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.

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