In the last 15 years, journalism in India has gone through a sea change. In the 1990s, we saw the birth of "Page 3" journalism. That meant a bunch of fashion-savvy journalists were sent out each night to cover parties and fashion shows. They invariably came back with some juicy gossip about the "movers and shakers" of the city.
During this decade, news has got trivialized even further. There are scores of 24X7 news channels that are competing with each other to draw more eyeballs. Marketeers and journalists have become strange bed-fellows. Each day, reporters are sent out to look for news that will sell, thereby fetching the channel more advertising revenue.
Today, we see overzealous reporters conducting sting operations or going after stories that are sensational and sleazy. The result--citizens are actually beginning to lose faith in the Fourth Estate. Very few people nowadays have anything nice to say about journalists, thereby dismissing the important role media continues to play in a democracy.
During my stint in various publications, my editors and senior colleagues often told me: "The reader likes to read such stuff, therefore we write such stories." And I hear the same thing today from my friends working for TV channels. The result--the line between news and entertainment is beginning to blur. Some TV channels can be very regressive-–they actually carry news reports about "spirits in a lift" and intrude into the privacy of the common man (and never really public figures like a politician or a powerful businessman) in order to get higher TRPs (television rating points).
I have always wondered if it's fair to pass the buck onto the reader/viewer. Interestingly, every time there is some silly gossip on film stars, most of us tend to read it. But we read it because it entertains and amuses us, and not (always) because it's something we appreciate or are terribly interested in reading.
With the proliferation of the internet, it's not difficult to find out what's really the most-read news item on a news portal. The ZDNet Asia site, for instance, gives us a list of the most popular articles of the week (though it's still rare for news portals to carry such a list). It also lists out articles that are "most discussed".
We are already seeing the emergence of a new social watchdog-–the blogger community. Whether it's a technology, a political development or an economic issue, you find millions of bloggers across the world voicing their opinions on a plethora of issues.
Over the last two months, Indian newspapers and TV channels have carried so many news reports on the murder of a 14-year old school girl (Aarushi Talwar). The police had accused her father (dentist Dr. Rajesh Talwar) of being the culprit (despite the lack of any evidence against him). Web sites of TV channels and newspapers featured plenty of reactions from the viewers/readers. A majority of them were angry over the sensational news stories (often based on hearsay) being carried by the media. The more important thing to note here is that while they read such sensational news reports, they didn't quite appreciate them.
Hopefully, with the launch of IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) in India, we will know exactly what the viewer wants. I hope it also improves the standard of journalism in India. Technology (such as the IPTV) will encourage more interaction between the media company and its consumers. This way, the media can present news at it is, leaving it up to the viewers to use their judgement and watch/read what they really want to.
Insofar as the media is concerned, I feel it's not always about the number of hits, circulation or TRPs. It's also about the feedback you get for a story.
Unlike other businesses, media can't keep focusing only on revenue growth. It also has a huge societal responsibility.