Media Credibility—What is that?

There are two recent events pertaining to media which has created some storm in their tea sorry Whisky glasses. One is the paid news report, at last released by the Press council and generally ignored by the Main Stream Media [MSM] both print and electronic. The other is the envelops distributed in Satna to cover Advani’s rally There was consternation by some reporters for the same. I do not know if the consternation was for the meager amount of Rs 500!

I had occasion to address more than 500 post-graduate students from different institutions in the recent past. When they were asked how many trusted the media —print and electronic — less than 10 hands went up. In the seventies newspapers used to proclaim readership figures that were five to six times as much as circulation. Today, one would not be surprised if sales exceeded readership in some cases. Many people buy newspapers but do not always read them.

Major reasons for this loss credibility are private contracts with advertisers and paid news as well as paid to not publish the news.

Everyone knows that a leading national daily brought in this “innovation” of private treaties. The idea is simple. The media house acquires stakes in companies which are listed or planning a listing. In return, the media house provides the company with favourable coverage.

Negative coverage is avoided. Private contracts distort the idea of an independent media since the separation between editorial and advertising is gone. News space is for sale. The Securities

and Exchange Board of India had, as early as July 15, 2009, warned in a letter to the Press Council about this pernicious practice. But the Press Council is a toothless old cat and cannot even purr, leave alone roar. About the electronic media, the less said the better. The term “anchor investor” is more applicable to this media. Advisers and experts are a dime a dozen, and they give advice to viewers on what to “buy” or “sell”. There are apparently no conflicts, only interests.  Actually good number of business magazines gives coverage to the entrepreneur or senior executives of companies before an initial public offer. They are called whiz kids or visionaries. It is so blatant that the writings could have come from the business house itself.

At the ground level, the situation is obnoxious. Press conferences are nowadays called “envelope” conferences. Many companies give cash in envelopes to media persons for “positive” coverage. While this is not true for all media persons, coverage will not happen without these “envelopes”. When I expressed surprise to a senior executive in a company during one of these press meets, he said: “You are all ivory tower academics and do not know the ground reality.”

At the regional language level, it is embedded journalism, where every political leader worth his sugar has at least one media house under his control. Due to the actions of the supposed leader of the newspaper pack, independent media has become an oxymoron.

To be sure, it has been clear for some time that the media is often supine and subservient, but matters seem to be getting worse. Let us take some examples. The president of the oldest and largest party in the country, the Congress, has seldom given an interview to any media house. It can happen in Liberia or Somalia but should not happen in India. The media seems to have simply accepted the situation and her recent illness—is treated as Omreta—the Sicilian silence. Media has acquiesced in this. This silence comes under the category of not publishing news under pressure or other enticements like advertisements.

But more damaging is the spin and skin variety which the media is practicing. Many of them bring out so called local supplements on a daily basis where showing skin is the norm. It is time that all pages be numbered Page 3, perhaps as Page 3a, 3b etc.

Another dimension which has arisen in the recent past is about the citizenship of the Editors of media. A good number of media (print and TV) persons are actually not citizens of India. For instance the current Editor of The Hindu is An American citizen as brought out during the family tussle. Probity requires that foreign citizens [especially with Indian names] should make a disclaimer in that regard, particularly when they write/speak on India’s security. But they don’t do that. So much for transparency!

For a starter every news paper TV channel declares who exactly is owning them—unlike the current guidelines which is opaque. Also the Editors and main anchors should declare their wealth annually. That will go a long way in enhancing credibility.

The only way media can retrieve its lost credibility is by strengthening Press Council and severe action against errant member. Self regulation is the best medicine as long as self does not always come before regulation.

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