[This is a SAJAforum article by James Mutti, a Fulbright scholar who spent time in India last year, studying the media and their relationship to the democratic process. He argues that the impressive growth of the media is largely taking place outside of the voting classes, ensuring that the media are not playing a significant public service role. Ultimately, Mutti suggests that a new media model is needed, one which balances its profit motive with coverage of issues relevant to the poorer, voting classes, and which could serve as a model for the developing world. SAJAforum asked some India experts to respond to the article - scroll down to the comments section to read what they have to say.]
The Challenge Facing the Indian Media
In India, unlike in North America and much of Western Europe, newspaper readership is rising sharply.1 More newspapers are sold daily in India than in any other country except China. However, despite the success of the media's business model, there are important questions about whether the media can serve the needs of Indian non-elites. Can the media report the issues that matter to a majority of India's citizens?
Newsstands in India overflow with newspapers and magazines in English and one or two local languages. They sprawl across sidewalks – dozens of publications neatly lined up or hanging from walls, pillars or trees – glossy color magazines, inky daily newspapers, local flyers and pamphlets of mediocre quality. Newsstands take up prime real estate on the busy and crowded sidewalks of downtown business districts and in small towns. In Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, at least 11 different daily Hindi newspapers are available, along with at least 3 Urdu papers, and more than half a dozen English papers. Dozens of magazines are available in these three languages. They cover all topics – news, fashion, medicine, weddings, movies, motorcycles, religion, travel, sports, yoga. There is an Indian version of Maxim. There are women’s magazines such as Femina, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmo, and Saheli. There are magazines and comic books just for the kids. Nearly every shopkeeper in his small store can be seen reading Dainik Jagran, Jansatta or Rashtriya Sahara. The paper then sits on the counter for customers to pick up and peruse throughout the day. Dainik Jagran is one of Lucknow’s more expensive newspapers, going for three and a half rupees, about 9 cents. Others sell for as low as two rupees. There is so much available and yet what there is usually appeals only to the middle class.
Liberal Economic Growth vs. Deepening Democracy
In India today, the media is big business – relying on corporate advertising and the spending of the middle class – and it is hard to claim that it is a public good that reaches most citizens.
Contrary to what we might think, there is an inherent tension between India’s much-hyped economic growth and its deepening democracy. Economic success has enabled a middle class to emerge but middle class culture remains irrelevant to the many Indians left behind economically. Democracy has enabled historically marginalized sections of society to become politically powerful through sheer numbers and effective grassroots mobilization while the elite have tended to retreat from the political sphere. Economic growth has led to greater inequalities, while democratic growth has given a stronger voice to those who are suffering from those inequalities.
The media may do a good job of providing news to the estimated 300 million members of the Indian middle class – in fact, coverage of political issues tends to be quite good – but as long as over 700 million Indians are sidelined from the media's gaze by their inability to conspicuously consume, the media’s role as public service is severely limited.
Vinod Shukla, the 67-year-old Lucknow editor of India’s largest newspaper, the Hindi-language Dainik Jagran, decried the Indian media’s decreasing emphasis on serious news reporting, its frequent complacency, and its general unwillingness to challenge government or big business. He believes this began with the Emergency of the 1970s. Under the censorship of the Emergency, when the media was asked to bend, it chose to crawl – a famous quote from the time, repeated to me by Mr. Shukla. He believes this attitude remains today. This doesn’t make the media unsuccessful, but it isn’t playing the role of watchdog or societal agenda-setter as vigorously as people like Mr. Shukla would like.
He added that the Indian media today must cater to the interests of readers to stay in business. The fact that the media is primarily a profit driven industry limits the scope of what it is likely to report and at times promotes trashy sensationalism in the name of news. Paris Hilton’s jail term, Lindsay Lohan’s alcohol rehab, and Beyonce’s public statements fill the international news pages in some papers. Those who read papers and watch TV are often more are interested in interviews with Bollywood stars than rural poverty. More people want to find out about the new iPod than Indian foreign policy. The Times of India has become a notorious example of this phenomenon. Competitors such as The Hindustan Times, Indian Express and Hindi papers like Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala provide a better balance of the serious and the frivolous. Yet, this often leads to inferior coverage of more important issues. The media often abdicates its role as an educator in favor of being an entertainer.
When the media does address substantive issues, its reach is often extremely limited, according to Dr. Sanjay Kumar at Delhi’s respected Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). He believes that it is effective in spreading information, and studies by CSDS have shown that citizens have a high level of trust in the media. The influence of the print and electronic media during elections is growing, but is not as important as many assume, Kumar argues. Non-mediated, informal networks remain more significant in spreading news in rural India than does the media. He does not see this changing any time soon.
“Why should I vote?” – Elections and the Media
There is a worrisome disconnect between the political power of poorer, traditionally marginalized communities and their consumption of media. Not only are these citizens unlikely to have meaningful access to the media, but they cannot afford the products appearing in newspaper advertisements and so would not be a profitable demographic under the current advertising model.
A 2006 CSDS survey reported that 26% of respondents regularly (almost daily) watched news on TV, but 38% never did. Only 15% regularly listened to news on the radio; 48% never did. Twenty-two percent read a newspaper regularly; 47% never did.
Raj Varma – a former editor of both The Times of India and Indian Express – asked me, “Why should I vote?” His argument was that he, a well-off city dweller, had all that he needed – a house, car, electricity, water, safety, a good school for his daughter, good doctors nearby. What else could the government do for him? He has a comfortable life and sees no reason to vote. If these are the people the Indian media caters to, it simply isn’t good business to trouble them with issues that don’t affect them and that they can do little about.
But poor Indians do vote. And if the media is not covering issues that matter to citizens who vote, then how valuable is it to the process of political and social change? There was a dearth of meaningful coverage of Mayawati and the BSP during last year's assembly elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Instead, the emphasis was on the political circus of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign (though his Congress party was expected to finish a distant fourth), and on the BJP’s bickering with the Election Commission over communal campaign material. In recent years, both of these parties have been supported by the urban upper-castes and classes in UP – the same group that largely controls the media. The ruling Samajwadi Party embarked on an advertising blitz.
The BSP did not advertise, nor did its candidates or events receive much media attention, despite predictions before the election that the BSP was likely to emerge the largest party in the state. It still won dramatically. The coverage of the media, which virtually ignored them, did not matter to its largely economically marginalized supporters. A study conducted by CSDS after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections found that voters for the BSP had much lower exposure to the media than voters for other major political parties. This data leaves the poorest and most politically active citizens outside the influence of the media. Consequently, issues relevant to these citizens are generally not found in the media – agricultural issues, hunger, poor rural health care and education, lack of jobs, and ways of addressing these problems. The middle class who uses the media is simply not interested in these issues.
This would not happen in the US. Not because the US media is necessarily any better than the Indian at playing the role of public good – it only has the advantage that media consumers are also voters. Ignoring the issues of poor or minority communities in the US does not hurt the media's image because these communities do not have the political clout to produce election results that defy media predictions. The ‘surprise’ outcomes of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the 2007 UP Vidhan Sabha elections demonstrate the challenge that the news media faces in India.
What does the future hold?
Today’s politically empowered poor have exposed the media as an instrument largely relevant only to the country’s elite and middle classes. As long as a majority of Indians live in poverty, it is unclear how a media driven by profit can expand its reach. Nor would a widespread return to news somehow subsidized by the government or non-profit groups be likely. Things could of course proceed unchanged, but this would relegate the news carried by the media to be little more than entertainment for the middle and upper-classes, weakening the democratic process in India. Are other paths available?
An informed media is often referred to as the fourth estate of democratic politics. Mr. Shukla stressed the need for an informative media in a well-run democracy. Sevanti Ninan, a journalist and media critic in Delhi, also asserted that the media is a business that relies on a democratic form of politics. In her opinion, this is no small reason why print and electronic news have flourished here.
Despite the best attempts by many involved in the Indian news media to provide truly meaningful content to all segments of India’s diverse population, the larger system of the media in India – based on a US-style media model – and its relationship to the electorate limits their effectiveness and relevance. Addressing this contradiction will require collaborations and discussions between journalists, media owners, activists, politicians, citizens, academics. Happily, such constructive discussions – involving top journalists and politicians at least – have recently been occurring in various forums. High-profile journalists such as CNN-IBN’s editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai have spoken forcefully in favor of a media able to "move away from the tyranny of the market that makes us cater to the lowest common denominator." He asks broadcasters to sharply distinguish between "what is in public interest and what is of public interest" and to emphasize the first.
And yet, in the media at least, there are few examples of how to do this while remaining financially sound and competitive in a cut-throat media market. There is talk of industry self-regulation versus government regulation of content, but it is unclear if there is widespread interest in or political will to reach out to marginalized Indians or to reject the big money of a corporately-driven media. Regardless, one hopes that gatherings of journalists, politicians and activists will continue and will be more frequent and substantive in the future. Everyone in India has a stake in the debate.
And it is not an issue that only affects India. While India’s combination of an extensive free market media and high voting turnout by poor rural citizens may be rather unique, the media in other parts of the postcolonial world faces similar challenges to reaching citizens – low literacy, poverty, growing gaps between rich and poor, tensions between modern and traditional ways of life. The media in the so-called developed world also needs to make its news content more reflective of the important issues facing the world. By dint of its size, wealth and influence, the Indian media seems well-placed to play a leading global role in producing a news media relevant to the majority of the world's people, not just its elites.
--James Mutti for SAJAforum
1 Sevanti Ninan. Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2007. pp. 14-15. “As American Newspapers Flail, Indian Papers Are On The Rise." Associated Press. May 28, 2007.
[Sevanti Ninan has a central role in the Indian media site The Hoot]
Earlier on SAJAforum: