called Fortune TOC — Trusted Original Content — in which Fortune writers, for a fee, create original Fortune-branded editorial content for marketers to distribute exclusively on their own platforms. Efforts by political and corporate entities to get their messages into news coverage are nothing new. What is different now — adding up the data and industry developments — is that news organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover the stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever…. For news organizations, distinguishing between high-quality information of public value and agenda-driven news has become an increasingly complicated task, made no easier in an era of economic churn.”
The bleakness is not purely for the print. The study revealed that the content in television fared no better. There was a major decline in packaged full-fledged stories and a huge spurt in the coverage of sports, weather and traffic reports. An analysis of cable revealed that “commentary and opinion are far more prevalent on the air (63% of the airtime) than straight news reporting (37%). CNN is the only channel to offer more reporting (54%) than opinion (46%), though by a small margin.”
In India too the financial squeeze for the media is real and the need for prudent deployment of resources is the concern of every media manager. The Pew study is a grim reminder of what will happen if we implement austerity measures in wrong areas.