VR Logo

Chasing sensation over facts

The media resorts to sensationalism in the hope of making profits and glosses over other important developments

The extensive coverage provided by the Indian media to four incidents in recent times has resulted in a renewal of accusations that many of the country's newspapers and television channels exaggerate facts and "sell" sensational stories in the hope of maximising profits. In the process, the media plays down important developments on the plea that such information is not newsworthy.

The tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator is neither new nor unique to the Indian media. Whereas this does not justify the priorities of the corporatised media, it is important to understand how two important factors have exacerbated the trend. First, the Great Recession in the West and the economic slowdown in countries like India have resulted in a sharp curtailment on advertising and marketing services which, in turn, has decelerated the flow of "financial oxygen" that had ensured the commercial viability (if not, profitability) of mainstream media organisations.

The second, and equally important factor that has adversely impacted the fortunes of the traditional "dead-tree" media is the exponential growth of the internet. As huge volumes of information are available for "free" on the worldwide web (even if some of the data lacks authenticity and credibility), people are spoilt for choice for much of their requirements of news.

Crucial to this discourse is an ideological issue. Information is a public good, like the air we breathe or the water we drink. But information is also a manufactured product or a service that is packaged, advertised and sold by "cultural industries". Since information has both attributes, the question that has no easy answers is how providers of information are to be funded, especially if the information has to be collated through extensive and thorough research.

Who is going to fund investigative journalism in the age of the internet, if it is not going to be advertising-driven media companies? Will such information gathering and dissemination then be increasingly financed by academic institutions, civil society organisations or even the government? Who then will take on the responsibility of ensuring greater transparency in society or holding accountable those who are in positions of power and authority?

The answers to these questions are not easy or evident. Even as alternative revenue models are emerging, substantial sections of the mainstream media as well as the new media are certain to continue to resort to titillation and sensation in the hope of surviving, if not prospering, in a difficult environment. Consider four recent instances of wall-to-wall media coverage in India:
* the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case and the imprisonment of the dentist couple, Dr Rajesh Talwar and Dr Nupur Talwar; * the arrest and incarceration of Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal who has been accused of raping a young colleague of his who is his daughter's friend as well; * the claims of sexual harassment against a recently-retired judge of the Supreme Court, Asok Kumar Ganguly; and * the allegations of snooping on a woman architect by the Gujarat government headed by Narendra Modi.

What is common among the four examples? Almost all those involved (with the exception of domestic worker Hemraj) belong to the upper crust of Indian society. Much of the media seeks to cater to this elite. This section comprises people to whom advertisers want to reach out to and the media treats them as consumers first and citizens later. When atrocities are committed on the underprivileged, such incidents rarely receive similar attention.

The second aspect of the instances mentioned is that the allegations are salacious. The media loves to focus on the prurient, an adjective meaning "having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters, especially the sexual activity of others". The third common aspect is that many of the key persons are not just prominent but also supposed to be engaged in professions that are supposed to uphold "public interest" - they are doctors, judges, journalists and politicians. The truth is, of course, far more nuanced as corruption has permeated all these professions.

The selling of news cannot be compared to marketing soap, toothpaste or potato chips. Unlike the norms and rules that operate in markets for most products and services, the intensification of competition among newspapers or television channels does not necessarily or automatically lead to an improvement in standards or quality. On the contrary, more choice in the media often leads to dumbing down. The intelligence of the reader or the viewer, who is supposed to have a short attention span, is frequently insulted and she or he is inundated with a surfeit of trivia. This has been particularly true of Indian television channels in recent years. Not surprisingly, those who produce content for the "idiot box" claim that what the audience wants is song, dance, sex, violence and three C's, crime, cinema and cricket.

However, one need not be excessively cynical. Just as the internet has provided pornography at the click of a mouse, it also has an ability to empower ordinary people. It has become easier for citizens to become journalists than ever before. The forces that make societies across the globe more transparent and less corrupt (India is hardly an exception) are inexorable and these forces include the media.

This column first appeared in January 2014 issue of Mutual Fund Insight. The views expressed here are author's own, and do not reflect the opinion of Value Research.