Indian Media: Quo Vadis?

The Fourth Estate having slipped from its true place in a democracy is a serious concern and there’s much to do to set things right again

January 19, 2024 01:20 am | Updated 10:46 am IST

A newspaper seller in Prayagraj on January 12, 2024. Print journalists, trying to keep up with the relentless 24x7 breaking news cycle, and the rise of social media, now feel pressed to publish without the traditional recourse to fact-checking.

A newspaper seller in Prayagraj on January 12, 2024. Print journalists, trying to keep up with the relentless 24x7 breaking news cycle, and the rise of social media, now feel pressed to publish without the traditional recourse to fact-checking. | Photo Credit: ANI

Since liberalisation in 1991, the audiovisual media has transformed itself. Economic growth, the freeing of broadcast media from government control and the Internet have all prompted an explosion in the quantity, if not quality, of media offerings. In the process, Indian journalism changed in style as well as substance. But this has not always been a “good thing”.

Media now is driven by the “breaking news” culture and the search for the villain of the day: the news must be broken and so, it seems, must the person. Television news in India, with far too many channels competing 24/7 for the same sets of eyeballs and ratings points (“TRPs”), has long given up any pretence of providing a public service, with the “breaking news” story privileging sensation over substance. (Indian TV epitomises the old witticism about why television is called a ‘medium’: ‘Because it is neither rare nor well done.’) The Fourth Estate today serves simultaneously as witness, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. In ancient times, India put its accused through agnipariksha, a trial by fire; today, we put them through a trial by media.

Social media, with its culture of unverified “fact” and viral opinion, compounds the problem: it offers a ready platform for material that would not have passed editorial scrutiny. Sadly, matters are not much better in the print media, despite its ability to provide context, depth, and analysis that television cannot.

However, print media has also been affected; journalists trying to keep up with the relentless 24x7 breaking news cycle, and the rise of social media, now feel pressed to publish without the traditional recourse to fact-checking.

The result is that our media, in its rush to air the story, has fallen prey to the inevitable rush to judgment: it has become a willing accomplice of the motivated leak and the malicious allegation. Charges are reported uncritically, without editors asking even the most basic questions about their plausibility. The damage is done in a blaze of lurid headlines — and rectification, if it comes at all, comes too feebly and too late to undo the irreparable damage to innocent people’s reputations.

The distinctions among fact, opinion and speculation, reportage and rumour, sourced information and unfounded allegation, which are drummed into journalism students’ heads the world over, have blurred into irrelevance in today’s Indian media.

This should be a matter of serious concern to all right-thinking Indians, because free media are the lifeblood of our democracy. They provide the information that enables a free citizenry to make the choices of who governs them and how, and ensures that those who govern will remain accountable to those who put them there. It is the media’s job to look critically at elected officials’ actions (or inaction), rather than at marginalia that have no impact on the public welfare.

Instead, the media’s obsession with the superficial and the sensational trivialises public discourse, abdicates the watchdog responsibility that must be exercised by free media in a democracy, and serves as a weapon of mass distraction for the public from the real questions of accountability with which the governed must confront the government.

Despite these concerns and criticisms, I remain strongly wedded to a free press. I have always valued the evocative image of the canary in a cage being sent down a mine-shaft to see if there is enough oxygen at the bottom; if it comes back dead, or spluttering for air, you know it is not safe for miners to be sent down. The free press is like that canary; if it is choking or suffocated, that is a clear indication that society is no longer safe for the rest of us.

Government needs a free and professional media to keep it honest and efficient, to serve as both mirror (to society) and scalpel (to probe wrongdoing). If instead all we have is a blunt axe, society is not well served. The free press is both the mortar that binds together the bricks of our country’s freedom, and the open window embedded in those bricks.

No Indian democrat would call for censorship, or for controls on the free press: it is bad enough that our current rulers have intimidated newspapers and blocked TV channels for publishing news that is prejudicial to government interests, as was the case three times in the past few years, arrest journalists under UAPA and deny them bail. What democrats want is not less journalism, but better journalism.

How do we get there?

First, we must engender a culture of fact-verification and accuracy that the industry currently appears to lack. Journalists should not feel pressed by their employers to “break the news”, but empowered to hold stories until they are sure their facts and accusations are accurate. The rush to judgment on the basis of partial information must stop.

Second, we must insist on better journalistic training at accredited media institutes that emphasise values of accuracy, integrity and fairness in their students. These standards should extend to media organisations: when false claims or intentionally misleading statements are published or broadcast, TV and print news outlets should issue retractions with equal prominence.

Third, we must welcome different perspectives in our newsrooms and not allow them to become echo chambers forcing an opinion onto their viewers in the guise of “the nation wants to know”. Newsrooms must be required to maintain a more diverse journalistic environment. Every story plugging a point of view must be required to provide some space for the alternative view, or for a refutation.

Fourth, journalists must welcome comments and feedback from their viewers and readers, to generate both an environment of trust between the consumers and the media, and the feeling on the part of the public that they are not merely passive recipients of a point of view. The Hindu is one of the newspapers to have had a Readers’ Editor who serves as an Ombudsman for the newspaper and acknowledges mistakes of fact or emphasis in the newspaper’s coverage. This helps drive a natural cycle of loyalty and engagement between the paper and its readers.

Fifth, the government must introduce laws and regulations that limit control of multiple news organisations by a single business or political entity, thereby encouraging an independent and robust press in the country. A powerful business interest, vulnerable to government pressure, will usually override ethical journalistic concerns. India is one of the few major countries where no restrictions currently exist when it comes to media ownership by its affluent citizens.

Finally, a single overseer for print and television news companies, as recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the parliamentary Committee on Information Technology when I chaired it, would help limit the power of corporate and political behemoths over our media and help promote media standards.

The best is yet to come. India’s population is becoming more literate by the day, resulting in an ever-growing mass of media consumers. But they deserve a media that contributes to shaping an informed, educated and politically aware India, one ready to hold its governments accountable, its society safe and its people ready to push boundaries.

If India wishes to be taken seriously by the rest of the world as a responsible global player and a model 21st-century democracy, we will have to take ourselves seriously and responsibly as well. Our media would be a good place to start.

Shashi Tharoor is third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author of 24 books, including The Battle of Belonging: Patriotism, Nationalism and What It Means to Be Indian and most recently, Ambedkar: A Life

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