Every morning while making my coffee, I wait for the bundle of the newspapers to reach my balcony. For a journalist, drinking morning coffee and reading the newspaper is one of the best times of the day. Like every day, some days back, I was making my coffee and then the newspaper vendor dropped the bundle at my balcony, with his usual smile and greeting “Ram Ram Bhaiya”.
I opened the bundle and saw that the two leading newspapers had the same glossy full-page advertisement on the front page. The front-page ads are nothing new and it’s a usual practice nowadays. The ad was a poster featuring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bear Grylls the host of the Discovery Channel show “Man Vs Wild”. It was not shocking, neither surprising, but it reminded me of a few issues with regard to journalism today.
I am not here to criticise the advertisement by the Government or the private entities, because that is a continuous debate. Also, I am not in that stage of my profession where I can comment on the business model of media, but I will write about journalism.
The very first learning of journalism was to question the power, and as a 90’s kid, it was very natural to read stories questioning the power. I remember the times of Commonwealth Game scam, Adarsh Scam, 2G scam and others. Every newspaper covered those stories. Back in Kolkata, we read the stories every day and watched the news on the television about these scams. That was the UPA regime and the media slammed the government every day, thereafter, the government responded to the allegations in its own way.
But times changed with the Narendra Modi-led BJP coming to power. The paradigm shift of media took place in front of all of us. From asking questions and breaking the scams, the media became propaganda machinery for the ruling party. The conflict of power between media and political parties is not new and it is present in every country, but the paradigm shift that we are witnessing today is mostly the effect of an authoritarian regime.
When cub reporters start their work today, they are taught not to do “negative stories”. This instruction breaks their principles and dream of fighting the system on the very first day. The reporters are taught that “special” stories are mostly positive and they are not in the level of doing “negative”. But every editor knows that to question a government, you don’t always need a scam, because, in our political system, negative stories are everywhere.
The reporters mostly go to the field, maintain a good relationship between the government and the organisation and file stories based on the press releases. This systemic paradigm shift of the media is not only dangerous, but it is also holding back journalists from exploring the news; it seems the profession is becoming more of public relations work than journalism.
This was mostly the story of print media; the story of television news is worse. The paradigm shift of the media has finished the work of a reporter on television. There is hardly any focus on doing special stories by the reporters. The hiring of reporters is also going down every day. The television media has become mostly Delhi centric and it covers only the routine stories of the day. The rest of the time, the television focuses on debates. The debates are held within the studio, some people come to the studio and others get connected through video conference. The topics or debates are broader and not connected to the ground reality. To be precise, the topics are mostly based on propaganda rather than actual news. This model of new media is cost-effective and saves a lot of money because the less you hire reporters the cost comes down naturally but due to to the TRP the business grows.
On the other hand, like many other countries, online media is flourishing in India too. But mainstream online media in India is mostly run by the leading newspaper groups or the television groups.
In online media, which is run by the newspaper groups, the stories are mostly extensions of print where the huge focus stays on republishing the print stories. Online media mostly follow the breaking news trends and look for more traffic. The traffic generally means how many people are reading the headline, clicking on the story link and reading it or sharing the story. The regular stories are not very original but mostly filed based on routine developments as featured on the television on that particular day. Online news is mostly dependent on agency or tweets by newsmakers or breaking news alerts and these stories do not bring much originality.
On one hand, it feels like journalism today is stuck, but on the other hand, India is also witnessing some online initiatives like the Quint, Wire, Scroll, Caravan, Alt News and the Print where real online journalism is building. More original stories are coming out from these organisations and ground reporting is expanding. These media organisations are also focusing on ground reporting, investigative reporting and fact-checking work.
In recent years, a huge number of journalists have lost their jobs for questioning the government or as the organisations just shut down. Also, in some cases, just to curtail the costs, the journalists are pushed out without notice or payments. The situation is alarming but here I have some hope.
I am hopeful that this fall of the media has reached the bottom, and when you reach the bottom, there is always a great chance to fight back. The media will fight back soon and I believe this new paradigm will change through online media, as I mentioned, some online groups are doing real journalism. I also hope that journalism will not remain a mere propaganda tool for much longer in India and a new wave of media will come soon.