Ranjona Banerji: Disquieting news for media

19 Mar,2013

By Ranjona Banerji


An interview with lawyer Harish Salve on Karan Thapar’s Devil’s Advocate on Sunday night underlined once more why the media better serves its purpose by taking a balanced and objective view on issues. Salve was lawyer for the two Italian marines accused of shooting two Indian fishermen. They left for Italy to vote promising to come back; the Italian government now says they won’t.


As usual, we have whipped ourselves into a patriotic frenzy with people almost going as far as boycotting their daily dose of peejo and pasta but I suspect it won’t quite come to that. Connections have been made between Sonia Gandhi, Mussolini, Finmeccanica, Quattrochi, leaving out so far Machiavelli, the Borgias, Leonardo da Vinci and Dante Alighieri.


Salve however explained matters in a sober and non-hysterical manner which did not absolve the Italians of shooting the fishermen but pointed out how international law worked. There can be little doubt that television-induced madness has afflicted our nation. Strangely, anyone at any time could have looked at the matter coldly and dispassionately and explained it to the reader and viewer. But where’s the fun in that, eh?




The Pew Research Centre’s State of the Media report has some disquieting news for the American media but it applies to journalism and journalists everywhere. Cost-cutting in news rooms has affected the quality of journalism everywhere. Coverage of live events by premier news channels has dropped by 30 per cent since 2007 and interviews – which require fewer resources – have risen by a corresponding 31 per cent. Story lengths are down and subjects like sports, weather and traffic which are easier to cover have gone up.


In the print media, algorithms have replaced journalists in some instances. The report says, “This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.” The report was scathing about events like presidential elections, observing that campaign reporters act more like “megaphones than investigators”.


As beats drop, organisations and companies are using social media to bypass the traditional media and speak to the general public. In a sense, then by cutting news-gathering and journalism costs, the news media has worked to remove itself from the market. This cannot be worthwhile in the long run.


There is one additional fear which Pew has expressed – that as more companies use “native” advertising with embedded messaging, readers and viewers will be confused about “sponsored” content as opposed to news content.


This of course is something that we are well aware of in India and yet have managed to do nothing about. Paid news, Medianet and its variations are rife. In fact, “medianet” has practically become a generic term for unethical journalism and is no longer even seen as a Times of India or Bennett Coleman brand – almost everyone does it one way or another.


The news media in the West has fallen under threat since the economic downturn. The problem is that while the economy may improve at some point, the damage done to journalism by cutting standards will be irreparable. The inability to understand and effectively use the digital space has also hurt traditional journalists and news organisations. This means that skill sets have been lost and the primary goal of journalism – to inform and make aware – is under threat.


The lessons for India are no less real. The increasing corporatisation of the media has meant that the profit structure has taken precedence over everything else. While the need to be financially viable is non-negotiable, when cost-cutting attacks your core competency you are indeed cutting off your nose to spite your face. The only thing that achieves is to open the door to unscrupulous cosmetic surgeons and charlatans. Welcome to the new media.




Ranjona Banerji’s Twitter handle is @ranjona


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