Wednesday, 21 December 2011

More Media Regulation? (Part-II)

Anup Kumar,
Columnist, The Hoot  

Contemporary journalism is significantly different from the past when very few could read and most of the journalism was produced for and by the highly educated class. Although no specific empirical data on news consumption is available for India, yet the size of the Indian public sphere does suggest that an overwhelming part of the population is watching and reading the news on a daily basis. The news media's main role is to give fact-based information, which does not necessarily require great intellectual abilities. I think majority of journalists do not have the desire to be intellectuals, which is perhaps why they have chosen this profession. Most of the consumers of the news have basic education and in some cases, they are not even literate. In order to stand true to the democratic credentials, journalists working for thousands of newspapers and hundreds of news television channels have to produce and present news taking into consideration the lowest common denominator of comprehension skills so that the news can help all citizens engage in the democratic process and make reasoned choices. 


Although, Justice Katju is right at one level, often reporting lacks perspective and insight that places the news in its larger historical, social, political and economic contexts. The news media in India present news in a decontextualized and largely episodic manner. Journalism research from across the world shows that this is not unique to India, everywhere in the world daily routine journalism is mostly episodic. A more nuanced and sophisticated interpretation and thematic contextualization appears in the elite newspapers, magazines and sometimes panel discussions on TV. The few media pundits, who have the training and education, play the role of intellectual journalists while undertaking political and social analysis and cultural criticism in their columns and television talk shows.


Justice Katju is also right about the quality of the media discourse in India, especially on television. Research on television content from world over has shown that infotainment oriented news shows, sometimes described as soft news, hog most of the airtime. Not surprisingly, electronic media in India devotes most of its resources to cover cricket, regurgitate content from the movies and exploit superstitions among parts of the population. Whereas, in comparison to infotainment and soft news relatively meager resources are devoted to original reporting on more relevant issues such as skewed developmental priorities of government, unrest in the hinterland led by Maoists, inflation, terrorism and other forms of social injustices.


The upside in all this is that the news media in India plays a relatively decent role in offering a platform for some of the most vigorous debates and news analysis on contemporary issues. Thus, it would be unfair to say that the Indian news media has not made any significant contribution in the area of social transformation. Indian journalism has performed admirably, especially when we compare the Indian news media to news media in other post-colonial countries. The news media has played a vital role in moving the country, slowly but progressively, away from a feudal society at the time of Independence to a much more egalitarian and democratic society we are today. In this regard, we must not fail to acknowledge the role played by the Indian language press. The limited scholarship on the subject has shown that Indian language press has functioned as a bulwark of democracy, especially outside the big cities and in rural areas. Moreover, the Indian news media that comes in multiple languages has done what scholars otherwise thought was impossible. On the one hand, it has sustained ethno-linguistic diversity in the Indian public sphere and on the other hand, it has projected the imagination of India as one nation and one nation with quite fascinating dexterity.  

 However, it is also in the Indian language news media, both in print and in TV, that we find most of the problems associated with illiberal discourse, professional standards and questionable practices associated with the phenomenon of "paid news". It needs to be pointed out here that in the more sophisticated English language media paid news appears in the form of "subsidy news" pushed by public relation agencies. Not surprisingly, many who favour stricter regulations have suggested that journalists cannot take a holier-than-thou approach to corruption, as they are part and parcel of the systematic corruption in politics and society. Even though it is a valid argument, I think it is not fair to compare journalists to the political class, bureaucracy and judiciary. Unlike them, the news media does not have monopoly power to exercise of lawful and sometimes also the discretionary powers that they derive from the blindfolded statutes. 



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