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Updated: February 3, 2014 07:59 IST

When truth is the casualty

A.S. Panneerselvan
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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

There are two methods to assess the relationship between a newspaper and its readers. One is qualitative and the other is quantitative. The role of the Readers’ Editor is within the qualitative framework. Here, the value for readers’ time and money is evaluated from the perspective of accuracy, fairness, relevance and credible informational flow. The analytical tool here is editorial judgment.

The quantitative method is preferred by the market to understand a newspaper’s reach, and various readership surveys are part of this universe. Like the rap lyric — men lie, women lie but numbers don’t — the underlying assumption is that a good statistical model will reveal the readership figures for a newspaper which is different from its circulation. Circulation figures for newspapers are compiled independently by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The readership survey is supposed to capture the demographic details. But, the latest Indian Readership Survey (IRS), done by the Media Research Users Council (MRUC) and Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI) has absurd figures and defies all logic and reason.

Extraordinary disappearance

When a survey — that projects its findings based on a sample on to a larger universe — comes out with results that are inconsistent with several basic, independently verifiable facts, the obvious conclusion is that there is something seriously wrong with its methodology or its execution. For instance, IRS claims the readership of English language newspapers as a whole plummeted from 1.82 crore to 1.49 crore during the assessment period last year, a loss of 33.5 lakh. But what caused this extraordinary ‘disappearance’ of readers remains a mystery. No wonder the leading newspapers of this country have condemned IRS 2013 and have demanded its withdrawal.

Some of the baffling findings of IRS are worth sharing with the readers: Hitavada, the leading English newspaper of Nagpur with a certified circulation of over 60,000, doesn’t appear to have a single reader now; The Hindu Business Line has thrice as many readers in Manipur as in Chennai and the Readership per Copy (RPC) of all English Dailies in Metros has over hundred percentage point variations: while it is over 2.3 in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, it dramatically becomes less than one in Chennai and a mere 0.6 in Hyderabad. Again, no credible explanation has been offered. The Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu pointed out: “it is a statistical improbability that a copy of The Hindu has a readership of 0.1 in Madurai and 0.6 in Coimbatore. The lack of credibility of IRS 2013 data is evident from the finding that Business Line, a sister publication of The Hindu, has nil readers in Chennai and Mumbai where the circulation is 20,520 and 21,716 copies respectively.”

What is disheartening is that there is a total failure in capturing the reach of all forms of media. If the IRS failed the print industry, the Television Rating Point (TRP) has failed to gain the broadcast industry’s confidence. TRP is a tool provided to judge which programmes are viewed the most. This gives an index of the choice of the people and also the popularity of a particular channel. This gross failure of the quantitative measurement of individual media titles’ reach should be contrasted with the media’s initiative to address the qualitative issues in a serious and sustained manner.

Credibility and the media industry

Even as you read this column, senior editors and media thinkers from India and the United Kingdom are meeting in Chennai for a two-day deliberation to discuss Media, Public Interest and Issues of Regulation. They aim to discuss a range of themes that include reconciling freedom and accountability, issues of regulation in the media, whistle-blowing and journalism, opportunities and challenges of the Internet, journalistic ethics, journalism and the public interest and, finally, the future of journalism.

Some years ago, journalism scholars Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, contended that there are three key forces that are causing a shift away from journalism connected to citizen building: the first is the nature of the new technology, the second major factor is conglomeration, and the third factor driving new market journalism is globalisation. In one of my earlier columns, “Giving the full picture” (December 24, 2012), I touched upon their significant contribution to journalism theory by talking about the Theory of the Interlocking Public.

Credible and trustworthy information is the bedrock on which democracy can be built. To achieve this, there is a need to protect the viability of the media industry. While media scholars deal with the qualitative issues, it becomes incumbent upon statisticians and other number crunchers to come up with a methodology that is rigorous in its approach to provide a dependable and foolproof data base of the media’s reach. If their larger projections from the samples are deeply flawed, which it is right now, they are not just getting their math wrong but also undermining people’s quest for the truth.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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