Wayward sections of the Indian media are not only harming the country’s interests but also its image abroad
A prominent Indian news outlet reported on national television on 22 February that Adhyayan Suman, the son of the fairly popular Indian actor of yesteryear, Shekhar Suman, had died by suicide. There would be nothing improper or inappropriate about this report if one did not take into consideration the fact that the suicide that was said to have happened had not actually taken place. Young Adhyayan, who is following in his father’s footsteps as an actor, was very much alive and kicking. Once this had been established, the many levels at which the report had been reprehensibly irresponsible become painfully evident.
At the time this ‘tragic’ news was flashing across the television in Shekhar Suman’s living room in Mumbai, Adhyayan was away in New Delhi and in the midst of a meeting. Unaware that the pronouncement of his ‘death’ on TV had “devastated” his parents and other family members, which was why they were calling his mobile phone incessantly, Adhyayan chose not to disrupt the meeting by taking the calls. The family, fearing the worst due to Adhyayan’s past battles with depression and suicidal thoughts that he had shared with them, was in a state of shock. The thought that a reputed media outlet could run such a story without concrete verification of the facts did not even occur to them, and Adhyayan’s being away and unreachable lent a sense of credence to the report, and to their grief. The fact that Adhyayan’s elder brother Aayush had died due to a heart ailment at the age of 11 caused the news to be even more heartrending. As Shekhar Suman described it later, after it had been established to the family’s great relief that Adhyayan was alive and well, “When my wife Alka and I heard this we were numbed. Adhyayan was in Delhi and his phone was out of reach. We died a thousand deaths until we reached him. Just announcing to the world that my son has committed suicide – it’s absolutely unpardonable. You can imagine what my wife and I went through”. Saying that he would be taking legal action against the media outlet and requesting the Indian government to act firmly against it, Shekhar added, “We want that they should think of how deeply damaging irresponsible reportage can be”.
The foregoing is only a recent illustration of the rut that has come to symbolize a large proportion of the mushrooming and prolific media in India. The country, without doubt, is home to some sterling and judicious media houses and has produced a crop of exceptional and incorruptible media personalities over the decades. However, the explosion of channels and publications in recent times has come at the cost of a steep dip in standards. Alongside the stalwarts of the Indian media, inexperienced, shallow, and even unscrupulous media houses and personalities have sprouted and thrived in the last two decades. The concomitant social media boom of the period has encouraged and complemented this trend of journalism. Lack of ethics and professionalism has come to characterize a vast section of the Indian media, and this section appears to be repeatedly failing to fulfill the important responsibility that it is entrusted to do in a democracy.
The downward spiral had already been visible a decade ago, when the respected Indian journalist Praful Bidwai wrote an article titled ‘The growing crisis of credibility of the Indian media’ for The Transnational Institute (TNI) in 2011. Describing the Indian media as “the world’s most dynamic media industry and one of the fastest growing anywhere”, Bidwai pointed out that it included “the world’s second-largest press (print) market, some 1,500 TV channels (the fourth largest number in the world), of which 250 or so are news channels (probably the highest number anywhere), 80-85 million Internet users, and a growing number of radio stations. The press is printed in 123 languages and dialects. The highest number of newspapers and magazines are issued in Hindi—24,927; the second place is taken by the English-language press—9,064. The state with most print media is Uttar Pradesh—with 9,885 newspapers. The largest-circulated Indian daily is Dainik Jagran, with 55.7 million readers, probably the largest in the world”. Bidwai also listed out the banes of the Indian media as “generally declining—quality, reliability and authenticity, loss of diversity and pluralism, shallowness in reporting and comment on serious issues, and systematic violation of elementary norms of responsible journalism”. He observed that “Media expansion has led to a shrinking of the public sphere, and spread of elitist and socially retrograde values. This is producing a growing, and potentially grave, crisis of credibility”. Bidwai added that “in the Indian media industry, the lack of quality and diversity shows an increasing disconnect with the real lives of people in the country and the most important issues they face. In recent years, the media has lowered the quality of India’s public discourse”.
It is not as though the media in India is unregulated. On the contrary, formal institutions that encourage the media to actually self-regulate have been set up. The Press Council of India (PCI) was established way back in 1966 by the Indian parliament with the objective of preserving the freedom of the press and maintaining and improving its standards in India. The PCI’s ‘norms of journalistic conduct’, the latest version of which was released in 2018, contains sections pertaining to principles and ethics, accuracy and fairness, and pre-publication verification, among several others. That notwithstanding, one of the characteristics essential for a profession in journalism is integrity, a trait to which regulations can contribute, but the real onus for maintaining which at most times will rest on individual journalists and their publishing houses.
The wayward sections of the present day media in India have all but surrendered their primary responsibilities of enlightening and empowering the public by arming it with truthful information of its interest, examining dispassionately the important social, economic and political issues of the day, and acting as the people’s watchdog. As India’s then President Pranab Mukherjee had suggested in 2017, “discussion and dissension” were crucial for a vibrant democracy and, therefore, “There should always be room for the argumentative Indian, and not the intolerant Indian. The media must be the watchdog, the mediator between the leaders and the public”. Instead, the Indian media has displayed warped priorities in reporting national and world affairs, showed little interest in generating unbiased and in-depth analysis of important matters of the day, and made unabashed use of sensationalism, unverified reports, and twisted facts to sell its products. The tendency to portray non-issues as real issues, especially the misuse of the unhealthy obsession that the media has had with the misfortunes of celebrities, for this purpose is particularly dangerous as it only leads to the sidelining of genuine issues that actually merit attention and addressing.
Another damaging trend has been the proliferation, aided and abetted by the social media, of false information and hoaxes that promote social discord. This trend appears to be intensifying as Indians increasingly receive their news and information from social media, which has emerged as an alternative outlet for free expression. For all the empowerment and egalitarianism that it advances as a medium, the rampant misuse of social media has had serious ramifications for individuals and communities alike in India. Moreover, as the respected Italian author Umberto Eco had pointed out, “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community ... but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It's the invasion of the idiots”.
Even more perilous is the alacrity with which unscrupulous elements in the media jump to label those who think differently as “anti-national”. An example of this was the branding of the farmers, who have for months been protesting against three recently promulgated laws that they believe are damaging to their interests, as “anti-nationals” and “Khalistani terrorists”. This branding was done by the media even as the Indian government was making sincere efforts to negotiate with the aggrieved farmers and arrive at a solution. While there is little doubt that the Indian government’s new farm laws are forward looking and aimed at benefitting the farmers of the country in the long run, the farmers quite obviously are not entirely convinced. Why else would they leave the comfort of their homes for months at end and camp in make-shift shelters on the outskirts of Delhi in the cold of winter? The branding of the salt of the earth, the very same hard-working people whose toil feeds the entire country, journalists included, as “anti-national” and “terrorists” was not only crass, unbecoming and heartless, but it also impeded the negotiations that government interlocutors and the farmers were in the midst of. If the media really intended to contribute towards the quest for an amicable solution, then preparing and disseminating thorough, meticulously researched and fair assessments of the perceived pros and cons of the new laws would certainly have been a more effective and justified method. After all, there was indeed a lot in the new farm laws that deserved to be welcomed.
The unflattering and inaccurate depiction of the protesting farmers has been seen abroad, where the protests have generated considerable interest, as being in bad taste. In the eyes of the more discerning, in India as in the Western world, the farmers have done little that would warrant their labeling in such extreme and implausible brackets. The sympathy in the international arena that the protesting farmers had enjoyed to begin with was only strengthened with each uncouth term that was flung their way by the media. Correspondingly, the positive aspects inherent in the government’s new farm laws have tended to be diluted and dishonored. Furthermore, the favorable image of India that had been built globally initially through its responsible and vibrant democracy and soft power – yoga, movies, music and cuisine, and then as an exciting economy, began to fray at the edges. The irresponsible section of the country’s media was, to a significant extent, responsible for this sullying of the image of India on the international stage.
The broad support and respect that India has traditionally commanded in the democratic world has come as a result of the image that the country has assiduously been able to cultivate and project, an image that now needs protection from the onslaught that the wayward Indian media has wittingly or unwittingly launched against it.