Why are India's media under fire?

 
Indian news channels There are more than 80 news channels in India

Has the explosion of media in India been a mixed blessing?

With more than 70,000 newspapers and over 500 satellite channels in several languages, Indians are seemingly spoilt for choice and diversity.

India is already the biggest newspaper market in the world - over 100 million copies sold each day. Advertising revenues have soared. In the past two decades, the number of channels has grown from one - the dowdy state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan - to more than 500, of which more than 80 are news channels.

But such robust growth, many believe, may have come at the cost of accuracy, journalistic ethics and probity.

The media has taken some flak in recent months for being shallow, inaccurate and sometimes damagingly obtrusive. Former Supreme Court judge and chairman of the country's Press Council, Markandey Katju, fired the first broadside, exhorting journalists to educate themselves more. Predictably, it provoked a sharp reaction from the media.

Economist Amartya Sen is the latest to join the list of critics after being wrongly quoted in the mainstream media a couple of times recently. There are at least two huge barriers, writes Dr Sen in a recent article, to the quality of Indian media.

One is about professional laxity which leads to inaccuracies and mistakes. The other, he says, is a class bias in the choice of what news to cover and what to ignore.

Dr Sen offers unexceptional solutions to ensure accuracy - newspapers should publish corrections (a few like The Hindu and Mint already do) and journalists should be given more training. He suggests that reporters should make use of recorders during interviews rather than take rushed notes for accuracy - in fact, many reporters do use recorders and even when they don't, they usually do take correct notes. But stories can sometimes get mangled on their way to publication, resulting in inaccurate headlines.

Dr Sen's worry about lack of training is more pertinent. Most Indian newsrooms have no legacy - or practice - of editorial training. They still host energetic, sharp and argumentative journalists. But analysts say many newsrooms do lack rigour and there is a crying need for some serious, consistent training in fact checking and reporting ethics.

Dr Sen's other grouse about the class bias in Indian newsrooms is valid but again unexceptional. Class bias in newsrooms, say media pundits, is prevalent in big media all over the world. But class bias in reporting on a country where more than a third of its people live in abject poverty has more serious implications. Journalists can easily become uncritical cheerleaders for a high growth, low equity society.

Does this also have to do with low minority participation in newsrooms?

A 2006 study by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that of the 315 key decision-makers surveyed from 37 Hindi and English publication and TV channels, almost 90% of decision makers in the English language print media and 79% in television were from the upper castes. There is virtually no representation of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables), who comprise some 20% of India's population and live on the margins. This accounts for a serious lack of diversity in Indian media.

Indian media houses can look to US newsrooms for inspiration. In 1975, fewer than 4% of journalists in newsrooms were from black and other minorities. Three years later, the editors pledged that minorities must get proportionate representation in all newspapers. They offered scholarships and organised job fairs. By 2000, more than 60% of the nearly 1,500 American newspapers had abided by the pledge. It was a major triumph for news diversity. Cannot Indian papers do something similar?

Dr Sen actually misses the bigger crises in Indian media.

There are serious concerns about trivialisation of content and the increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of large corporate groups. There is now the culture of non-stop breaking news and, some fear, the transformation of news into a commodity.

Most seriously, there is the scourge of what is called paid news, which involves influential people - mainly politicians - paying newspapers and news channels for positive coverage. It became widespread in the run-up to the 2009 elections.

A 71-page Press Council investigation named leading newspapers that had received money for publishing information disguised as news in favour of individuals, including senior politicians. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist who was one of the investigators, says a lobby of big publishers pushed the Press Council to water down the report. Even Vice President Hamid Ansari regretted the development, saying that the Press Council's inability to come out with the report was "a pointer to the problems of self-regulation and the culture of silence in the entire industry when it comes to self-criticism".

How do you stop this? Journalists like Mr Guha Thakurta argue for increased transparency, self-regulation and competition regulation.

 
Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 27.

    With such growth, in such a large country, such problems are self-correcting.
    The media that grows and maintains an impeccable reputation will rise to the top. and the poor quality media will sink.
    Some media will focus on specialized markets. Some will "hire out" as an outlet for special interests, and some will focus on certain segments of society.
    You have a choice of media to choose from!

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    Comment number 26.

    We never know which section in a newspaper is 'paid' and which is objective.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 25.

    Apart from the BBC, the UK has had atrocious media for decades now. The Indian media is similar. I can't watch Indian news channels for more than a few minutes except for DD (the Government channel) which is a bit stilted but at least not nauseating. Why hasn't India created a worldwide news channel like BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Russia Today etc? If India aspires to be 'world power', they should.

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    Comment number 24.

    More concerning is the Indian authorities wanting to curtail YouTube. I hope they understand that in a global culture like YouTube it is not possible to filter content.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 23.

    After having watched Mr. Clarkson perform his antics in the India Special aired last month, I would categorically rate the Indian media at a higher rating than BBC news, for journalistic ethics and probity. I am wondering if BBC news seemingly with a “lack of legacy or practice of editorial training”, are also badly in “a crying need of some serious and consistent training”.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 22.

    The same is true for our own business houses, who own publishing & other entertainment (e.g film, TV etc) companies. That's why we must not expect specific media house to be critical against specific political party(s) or business house(s).Conflict-of-interest laws are loosely defined & least strictly followed in third world countries like India- not only in media but also in every aspect of life.

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    Comment number 21.

    When we read "encouraging" news about India (or any other country) in such media (like WSJ, Forbes etc), we need to keep in mind that owners of such media houses has their business operations in India (or other countries). We should not expect a hard hitting real analysis, editorial in such news media, on any critical issue that can put the influential politicians & business houses on the mat.

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    Comment number 20.

    Murdoch's News Corporation owned over 800 companies in more than 50 countries with a net worth of over $5 billion.Many famous, influential media is under his control now- News Corp, Wall Street Journal, Times, Harper Collins, Twentieth Century Fox, BSkyB etc. It is not much convincing that his company engaged in unethical practices only in one country & in one company.

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    Comment number 19.

    India had the opportunity to build a decent, unbiased, effective media when we inherited state-owned (NOT political party) radio-TV. But the severely flawed Prasar Bharati bill and more compromised implementation of that bill ruined that possibility. Many democracies, including India & US, are yet to understand the importance of at least one unbiased, neutral media to sustain functional democracy.

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    Comment number 18.

    Check NPR/PBS in US. The quality is really great. But they too face severe problems to finance their excellent programs, as many of its powerful politicians& businessmen are not willing to pay for such unbiased media (as it hurt their interests). Many such powerful people directly vouch to stop or intimidate NPR, thankfully without much success so far; but able to minimize its impact.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    It's becoming harder to sustain unbiased media, globally. Most of the media empires are for-profit business- without much ethics & transparency (like Fox). Institutions like BBC survives as British people & Govt consider transparency of information & unbiased media is essential for the democracy to function. It's up to the people of any democracy (e.g India or US) to pay if they want another BBC.

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    Comment number 16.

    I remember in 2007 when a newspaper published an article based on its opinion poll, 3 of its employees got murdered by the supporters of M.K Alagiri, the present cabinet minister.
    http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/000200705092201.htm
    This is also a challenge for the media where they cannot report on some issues because of fear and also not getting enough support from the rest of the media.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 15.

    Just check the controversial article written by Subramanian Swamy in the newspaper, DNA. DNA withdrew it after some specific group of people opposed it, of course in collusion with politicians. These newspapers do not have the guts to withstand pressure from certain section. If that article was 'wrong" why they published it in the 1st place? Majority of Indian news media are just tabloids.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 14.

    Indian media definatly needs an institution like a BBC to improve its new reporting standards and ethics. At present its all about sensationalism and biased reporting. Just like rubert murdochs legacy most media houses in India have direct links to commerce houses and political parties which is always reflected in the type of news they report and the opinion created by them.

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    Comment number 13.

    Journalist Association of India (JAI): Journalism scene is increasingly dominated by impact of media concentration - powerful media conglomerates around the world. Of course, there is concern re media ownership & controls. To tell you the truth, I might feel apprehensive about being a journalist in India. JAI has got to stiffen its back in training, support, representation & backing.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    When Sen's statements drifts to Congress, it will lead to merry-go-round where more questions are hung than answered: Fundamental problem with Indian journalism is a lack of confidence, especially verses foreign opinions. Needed: In addition to more training, IMPACT RE JAI (Journalism Association of India).

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    Comment number 11.

    My chief point is that Sen, known for his work on famines & how democracies prevent acute starvation, is not automatically an expert on innards of the Food Bill, or the CORRUPTION that comes with squeezing so much food through a distribution system. He then went on to expound on banalities. Problem: Sen's talking will become the talking of politicians, possibly next contention in Congress.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 10.

    I recollect 2 economists (1 being Amartya Sen) expounding great thoughts about Food Security Bill.
    Problem: What did either of these persons about how Food Security Bill? What made them experts? Why didn't Indian journalists critique? Sen, speaking to The Economic Times, said the food security law must be implemented despite its flaws...Well, I guess that's sort of brilliant statement...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 9.

    What I notice about many of India's media is that Indians seem to pay attention to outsiders’ opinions rather than their own - as though an outsider walks into India as some sort of god spouting god-like messages. This may be okay when the topic is "outsider", but whenever there is a impact on India, that's what I expect an Indian journalist to creport: " IMPACT ON INDIA IS, WOULD BE…

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    Indian media is totally irresponsible, ill informed, lack of quality of journalist. Most of the media is biased (90%). Every news is breaking news there. They dont focus on real issues, India is facing rather they r busy to show the masala news.

 

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