What is wrong with Indian journalism?

I found this question – and a lot of angry replies – on Quora.  Because I work in Indian journalism and am curious about attitudes towards our product, I read the replies.

For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Indian journalism. This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues, problems and weaknesses (some of which are industry-wide.)  But overall I think it’s a robust industry that will survive long into the future. (Financially, though, there might be some ups and downs for various reasons.)

On Quora, though, the question very quickly turns into a referendum on: corporate corruption (who owns the media, whose relatives are married to whose, etc); coverage of separatist groups and causes (one answer complains that the media doesn’t even bother to cover Jammu & Kashmir); and even the Indian educational system (which one user accuses of churning out gullible journalists and an audience that deserves them).

Both on Quora and in my anecdotal observation, frustration with the media seems related  to a broader and more general frustration with the effectiveness of this country’s governance, education and judicial structures (Case in point – “what’s wrong with Indian politics” is another popular question.)  This frustration isn’t unique to India.  At a recent Open Data event at the India Habitat Center, I met researchers who are examining the impact that open data movements can have on governance in developing countries.  It’s an interesting question because the motivating ethos behind open data – the belief that free information empowers individuals and improves societies – stands in stark contrast to the somewhat oligarchic concentrations of political and economic power in developing countries (oligarchies that perpetuate information asymmetries in order to survive.)

All of which brings me to my central point – the meaning of the term “citizen journalist.”  It’s a term that apparently has fallen by the wayside in many developed countries; as a friend recently told me.   People sharing content on FB, no matter how well-intentioned, are not journalists, and that content can’t be seen (on its own) as journalism.  But in India, at least, there is a very real sense of crusade attached to the term “citizen journalist,” a belief that citizens can tear down and rebuild a media structure that sometimes fails to capture the many shades of Indian reality.

To an extent, the perception is greater than the reality. Even if Indian media were perfect (which we’re not) we would still struggle to capture the multiplicity of voices and viewpoints that are emerging as more and more Indians become literate and start using technology. The advent of technology doesn’t automatically mean that marginalized citizens will start agitating for their rights – that’s another theme that emerged at the open data event – but it does mean that they become potential consumers of a media that, traditionally, has not made much effort to represent them. (A quick glance at the country’s major English newspapers – the ones targeted in the Quora question – reveals that coverage of rural areas and issues tends to fall into a few predictable molds.  There is the “government services fail the poor” story, and the “crazed khap panchayat issues senseless verdict” story.  Recently we’ve added the “rural residents have no idea about women’s rights” story.  Even if we accept that English-language papers will never reach rural populations, most stories are bylined by journalists who were born or educated in large metropolitan areas.  As elite urban audiences increasingly migrate online, ad revenues and readership for the English papers will stabilize, and growth will remain concentrated in regional products.  That’s a trend that’s been going on in India for several years now – since I first arrived in New Delhi four years ago.)  These issues of representation have occurred in the United States as well – the legacy newsroom of the past was overwhelmingly white and male, which is no small part of the reason why popular media like blogs were so easily able to rise.

To an extent, the belief that citizens can become journalists through their use of media – can represent their own communities more effectively than traditional media can – is what draws people to terms like “citizen journalist.” In places like India, where the traditional media has lagged in its representative-ness, there is a very real opportunity for others to pick up the slack.  (For the media, the reason for not covering these audiences may have something to do with perceived profitability – an issue in the US, as well.) As a working journalist, I look around and see tons of stories that aren’t being told by anyone – not by foreign correspondents, not by Indian journalists, not even by blogs.

The appeal of terms like “citizen journalist” stems almost directly from issues of representation. (Not just in India, but in Egypt, Turkey, etc). There is a perception that media, like government, doesn’t serve the average citizen, but that journalism should.  The conflict between our ideological expectations of journalism and the financial realities of the news business is not a new one, but one that will increasingly come to the fore in India as “citizen media” continues to rise.  It doesn’t matter whether these perceptions of the media are accurate, because perceptions influence people’s behavior, and therefore reality.

An Indian Data Journalism Showcase: #HHDelhi’s Experience

2013-07-14 16.59.40We just wrapped Hacks/Hackers New Delhi’s “data journalism showcase.”  A few takeaways.

We began by trying, inadequately, to define “data journalism.” A few practical definitions:

-Using data to source story ideas

-Using data to visualize stories

Although both of these are part of data journalism, they don’t define data journalism.  The data journalism handbook says the following, “What makes data journalism different to the rest of journalism? Perhaps it is the new possibilities that open up when you combine the traditional ‘nose for news’ and ability to tell a compelling story, with the sheer scale and range of digital information now available.”

Realistically, there’s no effective difference between the great data-driven stories of today and those of yesterday, except that technology allows writers the ability to process a lot more data more quickly and effectively than before, and the increasing visibility of “open data” means that content that was previously off-limits is now fair game.

Insights from the presenters:

Avinash Celestine of ET has been patiently mining the Indian government’s census and NSS data in order to pick out and explore broad socioeconomic trends on his Datastories.in blog. The project he highlighted was a post in which he’d separated women’s labor force participation by rural and urban areas, and found contrasting trend lines for each. (Rural women are withdrawing from the labor force more markedly than urban women are.)  He correctly pointed out the connection between womens’ employment and economic cycles, but also mentioned that the data don’t tell us one important fact: whether women want to withdraw from the labor force or not.

His broader point was that data is conceptual, and each one of his blog posts begins with a question (the question isn’t determined by the data, although the answer is).

Data Source: NSS, devinfo.org

Tools: D3 database of visualizations, Tableau Public (free)

Themes: 1. using tools that can quickly clean and graph data and 2. paying equal attention to what data say and what they don’t

Cordelia Jenkins of Mint presented the winning project from the GEN Editor’s Lab hackathon in Delhi, “Slum Economics.”  The project is a comprehensive, searchable database that presents information and statistics about slums. The project is an app (similar in scope to some World Bank data apps). It’ll take three months of development before it’s ready for the public, although the team demo-ed the basic functions at the Editor’s Lab event.

Data source: Indian slum data

Themes: you need a developer to build more complex apps and visualizations, the free tools won’t cut it; data still can’t sub for on-the-ground reporting

Neeta Verma of NIC and data.gov.in, on the Indian government’s extremely robust new data portal, which includes all sorts of functions, including embeddable visualizations.  Downside: not a lot of data available yet, nothing being done (as of now) about standardizing the manner in which data are presented.

Theme: at least it’s not in PDF format!

Ravi Bajpai of Down to Earth has been churning out visualizations for the D2E blog, including this one on perceptions of corruption in various Asian countries.  For this post, he isolated South Asia country data and compared these countries to each other and to global averages. An interesting treatment, and one that made for a very engaging post since every one of his infographics was interactive. This led to some discussion as to how much interactive graphics increased a post’s popularity, and Bajpai’s conclusion was that the graphics increased traffic, time on page, and share-ability on social media.

Data source: various surveys

Tools: Data wrapper, Tableau (free)

Theme: you can produce good-looking, share-able data journalism in a hurry

Guneet Narula of DataMeet on various projects that the collective’s members are undertaking, including the Geohackers blog, Datahub.io and the India Water Portal. His prez led to some discussion of possible collaborations with H/H, since most of their group comprises people from a technical/coding background. Most of them are not looking at journalism, perse, but at cool things that can be done with data.

Tools: Leaflet, MapBox

Theme: It’s not that hard to understand the basics of the coding

Overall takeaway: data journalism is far more vibrant in India than I thought when I set out to organize this showcase.  Even if we don’t have the answers, a lot of people are asking the right questions.  The increasing availability of data – the govt portal is an important and significant step in a more transparent direction, provided truly significant datasets find their way to the site – means that there are very valuable lessons/stories to be found in the numbers.

When I look at the Guardian’s data journalism awards recap, however, I notice the broad and audacious scope of the questions that some news organizations are tackling.  Whether it’s La Nacion’s enormous database of senatorial spending or Thomson Reuters’ epic chart of political/economic power in China, I think we in India could afford to ask even bigger questions than we’re currently asking.  The great thing about data is its scope – so let’s take further advantage of that.

Want to see what other people had to say about the Meetup? Check out the excellent Storify.

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