One of the most visible and positive growth stories in the first decade of the 21st century was that of the media. In fact, this story is usually referred to as the “Indian Media Boom” in most scholarly papers and other journalistic references.
The growth narrative of the media in this period is mostly about sheer numbers—both in terms of players (channels, publications, producers and genres) and audience (viewers and readers). For example, the number of television channels grew from less than 50 a couple of decades ago to 612 in November; during the same period, the number of homes with television went from 30 million to more than 130 million.
While this has been the impressive story of the decade, what is less talked about is the capacity for change—both economic and social. To some extent, the economic potential is taken care of in the business plans of media houses. The social potential, however, remains dormant.
By social potential, I mean the media’s inherent ability to influence change on basic yet critical issues that drive the 21st century experience such as population growth, poverty, mega-urbanization, globalization, terrorism, global warming, loss of biodiversity, water shortages, agricultural productivity, education, health systems and social justice.
One might ask why the media should care about its social function—it is a business after all, and profitability isn’t always thought of in conjunction with welfare. But it is precisely for this reason that the media needs to be conscious of its social potential. Let me explain why.
Take the example of television news channels. As a powerful visual medium, television is popular with advertisers, who use it to engage customers with core messages or service propositions about products and services, and to advise them on how to respond—for example, contact or visit a shop, and make a booking or a purchase. However, the same principles of engagement have been applied only in a limited way to influence social norms or justice issues that prevail in our society.
Clearly, television has had visible impact in the way markets and consumers behave. But can we say the same about its impact on social behaviour, particularly deep-rooted attitudes that can be addressed by an influential television media?
The power of the news media to set a nation’s agenda and to focus popular attention on key public issues is immense and well documented. However, very few news channels and programmes have been able to use this influence purposefully. Some of the proactive news channels have tried, and cases such as the murder of Jessica Lall and other crime issues have turned into fruitful media campaigns. A few channels have also had limited success in pursuing issues of farmers’ suicides, bureaucratic and political corruption, and terrorism. However, such initiatives have been sporadic; no systematic strategy has guided media investigations into these issues.
Similarly, environmental issues and climate change have been given prime-time bulletin space as well as special programmes and panel discussions. However, coverage on them has been neither coherent nor consistent.
Recent examples have proved that whenever the news media has strategically planned and committed to a cause, it has made change possible. For the particular media companies, this has also translated into better positions vis-à-vis the competition. The recent NDTV campaign on the tiger is one example—it was strategically used not only to generate commitment from the viewers, but also to create the goodwill that will surely reflect on NDTV’s balance sheet.
Similarly, consistent enquiries into any prevalent social or environmental issue have been able to make a difference. A Centre for Media Studies initiative with Telugu channels in Andhra Pradesh over last two years has yielded positive results in convincing the channels to produce lucid programmes on the girl child.
The follow-up annual awards by The United Nations Children’s Fund in Hyderabad have partly motivated this shift to a new gender perspective on large issues. For those who have made this shift and used creative ways to address such issues, like Telugu news channel HMTV, this strategy has provided both audience support and a way of standing out from the competition.
Given market compulsions and the competitive environment today, every news channel is concerned about survival. While most of them are becoming more professional and corporatized, few are sensitive to their corporate social responsibilities as business entities.
Even fewer are concerned whether the balance between public interest and commercial imperatives is being strategically reviewed, properly managed and publicly disclosed. This leads to the media industry’s current low trust ratings, sitting uncomfortably alongside its growing power and influence.
As agents of social change, the news media has an opportunity to address this growing discomfort and cynicism. New technologies have done more than change how news is produced and delivered— they have thrown the very nature and values of news into question. This new scrutiny means the coverage of issues regarding social development and social justice have to be probed and perhaps rethought. The major realignment of mainstream news priorities required for this has yet to occur.
In this new decade, we should hope for more innovation and experimentation that can unleash the media’s potential to address pressing issues in our society.
PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.
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