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The real story

Vanita Kohli-KhandekarArvind Kejriwal has been digging up scams by the dozens. Robert Vadra, Nitin Gadkari, Salman Khurshid and god knows who else will come under his ‘investigative’ scanner. And the media and voters are lapping it up.

This however is not about Kejriwal. It is about the Indian news media and its abject inability to do investigative stories or question the ones given to it on a platter. Why has a wannabe politician become the best source for all the evidence on corruption scandals?

Kejriwal keeps coming up with allegations that most of us believe because we are willing to believe the worst about politicians. But there has been very little questioning of the data. Where is it coming from? What is being held back? Who is handling this chessboard and what are his or her next moves going to be? All you hear is accusations flying left, right and centre. Most TV news channels have become quasi-judicial — they reveal the scam, call the accused and pronounce the judgement.

Indian media
Outsourced: Indian media has stopped finding out scams, and is simply the pawn that reports them on the behalf of someone or the other

This happened even during the 2G and Coalgate scam. There was very little questioning of CAG figures or logic. One of the few good pieces I remember reading was a detailed one by Swaminathan Aiyar that questioned CAG’s numbers, logic and opposition parties which had in their own states blocked open auctions of coal mines.

Think about it. What was the last scandal that a newspaper, magazine or TV station really broke on its own without someone giving it to them on a platter?

At an Editors Guild of India talk earlier this year in Delhi, Raghav Bahl the founder of Network18, which owns among other channels, CNN-IBN and CNBC Awaaz spoke about one of the reasons this happens — complexity.

Even as the economy and country changes and becomes more complex, there isn’t enough expertise to make sense of these changes and their long term impact. He was talking in the context of business journalism. For someone to sit through and decode the CAG numbers requires a certain kind of understanding of the business and maths. Very few business journalists have it. Yet every Tom, Dick and Harry with a mike and a camera was reeling off the numbers.

Like they do when prices rise or subsidies are cut or the dollar goes up. The wrong metrics are used, the wrong examples and many times absolutely warped economic logic is dished out. For years everybody celebrated falling airtime prices without questioning where this was headed — to a very troubled industry today.

It is not that this expertise does not exist in India. It does. But very few Indian news organisation have spent time, training and effort on building experts in specific areas. So reporters and editors now call ‘experts’ to the studio or over the phone, take ‘soundbytes’ and churn out their opinion of an issue.

You could argue that this still does not stop them from going out and finding a story. It doesn’t and that brings me to reason two on why this happens. Investigative stories that uncover these kind of scams take months of research by experts and the unflinching support of media owners. That is not always available. The good thing is that most media brands play up these stories, even if they don’t have the wherewithal to dig them out. So in that sense they do their job.

Thirdly, PR (public relations) and corporate communications have become better. Roughly two-thirds of the stories you see in business papers are stories for which a PR person has approached the journalist. There is nothing wrong with that. A good journalist will only take what is interesting for his readers, research it and then do a story. The press release or information is just a start.

But, good journalists are few and far in between. Most just take what is handed out. If you tell any journalist he has an exclusive, chances are he will run with it, without asking why? Who is playing him up against whom? Most corporate houses in India can get away with anything because media simply doesn’t question businesses enough. They make cynical noises but do not ask the hard nosed questions that analysts sitting in Canada and the US are now asking of say Reliance or DLF. These analysts ask tough questions based on months of deep diving into balance sheets and other public data.

You could argue that there are as many bad journalists as doctors or teachers. The only problem is media’s mistakes and inadequacies are more public. And more often than not, it accepts them. Try telling a doctor that he is wrong!

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik 

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