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December 28, 2012

A matter of trust

Hard scrutiny of the Indian media is a must. It shall help strengthen our democracy. However, the onus is on journalists to rebuild the broken trust.

On October 25, 2012, Member of Parliament and chairman of one of India’s largest steel and power companies, Naveen Jindal, made a stunning revelation about two editors from a news TV channel demanding advertisements worth Rs 100 crore (approximately US$18 million) in exchange for killing a story on the coal block allotment scam that would have named Jindal Steel and Power Limited.

Even if they were not asking the money for themselves but for the company they represented, it symbolised a new low in Indian journalism.

It underlined the journalism adage that what does not get printed is perhaps more important than what does.

Media

In November 2010, a series of audio transcripts of conversations between communications specialist and corporate lobbyist Nira Radia and several prominent TV and print journalists surfaced, in which Ms Radia is heard telling the latter to help her get the right person as telecommunications minister. At that point in time, her firm, Vaishnavi Communications handled PR accounts of two of India’s largest conglomerates.

The transcripts were published first by a weekly news magazine, Open, and then followed by other newspapers and magazines including Mail Today and Outlook.

More recently, in the aftermath of the protests against the gang rape of a Delhi medical student, a policeman died, allegedly of a heart attack. He was cremated without a conclusive post-mortem being conducted, but the media was seen to toe the line of the government and Delhi Police – that Constable Subhash Tomar was assaulted by hooligans during the protests and that he died of the resultant serious injuries.

The doctors who examined him at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital later said that there were neither external nor internal injuries and that Tomar died of a heart attack. As this is being written, a separate report authored by Delhi Police indicates that three of his ribs were fractured, which led to the myocardial infarction. The doctors continue to deny this.

In this fracas, the media seems to have lost the very reason for the protests – the violent and brutal sexual assault on a 23-year-old medical student who was returning home in a bus with a friend. The narrative changed from “women’s safety” to “how a constable was killed”. While it is necessary to determine the cause of the policeman’s death, it was perhaps more important to keep the focus pinned on the security of women.

These incidents, coupled with the daily disenchantment over alleged skewed coverage in news television and newspapers, have created a crisis of confidence in the Indian media.

Lack of trust in the media accompanies the loss of faith in other democratic institutions in India such as Parliament, the judiciary, government, even the Prime Minister’s office. Although the role of the media is to be a watchdog in a democracy – and in India it fulfils this role pretty admirably – it has been under a cloud just as any of the institutions has been.

This is not unique to India. According to a Gallup poll published in July 2010 and cited by journalism educator Jay Rosen of New York University, the confidence levels in democratic institutions fell drastically in the United States, too, since polling began in 1973. Here is a small table that reflects that :

Gallup

No such detailed poll exists for India, but anecdotal evidence suggests that trust levels have lowered for news media, just as they may have for other institutions. But as Rosen puts it, just because the confidence in these institutions is falling does not mean that the confidence in the press should fall. In fact, it should increase, given the watchdog nature of the press in a democracy.

Even so, no one would deny the crisis of confidence in the media. It is real.

One reason for the trust deficit is the emergence and indeed the mainstreaming of social media web sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Twitter, in particular, has put traditional media under intense scrutiny, and it will continue to do so in the future.

This is necessary and is a good trend. A media that is always on its feet and is relentlessly questioned will serve the democratic process far better than media that dispensed news and opinion as a one-way street. But the question of trust remains, and journalists will have to introspect hard over how to win back this trust.

It would be easy to mouth platitudes and say that journalists should stay true to their profession, find meaning in their work, etc. But this argument assumes that journalists, or at least most journalists, are untrue to their profession.

This is not the case.

Many, including some bureaucrats and ministers in government, have suggested a media regulatory body. This is a reprehensible thought, as it strikes hard at the very basis of the role of media in a democratic setup – which is to be a watchdog. On the opposing end is the self-regulation school. This is not exactly a solution. In a country that has more than 80,000 registered publications and close to 700 TV channels of all kinds, it would be foolish to expect everybody would self-regulate.

But there are ways for the media to win back the trust of the general public. Here are some. Admittedly, it is not an exhaustive list nor is it a “solution”. However, they could pave the way to bridge the trust deficit in the long-term.

  • Be fair, not neutral: Journalists are expected to be neutral observers and communicators. What this results in is “He said, she said” kind of journalism. Instead, journalists should aim for fairness in reporting. If, in that process, you are seen to take sides, so be it.
  • Engage in social media, do not demonise it: Traditional media has an inexplicable disdain for social media. Social media is a force traditional media will have to live with. It will also mean greater scrutiny, something that will force traditional media to work harder and produce better reporting and analysis. It is prudent, therefore, to engage social media as allies in a larger goal rather than treating them as antagonists.
  • Invest in investigative journalism: Investigative journalism involves hard work. It is time-consuming, it is often boring and it necessitates spending money. It is far easier to get six talking heads and get them to opine on burning issues of the day. This is lazy journalism, and does not serve any purpose apart from bringing down news-gathering costs and making P&L accounts look shiny. While admitting the media is a business, it is also important to keep your media outlet relevant in the long run. This can only happen if we put in resources to break big stories. There are several examples of how investigative journalism has helped produce better newspapers and also enhance revenue.
  • Ask the right questions: Journalists have not only forgotten the art of asking the right questions, they are also afraid of asking them. In an age of “journalism of conformity” asking questions is seen as some kind of anathema. The sooner Indian media gets out of this morass, the quicker it will reach out to its audiences. Every question need not result in a life-changing story. However, if there is no effort, it shows in a media outlet’s reporting. Asking the right questions is tough and takes courage, but it is also the right way to rebuild trust.
  • Value content: One of the easiest ways to increase readership is to drop the price of a newspaper or a magazine. This devalues content and gives advertisers such as large corporate houses and government’s disproportionate power, even if it is not direct. Pricing the publication right reduces this power and puts greater power in the hands of the audience and the journalists. However, this is tricky, considering that most audiences do not pay for content. If readership subsides, no manufacturer or service provider would want to advertise in your publication. Media houses will have to address this question soon.

We must be cautious to not conclude that everything is wrong with Indian media. It isn’t. As far as a vibrant and aggressive media is concerned, there has been no better time. At the same time, though, there has been no better time to introspect. That point about asking the right questions? Perhaps journalists should begin by asking those to themselves first.

Photo: Ethan Lofton


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