Sanjeev Kotnala: News Media Credibility at Stake

07 Sep,2016

By Sanjeev Kotnala


There is not much to substantiate, but I fear news media credibility in the second most trusted nation* has taken a beating. It may be just at the edge, ready to give politicians a run for bias and distrust.


Social media is surely (not suddenly) becoming the media of trust. Word-of-Mouth (WOM) was always more credible. Belief on reviews and photos by actual consumers on travel, food and other site are loud examples of impact. It is not without issues, and cross-checks are definitely advised. Nevertheless, the personal touch and trust with the sources help push the trust factor.


I have been talking to people on the subject, and there is a constant voice that is getting amplified with time. We have passed or are at the tipping point. The audience now firmly believes no news media is unbiased. No media is fearless. No one is interested or has the courage to speak and bring out the truth. The era when news was objective, impartial, fair and balanced are over. News now is created, supported, sponsored, bought, biased, tweaked, skewed and saturated with unidirectional presentation. May be the level of trust in news media is as low as that for advertising that gets featured.


When I listen to statements like these, I get confused, where does the bias lie? Who is really biased? Why is this distrust so dominant? Is it that most of the news is not fitting into the audience approval pattern? The audience attitudinally now suspects every statement unless it is Google-verified. May be, it is just a cumulative result of numerous incidences where trust has been misplaced. The tectonic pressure has been building for long. The day is not far, when distrust could be so dominating that trust will remain alive only as a research parameter.


Everyone amongst the fickle-minded easily-swayed audience has his or her favourite… depending on which part of the country one resides in…  Unfortunately, many of the news channels are referred as comedy channels. Some of the newspapers, including few large setups and brands are termed rags. Salacious reporting, extortion cases, exposes of recorded conversation, unjustified leaks, women insensitive reporting, unqualified silence or hunt of people and parties and many more cases have been catalytic in erosion of trust. That should worry us. The trust in them has already hit rock bottom.


On the other hand, when questioned, people quote journalists, writers, presenters and columnists. They are the ones audiences trust. That too a time when ‘presstitute’ as a term has been gaining currency, social media seem to have taken up the job of the citizen watchdog and amplified voice. This is not a new phenomenon. The only difference is that earlier trust in these individuals coexisted with trust on the titles.


Today, in the fight of eyeballs and time before the audience, high decibel media trials and laughable breaking news happen with higher frequency. On the other side, a lot many stories lose their stream and are allowed to die on the sidelines due to lack of interest, follow-up or non-transparent decisions and pressures. Most of the journalists today seem to be in need for a refresher course in norms of journalistic conduct.


While we are on this subject, we must understand the audience tendency to distort, delete and generalise. Their get a distinct unreasonable comfort in creating patterns of acceptable standards and biases. So, just smile, compare with your own list and move on.


These uncertainties are acceptable in the era of sharply polarised reactions. The media is also suspect for having lost the courage to speak out or amplify a particular vice. Currently, media is happy with deliberately presenting stories in stinking neutrality, expecting the audience to triangulate with other sources.


The strong voices earlier generation has grown up to erupts at puzzling rarity. Sadly, even newspapers known for their dabang expression are losing ther sheen for failing to take the stories to their logical end. The voyeuristic audience is seeking new highs and suffers from short-term memory and inability of prolonged orgasm over really investigative news.


Hence, it is not surprising that only a handful of media brands makes to a ‘Most Trusted Brand’ list. Even if the fieldwork area and market size skew of the field work was corrected, I am not sure how many of the strong major newspapers would have made to the list.


India does not suffer from direct corporate ownership of media as some of the other countries. Yet, commercialisation and advertising dependency have impacted the way a journalist now dreams and delivers. And sometime you worry that the dreams and ambitions of a journalist are as pure or polluted as the river Ganga. Subhash Chandra of the Zee group (one of the brands on the ‘Most Trusted Brand’ list ) has been raising the issue of funding and transparency in media ownership. No one seems to be interested in taking it to logical end.


The news industry is not a case of lack of talent or funds. However, I suspect that there is a definitive inertia amongst industry stakeholders to push the agenda. I would believe that most newspapers take their credibility seriously. They have been touchy about it. It is one thing that they cherish. I know, while trying to reinvent and rejuvenate themselves, many media news brands have been experimenting with strategies to regain the lost sheen of trust. Is that not like locking the barn after the horse has bolted?


Thankfully, audiences have a growing list of independent news sources accessible on the internet. The trust needle has shifted, and it now points in favour of social media. To regain the fast eroding trust, the news media needs to be careful of the tonality of content and more so not be willing to sell space in the guise of sponsored item or native advertising.


  • In 2015, India moved up to second most trusted nation in 27 ranked nations. An Edelman report carried PM Narendra Modi picture on the cover. The ring of six trusted nations was completed by UAE (84% Trust), India (79% Trust), Indonesia (78% Trust), China! (75% Trust), Singapore (65% Trust) and Netherland (64% Trust) as per the measurement scale.


With 28 years of corporate experience, Sanjeev Kotnala is founder of Intradia World, a brand, marketing and management advisory. His focus area includes Ideation and Innovation; he also conducts specialised workshops like IDEAHarvest, Liberate and InNoWait. For soft skill training, he follows SHIFT (Specific High-Intensity Frequent training), a process of continuous training with frequent shorter sessions. Email tweet @s_kotnala web:


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