‘The media is commodifying self-governance’

Sevanti Ninan, editor of the media website thehoot.org and the media critic of The Hindu delivered the convocation address at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media (IIJNM), Banglaore, on June 17, 2006: 

"Even as the national press or national TV is celebrity obsessed, the district press is bringing fair numbers of ordinary people and their civic problems into the news net. When a panchayat election is on you should see how much coverage there is, even in the editon of a regional paper which caters to the state capital.

"In Uttar Pradesh, last year, the Lucknow edition of the Hindustan published columns and columns of panchayat election results while these were on. So the media in its quest for expansion is creating multiple public spheres, some of which are enriching our democracy.

"However, the flip side is that panchayat candidates are spending huge sums of money advertising themselves in these editions and you wonder how much corruption will be necessary to recover that expenditure. So is the presence of media commodifying the self-governance process? The short answer is yes."

***

To address a graduating class on the threshold of new careers is a privilege particularly when they are entering a profession so rich in possibilities. Opportunities in journalism are more abundant and varied today than ever before: it is quite likely that some of you have already been snapped up by media houses. You might stay there, or you might move on. In terms of choice and mobility journalists have never had it so good.

But in terms of opportunity to practice the profession as taught, I am not so sure. One of the paradoxes of the current scenario is that the more the media multiplies the less space there is for more. The number of stories that get space is shrinking, the amount of space a few stories get is increasing. There is nothing newspapers and TV channels are more terrified of than of experimenting. It is a timidity imposed by the advertiser. If one formula works, everybody wants to copy it. If one story is grabbing attention, nobody wants to move away from it. So, right from the beginning of your career, learn to push for space for the kind of thing you want to do.

Carving out a career in media at this point in India is a challenge for sensitive journalists. If you sound upbeat about a country in which there is a lot to be upbeat about, you could be accused of being divorced from reality. If you let the harsher realities of an unequal society colour your outlook you could be called, in the fashionable language of our metropolitan press, a party pooper. So you will have to learn to negotiate the rather mixed Indian reality with compassion and optimism.

When I entered the profession more than thirty years ago it was not called media, just plain old journalism, nor was it an industry whose turnover was measured in thousands of crores. The country we reported on was not the talk of the world, and if it was it was usually for the wrong reasons. There was no "India Story"; icon was a word we seldom used, and politicians were written about for what they did or did or did not do, not for what they wore.

When we set out on our day’s assignments we did not encounter an intermediary called PR. You did not have food, fashion and  society beats. And you did not  pun on people’s names when they died.

But on the other hand neither did you bother to find out reader preferences. You just thought you knew what was good for your readers and viewers. Today’s media is more responsive. It gives you news you can use. It is also much more wild. Some feel it has lost its moorings. But it has not—it is simply tethered firmly to the market, as it must be if it has to survive. As I was doing then and now tally in my head, I realized that I am not cynic. The media of a bygone age had sterling qualities, but the media that we have here and now is full of possibilities. Radio is opening up, print and television are constantly expanding and innovating. Localisation is here; as of earlier this week the NDTV you watch in Bangalore will be different in prime time from what the channel offers elsewhere in the country. The web offers real choice unlike the other three including the choice of creating your own media.  

But it also constantly missing opportunities, including the daily opportunity to make a difference. It flogs stories to death but it does not campaign enough. If there is a single word criticism of current journalism, it is that it is soft. When journalism is soft and friendly it means that the PR industry in the country is doing its job well, and journalists are failing somewhere. And I will not blame journalists alone. Readers and viewers are younger and more solvent than before, and are presumed to want upbeat news all the time.

At this point let me get away a bit from the urban, metropolitan press. Today there is a newspaper induced public sphere in India’s villages which did not exist before. It is a fascinating one: if you live in one of India’s larger roadside villages you could be wooed  by as many as three different newspapers, all urging you to try out a three-month subscription. Many district headquarters in our States are becoming emerging news hubs. There could be three different four-page supplements for that district all seeking to manufacture enough daily news to fill their pages. Very ordinary people are becoming newsmakers. Citizen journalism flourishes in these villages and towns. Even with their limitations they provide story leads to the city press. Even as the national press or national TV is celebrity obsessed, the  district press is bringing fair numbers of ordinary people and their civic problems into the news net. When a panchayat election is on you should see how much coverage there is, even in the editon of a regional paper which caters to the state capital.

In Uttar Pradesh last year the Lucknow edition of the Hindustan published columns and columns of panchayat election results while these were on. So the media in its quest for expansion is creating multiple public spheres, some of which are enriching our democracy. However, the flip side is that panchayat candidates are spending huge sums of money advertising themselves in these editions and you wonder how much corruption will be necessary to recover that expenditure. So is the presence of media commodifying the self-governance process? The short answer is yes. 

Then there is a global public sphere created by the Internet , extremely rich in possibilities, which also did not exist. Media technology has taken several leaps. But with all of this range of media spheres, there is a range of ethical dimensions emerging which  we have to grapple with. Some of it has to do with the problems India faces as a country. It is highly developed and underdeveloped at the same time. It has tremendous inequality of incomes and opportunity. At the same time there is a high level of aspiration in all kinds of media consumers, including those who subscribe to the district media. 

So a constant thorny issue, is the ethics of  priorities in a country with poverty and social and governance problems. Media has a responsibility to keep a window open on the less palatable realities of the hinterland, because if it does not, it has no business utilising the different kinds of concessions given to the industry because of its public service nature. These include newsprint subsidies, postal concessions and preferential leased lines. That’s one issue.

Another is the unwillingness to be sufficiently oppositional. When you are soft on  the ruling establishment is it an ethics issue? When you allow the ruling establishment to hoodwink you, when you purvey only that version, it is certainly an ethics issue. Witness the soul searching in the American media after their conduct in the run up to, and after the beginning of, the Iraq war. The embedding of the media with the soldiers is an ethical issue on which there can be no easy answers. 

The third is the ethics of narrow coverage. Do you cater only to the interests of your market? Do the problems of those who are not readers or viewers have a fighting chance of getting on air, or in print? Do  ordinary women, dalits, the exploited,  dispossessed have to have horrible things happen to them before you take note? 

Another aspect of this is, that you now have the spectacle of activists bringing poverty to Delhi for the media to cover because journalists will not go to where the poor are negotiating their daily lives. If the market forces you to keep poverty out and maintain an upbeat tone in the media, what is the ethics of such self-censorship? 

The fact that we live in the constant shadow of terrorism   has created its own set of ethics. How do you handle terrorist statements? How do you strike a balance between giving terrorists the oxygen of publicity and informing the public about who they are, where their resources come from and in what manner they function?

Then there is ethics of a publication pushing its ideology through its reportage or editorial stance. I cannot recall any period in the past when major news outlets have been so easily identifiable by their ideological leanings, even if it is primarily the ideology of the market. But I doubt that any of them see it as an ethical issue. To the extent that a newspaper owner or editor  lets their own ideological leanings colour the paper’s coverage, it is an ethical issue.

There are ethical issues raised by media technology. Technology is creating new ethical dimensions for the media. You can digitally changing the background on televised news stories. You can present a group picture in a magazine which has actually been created by using photo shop, with shots of individuals. You can digitally compress the dialogue on live radio talk shows so that more commercials can be used per hour. Apparently this is done with a technology called  Time Machine compresses audio and visual signals on television to permit more ads.

It allows a radio station to eliminate pauses and silent moments and speed up the conversation. Was reality being distorted, or just speeded up, by the technology? El Norte of Monterrey, Mexico, one of the most ethical newspapers in the world, also does something with advertising at sporting events. It airbrushes them out of photographs it uses, on the grounds that they would constitute free advertising in the newspaper. The  digital manipulation of tapes is an ethical issue.There is the ethics of sting operations, which are being hotly debated.

All one can say to a young graduate is try to be aware of the ethical dimensions of the professional issues which keep cropping up, because journalists essentially both report and critique events and institutions all the time, and if you criticize others, your own moral position has to be strong.

I found a quote by Aruna Roy which says, “To comment on the ethics of the leadership of a political system, you need to be sure of the ethics of the critic. The burden on the critic is, in fact even greater.” 

Finally, you may have all the good intentions in the world but not know how to convert what you have learnt into operational wisdom when you are in the field. If I had to give you just one single piece of advice, I would say, go the extra mile. When you are looking for a sound byte don’t just take the one closest at hand. Please go the extra mile literally as well as figuratively to get a second and third point of view.

There are often more than two sides to a story in a society as complex as ours. The longer you talk to people, the more angles to your story will emerge. I have found this in course of my reporting and research that when you think you are done, one more stop at one more village is often richly rewarding in terms of the unexpected interview it may throw up. Particularly if you have not got a strong lead point for a story, make than extra stop. 

Going the extra mile is conscientious journalism. Why did we see such skewed coverage on reservations? Because we listened mostly to those who were the nearest at hand, and shouting the loudest. Why is 'India Matters' on NDTV such a consistently painstaking window on the rural reality? Because it spends money on giving its reporters the resources and the time to go the extra mile.

As for why so much daily reporting is city bound, the fact that readers are not interested in what is happening in the backyard of the nation is only part of the reason. The major reason is that newspapers are unwilling to pay for their reporters to travel, and literally go the extra mile. 

And if I was allowed to go further and give a second piece of advice I would say, when you do not see an outlet for the kind of writing you want to do, or the kind of films you want to make, create it. The internet makes solo publishing eminently possible. I was forced to create The Hoot (www.thehoot.org) because the outlets for writing on the media are limited, and those that I had access to were not willing to carry stringent criticism of other print media. 

There are individuals who have created websites such as infochange.org or indiatogether.org.  Yes the output is niche, but better niche than not at all. There are eighty-plus TV channels but not one that will look at the output of documentary film makers on a regular basis. Not everybody can make a documentary to meet the standards of Discovery or National Geographic, but there are still good films with oppositional viewpoints being made, which need to be aired.  The numbers of such film makers are substantial.

But though for some fifteen years now I have been hearing them crib about not finding space for their films they do not seem to have explore the option of  forming a cooperative and launching their own channel. There is a public service broadcasting trust, which at least was an initiative to find funding for such films. But it has not been able to create a regular television outlet. Screenings it does, but these reach very few people. The cost of hiring a transponder has come down.  National and international NGOs who want to fund alternative media are there.

To my mind with a little gumption filmmakers in India should have been able to create a documentary channel which cable or DTH bouquets will be willing to carry. Or collaborated with an existing English news channel to create it.  With video broadcasting shifting  to the Internet, other possibilities are also there.

First, your heart has to be in the right place. But after that, you still have to use your head. I wish each of you a fulfilling career.

(This is the full and unabridged text of the convocation address made by Sevanti Ninan, editor of thehoot.org at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, Bangalore, on June 17, 2006)