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Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Wall Street Journal comes down hard on the "rotten state of India's media"

Ajit Mohan, writing on the WSJ website, couldn't have been more critical of the Indian media. Both print and television journalism get it in the neck. Here's a sampler:

Fragments of news, a significant portion lazily strung together from press agency clippings, are what a careful newspaper reader can sift out between a series of full-page advertisements peddling products, and images of women (usually of non-Indian origin) in different states of undress (in their defense, savvy editors must be acutely aware now that many of their readers prefer to get their titillation from their English-language newspapers than from other sources.) If there is any original reporting at all, it is always a bit unclear if a government agency or a private company has sponsored the report, or whether it is just another unpaid favor that has been granted by the editor. 

Frighteningly, the situation is even worse on television channels. Most news channels just do not do reporting anymore. What counts for reporting is usually a small snippet of a roving ‘journalist’ talking to a few randomly chosen individuals on the streets of Delhi and Mumbai for their take on the big controversy of the day. This then segues to what has become the preferred format of all channels: a panel of six to eight ‘experts’, usually spokesmen of major political parties mixed with out-of-work politicians, newspaper and magazine editors, and the day’s representation from the roving celebrity class of lobbyist-PR agent-commentators (whose reason to be on the panel is never quite clear), ranting at each other while struggling to have their screeching voices heard above the incessant screaming of the anchor. All this while the viewer struggles to keep up with the multiple, disjointed layers of scrolling headlines perennially sliding on the screen below the screamers.

This is a severe indictment surely. It's time to do some soul-searching, perhaps. What do our journalists have to say?

Commitscion Faye D'Souza (Class of 2004), who's an assistant editor with ET Now in Mumbai, offers a lucid comment:

I see the author’s opinion as an extension of the angst felt by several of the upper middle class ‘Thinking Indians’ we meet at dinner parties. It’s true, news has been converted into easy-to-consume, quick-churn packets of "fast food", in some cases compromising investigation and thorough fact-checking in the process.

But it is also true that the very people at dinner parties who complain the loudest are also the consumers of this information. When was the last time any of them read a long-format journalism magazine like Tehelka that puts out well-researched analysis that often runs into several pages? Aren’t we all watching the television shows we claim to detest so vehemently?

When you watch a show you lend eyeballs, which translates to TRPs, and strong TRPs encourage channels to continue putting out these shows because you as a customer seem to want them.

News, today, is a business. Newspapers and channels need to pay salaries and cover overheads as well. I think we should ask ourselves why we watch what we watch. And would we pay good money to watch a toned down, mellow, balanced news show? (Remember here that none of the money you pay your cable or DTH operator reaches the producer of the content.)

Maybe a not-for-profit news organisation is the answer. It would give Indian consumers an opportunity to sample objective journalism and decide for themselves what they prefer.

But for the sake of argument, let’s use Doordarshan as an example of what happens to content when it does not face the pressure of the P&L [profit and loss] statement. Do you think the news on DD is wholesome journalism? I bet you are unable to answer that question because you haven’t watched news on DD lately?

 It really is a chicken and egg situation. Consumers watch and read what’s handed to them because they claim they do not have a choice; content producers continue to churn out the same quality because they believe that is what consumers want.

I also would like to point out that this blog has generalised the lack of conscience across the media. I beg to differ on the stand that we are all the same.

Another Commitscion, Ayushman Baruah (Class of 2008), who is the principal correspondent of InformationWeek in Bangalore, also weighs in:

I agree that Indian media, both print and electronic — especially electronic media rely on "superficial journalism" and there is no in-depth reporting. There is certainly an absence of analysis.

Some of it is perhaps because even in journalism schools we are taught how to report and never to analyse. The analysis in print is limited to the edit columns and in news channels, if at all, is limited to a brief "editor's take". I have seen this difference even in business reporting between InformationWeek India and our US edition. While we report, they analyse.

But there is, as well, some ambiguity in my mind about the extent to which reporters should analyse, and most important, how much of that analysis is fit to print.

Do television and print journalists have differing views? Your feedback is welcome.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that it is always easier to be objective from the outside, and that's exactly what the writer from WSJ has been.

    However, when you are an insider, you are more aware of what is really going on. I have to agree with Ayushman that journalists in India are really reporting than analysing. If a magazine journalist feels this way the space constraints in newspapers as well as television is more apparent.

    It becomes next to impossible to squeeze in the details of the story, various viewpoints, and analysis within 300 words. In the case of television, the space is even lesser. The "thinking Indians" are the ones who are fuelling the Indian media industry by buying the newspapers and criticising them at the same time. There are magazines such as Kindle, Tehelka, which do bring out well-researched pieces, but how many people are really talking about them?

    If these very same people are ready to pay for a channel based on the BBC model, I am sure there will be journalists from these very "profit-making" channels and newspapers who would get the respect they deserve when working for the channel based on the BBC model.

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