IS MEDIA GOING PAGE 3?

By Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee

(mrinaliimc@yahoo.in)

 

-- The writer is Professor, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC),

Sanchar Marg, Dhenkanal 759001, Orissa. This paper was presented at a seminar at the Viswa Bharati University in 2007 --

 

The Big Question: Is media going Page 3? If ‘going Page 3’ means unabashed celebration of personality cult, promoting crash consumerism and tabloidisation, trivialization, dumbing down the serious issues, - yes, media is going Page 3. With breakneck speed. And with a gay wanton. Of course there are notable exceptions; but they are just that... exceptions.

Increasingly more space and time is devoted to trivia, to non-issues. For example The Lakme India Fashion Week 2007 edition produced, in one count, some 4,00,000 words in print. Over 1,000 minutes in television coverage. Some 800 hours of TV and video footage were shot. Close to 10,000 rolls of film exposed. Consider that this was the main media event in a country where less than 0.2 percent of people sport designer clothes, where per capita consumption of textiles in 2002 at 19 meters, was way below the world average.

 

In its eagerness to cover non-issues, media is not focusing on real pressing issues. When hundreds of journalists and photographers were covering Lakme India Fashion Show or similar ‘show’s, scores of farmers were committing suicide in various places in the countryside. It did not get the kind of coverage, it deserved. The average Indian family is absorbing 100 kg of foodgrain less than what it did in 1991. Growing hunger amongst the poorer sections in India should have been a matter of urgent concern anywhere in the world. With well over 400 million hungry people, India alone has more undernourished human beings than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. But this does not seem a matter of grave concern within the media.

 

There are a number of pressing issues that concern millions of people, like non availability of basic services -- health, education, roads, which are not addressed by media. Non availability of drinking water in many parts of the country is a major issue. So is displacement. So is labour migration. The list is endless. Inequality between the rich and poor is growing. In fact it has grown more in the last 5-10 years than it had in the last 50 years after independence. Social tension is on the rise. So is violence. But mainstream media seems not to be bothered. There seems to be a disconnect with the ground reality.

 

Causes: Now onto the causes. There are two sets of causes really, one from the media angle, one from the media-users angle. First from the media angle:

 

i. After 60 plus years of independence, the missionary zeal of pre-independence media has lost its steam. Media is a business now, infotainment business with a bit of social responsibility thrown in. Since it is business it has to cater to the want and need of its consumers; more to want than to need. Hence it gradually aims at lowest common denominator. Entire approach changes. Serious issues are gradually pushed out. The ‘dumbing down’ process is in place.

 

ii. Advertisement is becoming more important. With media becoming more capital intensive, and the product selling at less than the production cost, advertisement revenue is becoming more crucial for survival. The stake is becoming higher. Gradually what media needs is not readers or viewers; they need consumers for the products advertised. This role reversal determines the content. Media no longer needs people who would think, they require zombies, who would only consume.

 

It will be pertinent to quote what B.G.Verghese wrote, "In the competition for circulation/ratings and a larger share in the consumer rupee through advertising there has been a dumbing down of serious reportage and analysis, a trivialisation of news and events, sensationalism and prurient coverage, invasion of privacy, trial by press, resort to rumour, gossip and innuendo without verification, and disregard for fair and balanced reporting or prompt correction when in error and the right of reply.1"

 

iii. The media have, as P. Sainath puts it, "lost their compass, and with it, their compassion. What Prabhat Pattnaik, one of our foremost economists, calls ‘the moral universe’ of the media has changed a lot for the worse. All their technical advances cannot hide this. Indian journals of the freedom struggle had differing perspectives, angry debates. There was richness and variety. Today you have Mcmedia. It tastes the same everywhere.2"

 

From the media-users angle:

 

i. The most cogent explanation for why journalism in the public interest has lost leverage was offered by Polk Laffoon IV, the corporate spokesman of Knight Ridder. "I wish there were an identifiable and strong correlation between quality journalism ...a nd newspaper sales," he said. "It isn’t ...  that simple.3" Why does it happen? We, the media users seek entertainment in all forms, shapes and sizes and information that we can use for our personal gain.

 

ii. Serous issues bore us. We do not want to delve deep into the issue. It is easy not to be involved. We want light reading material, pretty picture to ogle at. And then get on with our mundane life.

 

iii. We need idols. And we now want them well dressed, well heeled. Page3 personalities fulfill this need.

 

But, what is the problem? Many ask: if media is going page3, let it go. That is what people want. And what is the problem yaar? Apparently there is none. But look closely. The process is changing the way we look at serious issues. There is less space for serious issues and even lesser for its analysis. Media is supposed to set agenda, and in this way a totally skewed agenda is being set.

 

As B.G. Verghese says, "Serious journalism must remain part of the democratic dharma. A true democracy is inseparable from an informed people exposed to diverse views and ideas." Gradual trivialisation denies people this exposure. It is a threat to healthy democracy.

 

There is something more serious than this. This trivialisation process is eating into the vitals of healthy socialization process. Further it is stunting the humanizing process and triggering a sinister dehumanising process. It is promoting ‘I ...me’ culture. It is promoting a shallow, ‘all body - no soul’ kind of existence. It is a negation of what human civilization stands for. And we don’t seem to understand. There lies the big problem. As Prasannarajan writes in 'India Today', "The legitimisation of trivia as a cause only magnifies the pornography of protest, not the debatable bad taste of the act itself. It is a pretence born out of paranoia." 4

 

Consider what P. Sainath says. "If we were to look back at Indian journalism of the last 15 years — how relevant would it be? There were huge technological advances. Major gains in reach and technique. But how did the media connect with, say, the giant processes gripping the Indian countryside? Did it achieve greatness? Even goodness? Perhaps its mediocrity was too pronounced for it to gain even notoriety. (Though a few did manage that.)"

 

Is there a solution? Yes there is. It lies in two levels: at the media consumer level and at the media content producers’ level.

 

First, the media consumer. The larger public must play its role. How? Here is a check list:

 

i. Exercise your right as consumer. Demand issue-based content. Write letters to the editor. Voice your opinion in whichever forum you can have access to. In a market-based economy no producer can ignore its consumers.

 

ii. Shun Page-3 type materials. No supply can sustain without demand. Just plug the demand. Supply will automatically dwindle.

 

iii. If mainstream media fail to deliver what you want, there is no dearth of alternative media.

 

Then, at the media-content producers’ level:

 

i. Remember, "at the end of the day, the media remains a public trust, which alone justifies its characterisation as the Fourth Estate. Its prime asset is credibility. The maintenance of professional standards of fairness, balance and public interest is critical to its place in society." Forget this, and media will lose its credibility, and for media credibility is the fountainhead of its power.

 

ii. Serious issues need not be presented in a boring way. It can be made interesting reading/viewing. All it takes is application.

 

iii. Serious issues still have takers. Youngsters are still drawn to the profession by idealism. There are scores of journalists who are working against enormous odds to bring to light stories that matter -- to millions of underprivileged people. It gives them the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile.

 

Notes and References

1. Verghese, B.G. in an article titled, "Newspapers as a Public Trust", published in The Hindu, 29th January, 2006. B.G.Verghese is a columnist and a Ramon Magsaysay Award winner. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Political Research, New Delhi.

2. Excerpted from P. Sainath’s book, The Indian Media: Illusion, Delusion and Reality, a collection of essays in honour of Prem Bhatia, Rupa and Co, New Delhi, January 2006.

3. State of the News Media 2006 report presented by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Details at www.newswatch.com

4. S. Prasannarajan/India Today/The Kiss of Death/May 14, 2007. Vol. XXXII Number 19. Page 32

 

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