Why is Indian Media more attracted to sensationalism?

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This article is a part of the ongoing Citizen-Politician debate series Mandate 2014 on LILA Inter-actions, the online debate platform of LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives.

Media in independent India has been growing and expanding in a state of policy vacuum from its inception. There has been no written policy envisaging the relationship of the growth of media with that of national development. The growth, if any, occurred either due to political patronage or as a reaction to a certain context or development. For example, radio or television stations were set up in those places where a direct control from Delhi was easier. Stations were set up in Punjab after partition, in Jammu and Kashmir after the first battle over control of Kashmir, and in the Northeast after the 1962 Chinese aggression. That situation changed with the economic reforms of the 1990s. The flood gate of media control was released, leading to the phenomenal growth of media within the following decades.

Though we can call it growth of media in general, the effect has been more revolutionizing for television than for any other platform. The contrast is rather obvious, as India had been a late entry into the field of television (only in 1959). Private television stations mushroomed in such a way that as of 29 March 2014, according to the I&B Ministry website, there are 792 permitted satellite television channels, of which 392 are news and current affairs channels, and the rest 400, entertainment-based channels.


But the important question is, with this growth in numbers, are the people getting choices in content, and what exactly does the content consist of? A close look will show that media content has become more about entertainment and reality shows than the ‘real’ issues inflicting the society. It seems that the news channels are also convinced that only entertainment gets the desired eye-balls. This challenge of the ‘only entertainment’ television was very quickly accepted by the print and the radio. The print redesigned itself with almost 70% entertainment (barring a very few) and radio as 100% of it, in the form of private FM channels. It has not helped that the government had not allowed news and current affairs in private FM channels as well as ‘in incubation’ community radio.

While analysing this deluge of entertainment in media, Erik Barnouw said that “entertainment has the merit not only of being suited to helping sell goods; it is an effective vehicle for hidden ideological messages” (The Sponsor, 1978). Herman and Chomsky called entertainment the contemporary equivalent of the Roman “games of circus;” which diverts the public from politics and generates a political apathy that becomes helpful to preserve the status quo. It is undeniable that television has a very strong role in constructing opinions about people and events. In the Third World, it is rather a constructed space moderated by the state and the market. This has given birth to what Adorno had called the culture industry. Here, culture is apolitical and bereft of ideological and philosophical understanding, more for plain entertainment rather than preservation of heritage and tradition. This outlook desensitizes generations of citizens to genuine issues and creates a homogenized culture, which is unhealthy for a multi-cultural country like India.

Is the media feeding us opinions?

In the process, we see a lot of disparate and somewhat cacophonic programmes that leave most of us confused and tired. It is interesting to observe how media picks up an issue like holy grail and drops another like hot coal. The December 2012 rape case made headlines and created near hysteria whereas the rampant raping of the Dalits in Indian villages never figure at all. [pullquote]Undeniably, the crusading role of the media during the December 2012 incident did bring about a drastic change in the rape law of the land, but did it really change the plight of the underprivileged? The issues of patriarchy and the lack of governance, as the core issues of such an incident, were never discussed.[/pullquote]Had the laws reduced the number of rapes? We need to know, and as a crusader for the cause, is the media discussing the issue at all? In fact it conveniently moved on to the next big issue. The media did the same with the Anna Hazare movement and the Kejriwal wave – nurture it and claim success initially and all of a sudden drop the issue when it is either perceived as a threat or rendered useless for them. The same approach is visible when scams are covered by the media: the particular scam and the media house announcing it give a distinctive narrative of the political economy not only of the issue at hand, but also of the media house in question. As Pierre Bourdieu said, such selective news stories give “free rein to the unbridled construction of demagoguery (whether spontaneous or intentional) or can stir up great excitement by catering to the most primitive drives and emotions” (On Television, 1996).

A TV news capture after the 2012 Delhi rape: were the deep roots of the problem discussed?

This leads us to the issue of the usage of language in the media. How and why a question is posed, to whom, in what context, and then represented where, are always enigmas. Often, we see a channel vie for attention by saying that only its journalists had access to a particular breaking news. But if you surf the other channels, you will find that everyone is demanding the same. Then, you look at how the particular breaking news is treated and you find that almost every Prime Time News presenter is asking the same question, albeit in a different language. For example in the Devyani Khobragade episode, the channels made a martyr of the officer and drove the government to react quite naively. While there were far more contentious policy issues between India and the US, the channels conveniently ignored that and never raised the issue of national pride. Higher the pitch and more aggressive the nature of presentation, more attractive the programme! But this is not as benign as it seems to be. Another obnoxious way of the Prime Time ‘stars’ is to put words into others’ mouth. They put pressure on a person to utter words which are then edited and removed out of context and quoted rampantly. Such utterances obviously serve the purpose of the media house, but that is definitely damaging both for the issue as well as the person concerned.

One often has a feeling that today’s journalists are not educated enough to handle any complex issue. The debate then comes down to whether journalism education should be made mandatory. A person goes through a long social and political conditioning from childhood to become what she or he is. A one or two year course cannot develop a sensitive journalist. But this does not mean that journalism education is useless. Our society must urgently begin to discuss this in greater depth.

In this uproar of the media, online platforms seem to offer a more democratic and analytical space. It is not that these platforms are not susceptible to various pressures. [pullquote]But, seeing the way this space is expanding, and how more and more young Indians are logging on to it, we may pin some hope onto those new spaces to give us genuine debates and deliberations, to breathe in fresh air into the mediascape.[/pullquote]But it will take time, as the access to these platforms is very skewed as of now.

The proliferation of media that India is witnessing often gives us a false sense of having choices. But do we have it in reality? Cross media ownership, dominant business model and the homogenized programming pattern leave, in fact, no space for healthy competition or even choices. However, even to sustain the hegemony that this corporate media aspires for, they need to understand that giving space for democratic and constructive as well as informed discussion and debates is a must. Else, media fatigue might seep in and the people might stop taking the media seriously. This, in turn, will be a threat to the edifice of a healthy democracy.

Written by Shashwati Goswami >>

Shashwati Goswami is an Associate Professor at IIMC, New Delhi. Her areas of interest include Media Policy, Public Health Communication, Environment and Conflict Communication, Radio Broadcasting and Community Radio. She has worked extensively in the areas of Development-Induced Displacement and Urban Poverty. She is a recipient of Panos South Asia fellowship for conflict reporting and Rockefeller archive centre grant-in-aid for archival research in family planning communication. She is a native of Assam.

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Indian Exponent: Why is Indian Media more attracted to sensationalism?
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