Media Matters

Five ethical problems that plague Indian journalism

A global study warns that India's media boom will be worthless unless these issues are fixed soon.

From the Radia tapes in 2010 to the Essar leaks last month, Indian journalism has been creaking under the burden of unethical practices. A new report titled "Untold Stories: How Corruption and Conflicts of Interest Stalk the Newsroom" from the Ethical Journalism Network, an international journalism watchdog, identifies the problems with journalism in 18 counties. It also lists the five main scourges of the Indian media.

India’s gargantuan news market has 82,222 newspapers; Delhi alone has 16 English dailies in circulation. It has close to 800 television news channels, an industry that has almost trebled between 2006 and 2014. Added to that are 124 million broadband Internet connections and 1,500 state-owned, privately-owned and community radio stations.

Of this far from monolithic industry the author of the report’s India chapter, AS Panneerselvan, says “I am acutely aware that of the nearly 100,000 professionals in journalism,...a substantial number of individuals and institutions uphold the core values and the cardinal principles of journalism. The exceptions are in a minority, but it’s a number colour the popular perception and to undermine public trust.”

If the five debilitating problems in the Indian media are not fixed then India’s media boom will be worthless to journalism, writes Panneerselvan. “Even worse, it will of no value to India’s more than 1.2 billion people who may have more infotainment, sensationalism and political spin at their disposal but who will remain ignorant of the facts and analysis of events around them. When that happens the world’s largest democracy will be seriously weakened.”

1) Paid news
Paneerselvan, who is also readers' editor of The Hindu, traces the origins of the unethical practice of paid news back to the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991. With market forces at play and public investment in private companies, journalists found it sometimes lucrative to write only partially true stories of companies waiting to list on the stock exchanges.

The mid-2000s saw business schemes that swapped ad space in newspapers for equity in companies, and as documented by journalist Mrinal Pande, many of these went belly up. During the 2008 assembly elections, Hindi dailies published stories about candidates who had no particular news value, even predicting record victories for them. In 2003 Bennett Coleman and Company Ltd, publisher of The Times of India, started a paid content service to send journalists out to cover events for a fee.

2) Opaque private treaties
Another questionable BCCL scheme involved private treaties by which a company would allot equity to BCCL in return for ad space, the report says. P Sainath was one journalist who exposed the nexus of political and corporate entities in the news media through such schemes. In October 2008, in the midst of stiff opposition to the government granting permission to trial runs of genetically-modified crops The Times of India ran a story about how no farmer suicides were reported from two villages that had switched to GM seeds. The same story was later republished in August 2011 followed by a barrage of advertisement by GM giant Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech India. The 2011 reprint was a frantic lobbying response to the government’s failure to table the GM bill in parliament, says the report.

3) Blatant blackmail
In 2012 senior editors of the television channel Zee News were arrested for allegedly demanding Rs 100 crore from Jindal Power and Steel Ltd. In return for this pay-off they offered to dilute their network’s campaign against the company in the coal scam. The blackmail was exposed when JSPL chairman and Congress MP Naveen Jindal conducted a reverse sting on the network’s executives.

4) Widening legal regulatory gap
The Press Council of India has dragged its feet on addressing paid news and other unethical practices, according to the EJN report. In April 2003, a photojournalist tipped the Council off on the practice of advertisements being published as news for a fee. Instead of investigating the matter, the Council merely asked media companies to consider their how their credibility is affected, and issued guidelines they should follow to distinguish news from advertisements.

The PCI also failed to act on a damning report produced by journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Sreenivas Reddy on the immunity of the media using paid news. Instead of publishing the report, the Council chose to keep it reference material because it could dent the image of media houses! The report came into the public domain only later based on a Right to Information petition.

5) Flawed measurements of audience reach and readership
The yardsticks to measure the reach and impact of the Indian media are dubious at best, the report says. The EJN report cites the example of the Indian Readership Survey of 2013, which claims that the readership of English newspapers fell by a whopping 20% without attributing any reasons to the fall. Moreover, the survey found that the leading English paper in Nagpur Hitvada didn’t appear to have a single reader while it had a certified circulation of more than 60,000.

Television ratings also fail to tell the real picture. Ratings consultants are paid off by TV channels to tamper with the system and they do so in ingenious ways. New TVs are gifted to homes in which the supposedly-secret meters are located and residents are told that they can watch anything on it as long as they are tuned into certain channels on the TV connected to the meter.

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