When I look back at the media industry’s performance in 2008, I see an amazing journey and enviable growth. The year was marked by investments and the emergence of media conglomerates. It witnessed the introduction of new technologies and products (including Internet protocol TV, mobile TV, community radio and a number of foreign magazines) and an increase in the number of new genres (such as reality and Page 3 journalism). The year also saw the gap narrowing between entertainment, information and news. And one very obvious development was the increase in the number of TV news channels (at last count, there were 70).
But the year also saw unhealthy competition among media firms to capture eyeballs and ratings. In the news genre, the most significant examples of this were the coverage of the Noida double murder case and the Mumbai terror attacks. The lack of guidelines governing the coverage of sensitive and disturbing news developments was evident. Television channels overplayed and dramatized the issues, causing damage, trauma and even loss of life. But the two instances also led to introspection among media firms—at least the big ones— after they faced flak from across the board.
This introspection marks the coming of age of Indian media. The industry has had to cope with sudden growth and an arbitrary policy environment. And by initiating the process of introspection, it has finally demonstrated signs of maturity. The challenge is to further enhance this process and to also create an enabling environment to strengthen growth at a time when the economy is slowing. Here, at this junction, I am convinced that a national media policy could really be useful to take Indian media to new heights.
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Before I elaborate on why I think we need a media policy, let me clarify that such a policy does not imply government control or any kind of censorship. Policies needn’t just be about control and regulation; they can also be about growth and development. The national media policy should help define a much needed vision, direction, goal or a purpose. Once we have a vision, a suitable system independent of private interests and any government interference can be created. I would think that such a vision should have provisions on dealing with the coverage of events such as the Mumbai terror attacks, guidelines for protocols and coverage during emergencies and crisis. It should set ethical and professional standards that new entrants can and will need to follow. Most importantly, I recommend a national media policy because media is not just about business—it has a critical role and responsibility in our democratic process.
Also See Exposure to media
The table carried along with this piece shows how, even today, large sections of our population are neglected—both in providing access to information and getting visibility.
Despite the media boom, even today, 20% of the men and 35% of the women in India are not exposed to any media. There are pockets across various states (especially in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) where almost 50% of the women have no exposure to any media. Neglected groups such as scheduled tribes (almost 40% of the men and 60% of the women in these groups have no exposure to any media) are totally out of the purview of media coverage. This is primarily because the competition for eyeballs has been restricted to readers and viewers with deep pockets.
Therefore, we need a national media policy that can provide more Indians access to media and expand the audience base. Such a policy can provide a balanced and transparent framework to assist competition and growth of the media sector at national, regional and local levels.
While the continued growth of media in the immediate years is not in doubt, the extent to which this momentum will be kept up depends on several factors—internal and external—including policy initiatives taken now.
The first internal critical factor includes issues related to content and how various media products will differentiate themselves. The second is how well newspapers integrate new technologies and adopt online media. The third factor has to do with priorities of media in terms of reach and targeting. And the fourth is about marketing strategies such as cover price, delivery efficiencies and innovations in promotion.
The external factors have to do with the economy—which, in turn, determines the flow of advertising—and political uncertainty. None of these, however, will matter unless we have an enabling, futuristic and comprehensive national media policy.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint