This inept news media

How do you begin to write about media in a week when your fellow professionals are making utter fools of themselves? Headlines such as ‘Indrani ne sandwich khaya,’ are funny and many of us cracked jokes about it on Facebook. This however is not just about a funny, irrelevant headline — most tabloid journalism around the world is about that. It is about the many serious things that all the hullabaloo around the murder of Sheena Bora and the life of the accused Indrani Mukerjea has thrown.

It is convenient for almost everybody to blame India’s poorly run news media. Pic/AFP
It is convenient for almost everybody to blame India’s poorly run news media. Pic/AFP

One, the sheer voyeurism on display — by both the media and audiences — is something. The worst comments got most retweeted, the more sensational the coverage the more it was watched. So there is a consumer, and media is delivering to that consumer.

Two, if this newspaper made the kind of unsubstantiated comments made and forwarded on social media, it could have been sued. But sample Madhu Kishwar’s ‘Peter Mukherjea whose main business was money laundering treated as great media moghul, toast of elite circles the misdoings were well known.’ This was retweeted 220 times and favourited 136 times. While section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which allowed arrests to be made for posting offensive comments has been rightly struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year, there must be some way of dealing with unsubstantiated remarks on social media. These are not being made in private conversations, but in public spaces, by people who have thousands of followers. Kishwar for instance has 188,000 followers.

And that brings me to point three. Most journalists are reading and tracking all the speculation on social media, they are exposed to it, influenced by it. Just as they are taken in by any information given to them by state bodies of any kind. It is not clear how many of them question this information and how far they dig. It has been many years since Indian media did a really good investigative story without being given ‘leaked’ information on a platter by some interested party. And that in turn stems from the structural issues around the news media business — dodgy ownership, constraints on cable distribution and therefore pay revenues and poor training among others.

Whatever the reasons the déjà vu with the Aarushi Talwar case is strong. And we clearly have learnt nothing in the intervening seven years. While there is nothing that can be done for the voyeurism on display, what can fix the news ecosystem? A few simple steps, that this column has suggested earlier, would help.

@ Set Doordarshan free from government control to make it a world-class news broadcaster. This will force private broadcasters to shape up or ship out.

@One of the biggest reasons for the mess in news television is dodgy ownership. Force complete transparency in the news business and a lot of the muck will be forced out. This could be done by mandating that any entity getting into the news business has to declare on a quarterly or yearly basis everything about its ownership structure, revenues and costs even if it is a private entity.

@The other thing to do would be to give regulatory teeth to Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association. This will make self-regulation, always a good option, work better.

@And lastly remove the capital constraints on the news business by increasing the limits for foreign investment in news media from 26 to 49 per cent.

All of this would definitely ease some of the pressures on the ecosystem and push owners to focus on training and quality rather than distribution and advertising only. However most governments would rather issue notices than deal with the nitty gritty of cleaning up the ecosystem of the news industry — the lifeblood of healthy debate in any democracy. In some ways a poorly run media is a convenient scapegoat for everyone.

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

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