WHY POOR ARE MAGINALISED IN MEDIA

WHY POOR ARE TREATED AS PARIAHS IN INDIAN MEDIA

NK SINGH 

With the growth in population, literacy rate and disposable income, the circulation of newspapers has zoomed in the last two decades, especially those published in the Indian languages. It is not rare for chain newspapers to claim a daily circulation is excess of a million copies. A newspaper selling less than a hundred thousand copies is considered a small daily now-a-days.
The paradox is that even as the newspapers’ circulation is increasing, their influence is decreasing. Journalists realise that their writings or broadcast does not command the same impact that they would, say, two decades ago.

Why?

The respect for the printed words has gone down over the years. Certain developments have changed the public perception about the Fourth Estate.

Journalists were caught with their pants down, first, during the Emergency. 24/7 news channels too the dumbing down to a new low, wiping off all pretentions of intellectual pursuit. The credibility of the media, its most valuable asset, took a body blow with the advent of paid news. Corporate lobbyist Niira Radia tapes were almost the final nail in the coffin. People listened to, in morbid fascination, the seductive, threatening, charming and cajoling voice of Radia in a flagrante delicto with the who’s who of journalism.

Not long back, even newspapers and magazines with relatively smaller circulation were capable of changing the course of public discourse. Respectable magazines like Economic & Political Weekly and Seminar commanded influence in far disproportionate to their small circulation.

Three decades ago, I was the State correspondent for Indian Express, based in Bhopal. The newspaper used to sell a measly 1,900 copies even in the golden Arun Shourie era. Yet, a single report in the daily was enough to make an errant minister lose his job. Congress leader Hazarilal Raghuvanshi told me once that he lost his job as the Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh because of one report in the Express; at least that is what then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told him.

Even two decades ago, a small paragraph tucked away on page 124 of India Today, for which I was working then, was enough to cause ripples in the corridors of power.

Unable to recreate that magic, desperate media houses are resorting to all kind of gimmicks to reclaim the lost ground. There are now specialised departments to generate and gauge impact of the editorial content. News is advertised on electronic and digital media, accompanied by almost obscene chest-thumping. It is not uncommon for newspaper managements, unsure of their own influence, to ask the reporters to post their stories on social media sites and tweet about it.

The problem is that media houses want not only impact, but impact among a particular class of readers. The media houses want to capture the affluent and young readers under the belief that those who are able to capture the maximum eyeballs of category A readers will walk away with the largest chunk of advertisements.

When India Today group was launching Mail Today a decade ago, word had gone round to the sales department that they should avoid the down-market eastern parts of the city and focus only on the affluent central and south Delhi. This was what one of its former Editorial Director told me.
I received almost 14-15 newspapers every day at my home in Bhopal. I buy only a few of them. Most are supplied free. I live in an area that is heavily populated by ministers and senior government officers. Like me, most of the houses in the locality receive these free newspapers. They are distributed free in the hope that if the ruling politicians or the officers would read their newspapers, its content will have a better impact.

The hunt for the eyeballs of the rich and influential people has resulted in media’s disproportionate obsession with the lives of the upper middle class. The Indian language newspapers, specially, try to outdo each other in catering to the affluent classes.

As a result, Indian media today presents a grotesque picture of the society that it serves, far removed from its harsh realities. The 276 million poor inhabiting this country, those at the bottom of the economic and social ladder are also marginalised in the media. These are the people who are not newspaper readers. These are the people who are on the other side of the digital divide. Their lives, their problems are not sexy enough to sell the newspaper among their upwardly mobile young readers, high on the   adrenaline of money-making. As for news networks, they have metamorphosed as an arm of the entertainment industry in India.

Arun Shourie, as Executive Editor ofIndian Express, launched a massive campaign in the 80s to help free lakhs of underprivileged undertrials who were languishing in our prisons for decades because they were too poor to afford legal help. Poor woman are bought and sold like cattle. Shourie could shake the consciousness of the rich by telling them that a woman commanded less price than a buffalo.

The media, probably as a result of its guilt, has taken to shouting from the roof top about its social responsibilities. It leaves no stone unturned to prove that it takes its responsibility to the society seriously. It is prone to launching high-decibel campaigns from time to time to tie up with its readers, as advised by their marketing strategist. Naturally, all these campaigns steer clear of controversies and cater to the sensibilities of the middle classes.

So we have campaigns to save water, save environment, save tiger etc. The crusade to save water has branched into “dry” holi and then graduated to war on statues made from plaster of paris. Campaign against air pollution has metamorphosed into war on mobile towers.

To establish their organisations’ social credentials, journalists can be seen distributing plants to make cities greener, and handing out earthenware to provide drinking water to the birds in the summer, teaming up with traffic cops to force motor-cyclists to wear helmets, collecting donations for victims of flood or earthquake or even singing patriotic songs, as I saw an Editor of Patrika doing with aplomb at Raipur last year.

Who is responsible for this shrinking space for the poor and their lives in the media?
Talk to the journalists, and they are quick to point an accusing finger at their managements.
I beg to disagree.

It is true that the face of journalism has changed vastly. It is true that journalism is governed by market forces. It is true  that newspaper managements have their own priorities and ideas about what they want get published. But I never faced much problem in carrying these “down market” reports. And mind it, I was not part of the alterative journalism set. In my career spanning four decades I was very much part of the corporate media houses ---- Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Dainik Bhaskar and India Today. An editor gets the freedom that he deserves. One has to fight for it.

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