The glory and the blemishes of the Indian news media

The Hindu AMARTYA SEN: “The political support for tolerating — and defending — the present profligacy in catering to the relatively better off contrasts sharply with the fiscal alarm bells that are sounded whenever proposals for helping the poor, the hungry, the chronically unemployed come up.” Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
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Our free media, including our largely unfettered press, are a hugely important asset for democratic India. And yet the celebration of the Indian news media can go only so far — and no further. There are at least two barriers to quality that need to be overcome. The first is some real laxity in professionalism in achieving accuracy. The second is the bias, often implicit, in the choice of what news to cover and what to ignore, and the way this bias relates particularly to class divisions in India.

One of the great achievements of India is our free and vibrant press. This is an accomplishment of direct relevance to the working of democracy. Authoritarianism flourishes not only by stifling opposition, but also by systematically suppressing information. The survival and flowering of Indian democracy owes a great deal to the freedom and vigour of our press. There are so many occasions when, sitting even in Europe or in America, I have wished for something like the vigour and many-sided balance of the Indian press to confront the vilification of chosen targets.

One longstanding example of some moment is the organised mischaracterisation in the USA of the British National Health Service and similar public health arrangements in most of Europe. Despite the fact that America has some superb newspapers, such as The New York Times, the information industry has managed to undermine thoroughly the understanding of the great accomplishments of public health care in Europe, and its contribution to enhancing health security, life expectancy, and the quality of life. Rather, the National Health Service and other such medical arrangements are often seen as some kind of a “health lock-up,” generating a widespread horror of what is called “socialised medicine” (I have heard of a rumour that American children are persuaded to eat broccoli by threatening them with “socialised medicine” as a dreaded alternative).

Professionalism and accuracy
Despite the limitations of the Indian news media, some of which I will discuss presently, we have every reason to applaud our free media, including our largely unfettered press, as a hugely important asset for democratic India. And yet the celebration of the Indian media can go only so far — and no further. There are at least two huge barriers to quality that are very worth discussing: one is concerned with the internal discipline of the media and the other relates to the relation between the media and society. The first problem is that of some real laxity in professionalism in achieving accuracy, which can be harmed even without any deliberate intention to mislead or misinform. The second is the bias — often implicit — in the choice of what news to cover and what to ignore, and the way this bias relates particularly to class divisions in India.

Indian reporting can be, and often is, extremely good. I always marvel at the skill of the reporters, often very young men and women, in being able to capture and bring out the nuances of points that are hard to summarise accurately. However, Indian reporting is characterised by great heterogeneity, and sometimes serious inaccuracies can receive widespread circulation through the media (or initiating in the media). While I have been personally lucky, most of the time, I am aware of problems that others have had, and sometimes I see them in my own experience. As an Indian reader, I would like to be sure, when I open the morning newspaper, that what I am reading — that A said B — is actually accurate. It is hard to have that assurance.

Let me give a couple of examples, despite — I should re-emphasise — my generally good experience with reporting in the press. Four days ago in a public discussion I said in answer to a question about the Lokpal initiative that the solution to the extremely important problem of corruption would have to be sought within the Indian democratic system (including our courts and Parliament), and also that I had not seen the blueprint of any effective Lokpal Bill – neither from the government nor from any faction of the Opposition.

When, later on, I opened the web, I found reports with the following headlines: “Lokpal Bill well thought out: Amartya Sen” (The Times of India, India Today, Zee News, NDTV, among others); and “Lokpal Bill not well thought out: Amartya Sen” (DNA News, Money Control, The Telegraph [which did not make it a headline], among others). One paper first distributed the former story and then the latter, without noting that there is a correction here, and I was amused because it is a paper — The Economic Times — with which I am personally associated, since I was given the privilege of editing the paper for one day a few years ago (it was a great day for me, though I gather from the Editor that I drove them all mad, by rejecting entries and asking for several rewrites).

Based on another meeting in Kolkata on the same day, a lecture for the Cancer Foundation of India, I found the following headlines: “To smoke is individual option” (The Statesman) and “Curb smokers' liberty: Amartya” (Hindustan Times). All this is just from one day. Unfortunately, a misreport on one day can have quite big consequences. The Times of India said on December 15: “Amartya Sen: People on street can't deal with corruption.” I had said nothing of the sort, as the audio record of the speech confirms, but once that misreporting, coming from a news agency apparently used by many newspapers, is in the public domain, it is hardly surprising that I would be showered with rebuke and moral advice. Dozens of pages of denunciations materialised immediately. Much of the moral advice to me would be sensible enough had the statement reflected something I had said. The one I liked best said: “I think Mr. Sen should keep his mouth shut” — an eminently sensible piece of advice given the constant danger of misreporting by a careless press — or, as in this case, a careless news agency on which many papers mechanically rely.

What I had, in fact, said was that the judgment and penalty for corruption cannot be a matter for street justice, and must come through the democratic procedures that we cherish in India, including the courts and Parliament. I believe the Indian people are fully committed to that democratic priority, rather than “summary justice.” What they really complain about is that the democratic procedures are not being applied sufficiently vigorously and stringently to corruption. This is indeed an important demand, and this understanding is very far from any dismissal of the ability of “street people” to comprehend the political challenge arising from corruption. Since I have taken part in street demonstrations myself, complaining about many injustices in India (one recent activity of this kind was related to the public agitation for the right to food), I must stand up for the right of ordinary folks — what the news agency called the “street people” — to be heard loud and clear.

On enhancing accuracy
So what can the media do to deal with the lapses from accuracy in reporting? I don't know the answer — my main intention here is to raise the question — but one thought that is fairly straightforward is to get all the newspapers to agree to publish corrections of their own stories as a regular feature (and highlight them online, along with the corrected accounts). This is done with much effectiveness by The Guardian and The New York Times, and some Indian papers already have such a section (the host of this essay, The Hindu, has had this for many years), but the practice can be made more universal among the papers, and also more active and more well-known.

There is also an issue of journalistic training. Taking notes in a rush is never easy, and it has become harder still since most reporters today, unlike those in the past, do not know shorthand. But there are marvellous recording devices in our modern world, and they can perhaps be used more uniformly, rather than the reporters tending to rely on memory, as many still seem to do. There are surely other ways of reducing inadvertent inaccuracy, and it would be nice to see more discussion on it. But now I must move to the second problem to which I referred.

Class bias
If greater accuracy is mainly an internal challenge for the media, avoiding — and fighting — class bias involves an external challenge that relates to the divisiveness of the Indian society. Of course, class divisions are present elsewhere as well. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has drawn attention to what it sees as the contrast between the very prosperous — the 1 per cent at the top — and the rest of the 99 per cent in the United States. I will not comment here on the veracity of this 1%-99% contrast, as applied to the United States, but relying on a similar division in India would miss the mark by a long margin. There are, of course, many divisions in India — and some apply to newspaper ownership as well — but the division that introduces a generic bias in Indian news coverage, related to the interest of the newspaper reading public, is more like one between a fortunate fifth of the population who are doing just fine on the basis of the economic progress that is taking place in India, and the rest who are being left firmly behind.

There is, in fact, a substantial part of the Indian population — a minority but still very large in absolute numbers — for whom India's economic growth is working well, along with those who were already comparatively privileged. An exaggerated concentration on their lives, which the Indian media tend typically to display, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general. There tends to be fulsome coverage in the news media of the lifestyles of the fortunate, and little notice of the concerns of the less fortunate. To refer to three of many unfortunate facts (the list can be quite long): (1) India has the highest percentage of undernourished children in the entire world, measured in terms of the standard criteria; (2) India spends a far lower percentage of its GNP than China on government-provided health care and has a much lower life expectancy; and (3) India's average rank among South Asian countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan — in the standard social indicators, varying from life expectancy and immunisation to infant mortality and girls' schooling, has dropped over the last twenty years from being second-best to second-worst (even as India has surged ahead in terms of GNP per capita).

The problem here does not, of course, originate in the media, for it is social division that feeds this bias in coverage. But the media can play a more constructive part in keeping the reality of India persistently in the view of the public. The bias in coverage, even though it is by no means unpleasant to the reader, contributes quite heavily to the political apathy about the urgency of remedying the extreme deprivation of the Indian underprivileged. Since the fortunate group includes not only business leaders and the professional classes, but also the bulk of the country's intellectuals, the story of unusual national advancement gets, directly or indirectly, much aired — making an alleged reality out of what is at best a very partial story.

What is probed and what ignored
The group of relatively privileged and increasingly prosperous Indians can easily fall for the temptation to assume that given the high rate of economic growth, there is no particular need for special social efforts to enhance the lives of people. When, for example, the government introduced, as it did recently, its plan of providing subsidised food for the Indian poor, an enormous number of critics pointed immediately to the fiscal problems involved, and some even talked about the sheer “irresponsibility” that is allegedly reflected in the Food Security Bill.

There are indeed many serious problems with the Food Security Bill that has been tabled, and the Bill can be much improved and one hopes it will be. Furthermore, fiscal responsibility is certainly a serious issue and the financing of food subsidies, like other social programmes, demands critical examination. But it is worth asking why there is hardly any media discussion about other revenue-involving problems, such as the exemption of diamond and gold from customs duty, which, according to the Ministry of Finance, involves a loss of a much larger amount of revenue (Rs.50,000 crore per year) than the additional cost involved in the Food Security Bill (Rs.27,000 crore). The total “revenue forgone” under different headings, presented in the Ministry document, an annual publication, is placed at the staggering figure of Rs.511,000 crore per year. This is, of course, a big overestimation of revenue that can be actually obtained (or saved), since many of the revenues allegedly forgone would be difficult to capture — and so I am not accepting that rosy evaluation. And yet it is hard to understand why the cost of the Food Security Bill should be separated out for fiscal gloom without examining other avenues of fiscal soundness. An active media can draw attention to what is being probed and what remains underdiscussed and underexplored.

The impact of India's division between the privileged and the non-privileged can also be seen in the political power of the advocates of continuing — and expanding — subsidies on fuel use, even those that go particularly to the relatively rich (such as petrol for car owners), or of fertilizers, which yield major transfers of a regressive kind, even as they help with agricultural production. It is possible to redesign these fiscal arrangements to introduce more economic rationality, greater environmental awareness, and the demands of equity with efficiency. The political support for tolerating — and defending — the present profligacy in catering to the relatively better off contrasts sharply with the fiscal alarm bells that are sounded whenever proposals for helping the poor, the hungry, the chronically unemployed come up.

If the first problem I referred to, that of accuracy, is one of improving the performance of the news media through better quality control, the second, transcending class bias, concerns the media's role in reporting and discussing the problems of the country in a balanced way. The media can greatly help in the functioning of Indian democracy and the search for a better route to progress including all the people — and not just the more fortunate part of Indian society. What is central to the functioning of the news media in Indian democracy is the combination of accuracy with the avoidance of bias. The two problems, thus, complement each other.

(Amartya Sen, the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. The Bharat Ratna was conferred on him in 1999.)


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