To give you the basic essence of today's topic, I'll start by sharing an anecdote.
There was this day when my father was watching news and some people were shouting their lungs out and I was so pissed hearing it from the other room that I came outside and asked him, "Why do you even watch this pathetic channel? This isn't news!" and he replied, "I know but they are so funny! I watch different channels for news. This one I only watch for fun". The best part about this anecdote is, you know the channel I am talking about.
Sadly, this is what we have come to. Journalism, which is said to be the 4th pillar of democracy is scripting its collapse every day. A system that was supposed to speak for the masses is speaking for everybody but the masses. The reason we're living in a free country right now is because our freedom fighters and revolutionaries used journalism as a tool to fight for our independence. They vocalized their thoughts, they purveyed their idea of free will to the common people. Newspapers like Payam-e-Azadi, Hindu Patriot and Neel Darpan led to an uprising that forced the British out of our country. This is what journalism stands for in India.
However, things have changed drastically over the years, especially in the broadcast media. Today, the journalists don't show us what we should be seeing but what we want to see or what people paying them want us to see. The profession isn't about informing or awaring citizens but entertaining and influencing. It's all about the TRPs and money making which is funny because even the TRPs are being bought with money.
What are the reasons behind this drastic shift? Who is responsible for it?
It is a fact that our country is predominantly a filmy buff. People want to know about their stars. They are interested in what they are doing, who they're dating, where they are going. If there was one channel covering Earthquakes and floods and another channel covering Taimur and his brother, the people would see where the earthquake has taken place for a minute or two and then swiftly move to Taimur and watch him wave for the next half n hour. This is what makes Entertainment news the most interesting and relevant news amongst all garnering highest TRPs for the channels. Therefore, the media prioritizes covering such stories rather than socioeconomic issues that are only interesting for a certain group of people.
Another idea that has worked wonders for the TRPs of our news channels in the recent past is the polarizing debates that have become a part of Prime time shows on every Indian news channel. Hindu VS Muslim and India VS Pakistan are their favorite topics while frequent praises for PM on his immense hardwork keep pouring in between. Republic TV has the most interesting record in this genre as they have gone to the depths of fabricating news like "Imam Bukhari has money to buy luxurious cars but can’t pay electricity bills". This particular fake news has been doing rounds since 2012 and was circulated in 2017 again about an Imam of Jama Masjid which proved to be false only after garnering thousands of retweets on twitter. The channel didn't even show the courtesy to apologize to the Imam for the fake news. Aaj tak isn't too behind in the race of spreading fake news either. They once went to the lengths of reporting that "Saudi men can eat their women when they are hungry". Well, you have done so many ghost stories on your channel that if this news was true, I am pretty sure you would have brought the spirits of those wives in your studio!
Following suit, the same story was reported by other channels as well including India Today Hindi channel. In every few days, a new kind of Jihad is fabricated by these news channels. A well known journalist of ZEE News once did a whole feature on different ways in which jihad can be executed. His report included everything starting from love jihad to land, education, music, films, finance and what not kind of jihads. The guy came up with so many ideas related to jihad that for once I thought he was from the Creative team of Al-Qaeda.
The constant negative reporting on Tablighi Jamaat last year was just another way to spread Islamophobia and tear down every inch of peace that resides in the secular fabric of our country. And the positive reporting on similar incident of Kumbh Mela this year further shows the hypocrisy that prevails in the Indian Media Industry. I know discrimination is there. Almost everywhere. But broadcasting it on TV is really not helping our image internationally. We don't want all those trips and hugs to the world leaders go in vain.
This menace of fake news has become a part of the narrative. And when we are talking about it's effects, we can't forget the reckless reporting carried out last year, in the case of late actor Sushant Singh Rajput's sad demise. The incident exposed the faces of some vultures in Indian Media that ran their show consecutively for two months in the name of getting him justice. While Aajtak and India.com ran fake tweets as his last words, Times Now linked Rhea Chakraborty's "Imma bounce" text with bounced cheques. Yes, try not to laugh!
Not just this, the case also unraveled the harsh reality of Media Trials in our country where "Guilty until proven innocent" has become the new normal.
Fake news related to Covid 19 being a Chinese bioweapon got circulated frivolously without any evidence. This wasn't the only time when news related to China was misreported. During the Galwan clash, Aajtak and Times Now shared a 1962 War Memorial video as "Proof of Galwan". What can be a better usage of archive footages than this ofcourse!
Our love for Pakistan also shows in the number of fake news we share in their name. Various channels including India TV and Times Now along with right-wing website OpIndia shared a video of Pakistani parliamentary proceedings where Opposition MPs were chanting ‘voting, voting’, and falsely claimed that they were chanting ‘Modi, Modi’. Yeah! If only sharing your wildest dreams was journalism.
In another story that was fabricated by their innocent hearts, News18 and Zee News reported Pakistan of being in the middle of a civil war. They were heavily trolled for this one.
Everything apart, the headlines that they use! Anything I say right now to compliment their headlines would only be an insult to their creative writing skills, quite literally. So, I better move on.
The Media Industry has been growing at a rapid rate, especially TV and Digital Media. And although Print Media has seen a slower growth than both these mediums, they have been found much more reliable. According to a research, print remained an important source of information for 66% of the population while 73% Indians agreed that loud debates on the TV news channels never have anything substantial to offer. 75% individuals agreed that fact checking was more important for the facts shown on TV channels while newspapers remain comparatively credible.
I don't mean to throw all these facts at you to make you feel disheartened and lose hope in journalism. So, just to boost your morale, let's see some debacles from the International media as well.
You would be shocked to know that yellow journalism is what led to the end of Spanish colonialism! In 1898, the New York Journal claimed that the Spanish were behind the sinking of a US Navy ship named USS Maine. The constant havoc created by the journal led to America waging war against Spain.
In relatively recent events, during 2014 US Elections, there was this man who fired gunshots in a pizzeria of Washington convinced by a fake news story that claimed of the place hiding a pedophilia trafficking ring led by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. No points for guessing who spread this fake news.
Similar news have led to various mass shootings in America.
Even in France, various fake news stories were fabricated during elections. While some claimed Emmanuel Macron's campaign being funded by Saudi Arabia, others claimed that The French State is replacing Christian Public Holidays with Muslim and Jewish Holidays. Religious fanaticism isn't just an Indian thing you see.
Now coming back to India, what do you think is the reason behind this downfall? Who is responsible for it? Are we in any way contributing to this mockery created out of a responsible profession? Let's see.
We live in a country where the prices of essential commodities aren't controlled by the government, prices of petrol and diesel are de-regulated but prices of Tv Channels are regulated. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India came up with this law in 2006 that barred the channels from charging anything above Rs 5.35 per month for their services. Seems like a great thing to do right? Sadly it isn't.
Production of a TV show costs a fortune and every channel runs multiple shows at once. The investment cost is too high and the subscription cost in comparison is almost nil. This is why most channels depend heavily on the advertising of their channels, further leading to a cut throat competition of TRPs. Anybody trying to avoid the number game would either need additional funding or they may not see another day in the industry.
India is the only liberal democracy where politicians and political parties are allowed to own traditional media platforms. It has been discovered that major investments in TV News channels have been from politicians, real estate, money market companies and large conglomerates since early 2000s. In states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa, over 80% investment in TV News channels have been from such entities. In Punjab, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and the North-East, they make upto 60-70%. This limits the horizons of the news channels and turns it into a propaganda tool instead.
The government has introduced new IT Laws for the fake news stories being circulated on social media but there is no regulation or penalty on TV News channels regarding the fake news stories and distorted facts that they have been presenting on their shows since years.
What can be done?
Changing the revenue model of the news channels from advertising based to subscription based can be a step forward. Moreover, a relatively higher subscription fee wouldn't harm the audience as in any case they are getting 200-250 channels in a pack right now amongst which more than half go unseen. A subscription model wouldn't just increase profits but emphasize on the quality of the content produced. Therefore, an increase in subscription fee could be a win-win situation for both the channels and the public. A great example of this is HBO which is based on the subscriptions of more than 142 million customers worldwide as of 2017 and generated nearly seven hundred billion dollars through subscriptions in 2020.
Curbs on political ownership of media channels can solve the problem of propaganda and radicalization based on ideologies.
Producers or individual journalists and reporters should be penalized for presenting fake news stories and facts to promote responsible journalism.
And most importantly, you the audience should identify and refrain from watching such channels and journalists who have maligned the name of a dynamic profession like journalism. Don't be my father. Watch Zee Cinema or Taarak Mehta if you want to have fun. News is supposed to be informational not funny!
So, this was me trying to rationalize the chaos around an industry that can and should do much better than this. Sleep on it before you take offence as it might haunt you later that I made sense.