One of the recent triumphs of the news media in India has been its crusade against corruption. From Bofors to the second-generation (2G) spectrum scam, the Adarsh society scandal and the Commonwealth Games (CWG) fiasco, the media has highlighted the problems and induced both civil society and policymakers to respond.
Corruption has become a more ubiquitous and, thanks to the media, more perceptible menace today. Entwined as it is with issues of ethics, morality, culture, power, governance, politics, economic reforms, and so on, it is also a more complicated menace. However, as we go from one scam to another, we often overlook the fact that more credible watchdog journalism can motivate and provoke a public movement against this noxious threat.
Interestingly, in the last two years, stories on corruption and its related issues have been prominent in both television news and newspapers. CMS Media Lab reports that coverage of corruption took up 1% of prime time news in 2009 and more than 4% in 2010 (six news channels were analysed—NDTV 24 x 7, DD News, Zee News, Aajtak, Star News and CNN IBN). This kind of coverage exceeded that of education, agriculture or even environment issues.
Similarly, newspapers gave 1.85% of their front-page space in 2009 and 2.82% in 2010 to corruption-related subjects. This was again more space than education, agriculture or even entertainment got on newspaper covers (seven news dailies were analysed—Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, Dainik Bhaskar, Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Hindu and The Indian Express).
Hence, it is not surprising that 2010 has been called the year of scams and leaks, resulting in corruption dominating much of the country’s public consciousness. The news media has consistently raised pertinent issues and questioned the authorities on action taken.
Generally, the number of media reports on corruption increase when corrupt acts are disclosed. But in their absence, newspapers and TV news channels typically do not engage in meaningful debates on corruption. Interestingly, we find that incidents of corruption covered by news bulletins and articles mostly involve the government, bureaucracy, corporate behemoths or prominent people. In other words, what the news media mostly covers is Big Corruption. Common cases and petty corruption that are nonetheless insidious get little attention.
That’s because much of the media focuses on sensational, often scandalous, personal accounts since these are easier to sell than the nitty-gritty of public issues. Hence the emphasis on stories that are easy and inexpensive to cover and that focus on the individual (for example, celebrity lifestyles and high-profile court cases).
Covering corruption issues is, in comparison, a tricky matter. These are dramatic, and in line with expectations that the media should act as the watchdog of democracy. Naturally, the media is incentivized to prominently publicize such issues. This, however, has its perils. Journalists who take it upon themselves to pursue corruption cases are often at risk to life and limb, and frequently to their reputation, too. And amid the general perception that corruption is pervasive, the audience risks becoming apathetic to such issues.
Most of the current news on corruption is in the form of specific events. This means the public perspective on corruption remains episodic in the absence of thematic or holistic media coverage. A strategic frame, emphasizing the process through which something happens, is rarely the focus of news. For instance, a larger perspective on corruption would entail explaining how much corrupt behaviour occurs in a specific sector, who the typical culprits are, and so on. Putting the topic within a strategic frame would require looking at how corruption is discovered, what sanctions can be imposed, and what anti-corruption agencies are doing to fight the problem.
In all this, good journalism can help the common man realize that even Big Corruption affects him negatively, and it is necessary to be concerned about it. In the 2G scam, for example, the implied cost to taxpayers and the long-term economic impact need to be conveyed. Well-researched and holistic coverage can connect citizens to the consequences of corruption.
The media itself is under the scanner. Recent corruption allegations have pointed fingers at some media organizations and professionals. The lack of transparency in most news organizations and their rising influence on the national stage has made the audience sceptical about the current media discourse on corruption.
What fuels these feelings is the paucity of quality investigative and legal action. The press can’t work in isolation—to function as an effective watchdog, it needs reasonably honest police, prosecutors and judges to back it up. It needs government auditors, regulators and legislators to fulfil oversight functions, and the civil society to act as an independent voice.
A source of optimism in this scenario is the potential for new technology and social networking as tools for reporting on and fighting corruption. Many journalists already use these to interact with concerned citizens.
There is also the responsibility to future journalists. The experience of and lessons from the media crusade against corruption need to be fed back into the emerging journalism and media studies in our country. Many aspiring and even working journalists demand training in investigative reporting and in specific techniques useful for tracking and documenting corruption. It takes talent, courage and hard work to write anti-corruption stories that make an impression, and the experience gained now can help prepare future crusaders.
The Indian media needs to be complimented for its efforts to bring corruption to light. But it will need more diligence and support in order to have the desired impact.
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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