The news media in India is a booming business today. That wasn’t always the case, and its phenomenal growth over the past few decades is something to be proud of. But, if the news media is going to be more than just a business and act as a truly public good, it will be necessary to better balance these sometimes competing visions.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Traditionally, the media is supposed to be the fourth estate of democracy, the watchdog, the consciousness of the nation and a crucial shaper of an informed and engaged citizenry. Whether it is doing so (in India and globally) is a matter of serious debate. There is one school of thought that believes diversity and innovation in the media can only be achieved through competition in the free market, that the media’s job is to give readers what they want, that the primary threat to an independent media is a government bent on censoring critics. Doordarshan, All India Radio and the state-controlled press in undemocratic countries are provided as justifications for a robust, competitive media market that voices more opinions, involves more people, offers more choices for readers/viewers and produces a more technically sophisticated product.
There are also those who believe the news media is a public good too important to be left to the markets, just like health care or education. Seen thus, the media is important in shaping group identities, unifying diverse people, addressing complex, serious social and political matters, and making citizens more aware and engaged with the world around them. Free-market media advocates are not opposed to this ideal, but their critics contend that the business aspect of the news media can be an obstacle to serving all segments of the population effectively. A news media dependent on advertising revenue often is more concerned about its business profitability and that of its advertisers than covering news stories that are boring or complicated or relevant primarily to marginalized members of society. While this is troubling anywhere, it is particularly so in India, where society’s marginalized members are more likely to vote than others. This gives the appearance that the media is entertainment for the classes, largely irrelevant to the masses, and that it plays a smaller role in democracy than it likes to think.
Much good has come from the stunning growth of the media in post-liberalization India, but it may be time to reassess the news media and think about its possible futures. This will involve various challenges for those who control, produce and consume the media.
First, the growing domestic market for newspapers and TV programming is a huge advantage for Indian media sources. The traditional media in most other countries is struggling to maintain audiences and ad revenue. Not the Indian media, which has money and an opportunity for expansion. This cannot be overstated. Media in the US, for example, increasingly rely on news wires as they cut correspondents covering other countries and less glamorous beats. By and large, they increasingly focus on cheap, easy to report events (crime, celebrity galas, political controversies) at the expense of difficult to report processes (environmental change, poverty, shifts in global power).
Unfortunately, the Indian news media seems to be mimicking this faded Western media instead of investing in correspondents and infrastructure to cover more issues and places. Such an investment could place Indian media sources ahead of the global competition in terms of providing quality journalism for audiences in India and abroad. India’s plentiful English language press would be particularly well positioned to become a global player in reviving serious journalism.
Here are some of the challenges I see. First, are those in the industry ready to think long term about its role and legacy? The growth and wealth of the Indian news media hasn’t necessarily resulted in more important, better quality news. No Indian news source is considered a world leader such as BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera. It seems the media giants have chosen instead to rapidly expand to new cities: this provides more local news, but is fundamentally geared towards attracting local advertising. This is a very profitable model, but it hasn’t done much to improve serious news coverage. Is the Indian media choosing to be rich instead of good? Is its present wealth an end or a means?
And, is there a will to produce a product that better serves Indian society, democracy and the people? When the entertainment aspects of the news media outnumber nine to one the combined issues of agriculture, health, education and the environment (as a recent Centre for Media Studies report found), it is clear that the news media is failing to create better citizens. To change this, the media must show leadership and shift the focus of news from giving the reader/viewer what they want — often a weak excuse for skirting difficult issues and giving advertisers what they want — to giving readers what they need to be better informed about important issues facing India and the world.
This is an appeal to the ego, patriotism and conscience of those involved in the news media. Does India want a wealthy news media that goes ga-ga over Bollywood and cricket stars, fashion shows, trendy electronics and crime? Or, can the Indian media rise to the challenge of providing high quality, serious news reporting that will improve the lives of Indians and bring global prestige to the Indian media as an industry? If the 21st century is to be the Asian century, shouldn’t the best news also come from Asia?
James Mutti is a freelance writer with a master’s in international studies. He was a Fulbright scholar in Lucknow last year. Comment at email@example.com