Public trust in fourth estate is dwindling

As social media emerges as a source of legitimate news and as Indian corporates muscle their way into media ownership, public trust in the fourth estate is only dwindling further.

Shortly after taking over as Press Council chairman in 2011, Justice Markandey Katju made his views about journalists clear. Sensational, superstitious, anti-people and so on.

Katju is no longer Press Council chairman but his views have only gained traction. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that some sections of media are ‘bazaaru’ (for sale) and others like former army chief-turned-junior minister have used more inventive nouns — presstitutes, for instance, when he felt the media had not sung his praises loudly enough.

It’s not just the BJP. Displaying remarkable felicity with Mumbai underworld slang, AAP founder and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal believes media has accepted a ‘supari’ (contract) for finishing off his party. And lest we forget, it was Rahul Gandhi aide Meenakshi Natarajan who tried to introduce a Bill back in 2012 that would ban coverage of incidents that ‘may pose a threat to national security’, only to withdraw it post-outrage.

Political distrust of the media is a good sign; it means we are doing our job. Politicians and journalists should be adversaries. The fact that they are not indicates an unholy nexus.

Two points about the media. One, it is not a monolith. For every so-called bazaaru critical of the government, there is always a court loyalist, either an old-timer or a johnnie (or janey) come lately, switching sides depending on which way the wind blows.

Two, as a tribe, we love the underdog. Perhaps Kejriwal’s new-found combativeness (despite the presence of senior journalists who quit their jobs to join his party) is to do with the fact that the same journalists who gave him a pretty long rope while he was the outsider now judge him by a somewhat harsher yardstick. Yet, the disenchantment with the media is not limited to politicians but has spread to the public at large. As social media emerges as a source of legitimate news and as Indian corporates muscle their way into media ownership, public trust in the fourth estate is only dwindling further.

The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2015 shows a dip from 21% to 14% of people who said they trust newspapers as the source used most to confirm or validate news. TV also experienced a marginal fall from 38% to 32%. Only social media actually gained from 27% to 31%.

Ironically, this waning trust has little to do with the real challenges that confront us. Much of it, particularly on social media, is manufactured outrage where abuse in a neatly-ordered black and white world pretty much follows party lines.

While ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘adarsh bhakts’ face off, there is less public dissatisfaction with the far more serious issue of paid news which institutionalises corruption. We’d rather bemoan the trivialisation of news — passing off nonsensical tweets by obscure supporters of actor Salman Khan as ‘debate’ on primetime — than wonder about the commercial viability of news channels that drives an obsession with TRPs. We snigger at celebrity anchors but don’t demand greater transparency into media ownership.

Most worrying is the media’s apparent abdication of its role as an agent for social change. When embedded journalists travelling with Indian forces to cover a natural disaster as minor apparatchiks of government — as seen in the backlash in Nepal that sparked the hashtag, IndianMediaGoHome on Twitter — media does nobody any favours: Not the government, not the story it is covering and certainly not itself.

Perhaps a starting point would be to reclaim our role in disseminating news without the added optics of the daily drama of news shows. Certainly, a starting point would be in going back to the basics, telling India the stories it doesn’t always want to hear, but should hear nevertheless: Those who go to bed hungry, prejudice against minorities and, yes, the homeless who sleep on footpaths not as a matter of choice but because they have nowhere else to go.

It’s not too late for the media to reclaim the fast-receding moral ground. It should, simply as a survival strategy.

See the article in Hindustan Times

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