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Can we really trust our media?

The spectre of more than one disease is haunting India. Covid-19 is the most obvious. Less obvious but just as frightening is the sickness that has stricken India’s news media. The war over television ratings, finally exploding in the scandal, only confirms what was suspected all along. The malaise, however, may not be limited to the rigging of TV viewership figures alone. It may well extend to newspaper readership figures, too.

Television news channels have long ceased to be driven by news or news values. Their sole pursuit is to score television rating points (TRPs) by any means—be it through fake news, hate propaganda, witch hunts, media trials, polarising communities, demonising people and personalities or airing lies and falsehoods.

Inevitably, in their quest for TRPs, when the channels were short of points, they set out to fake it and fix it. The purpose being profit, not purveying news, honest opinion or public service journalism, the accused—or, should it be, accursed—channels went about dealing with the points deficit in the way they deal with ‘news’: by contriving to manufacture it.

Now that the police, governments, CBI, political parties and all those who contribute to sustaining, financing, vitiating, corrupting, controlling and coercing the media have taken a hand in the matter, investigations may well be dictated by partisan considerations; selective prosecution and persecution would thus not be surprising. At another level, some big advertisers, who all along could not have but know the truth even in the absence of cold facts, have cashed in on the situation by saying that they will not advertise in so-called toxic media. Channels with low ratings—but not for want of trying by any means—are asking advertisers to shun their toxic rivals. In a situation where one channel’s toxin is another’s life-blood, it is advantage advertisers.

More than TV channels with low ratings and advertisers, the print media has seized upon the TRP scandal to take a holier-than-thou stand. Are those in the newspaper business really above board and more open and transparent when it comes to their circulation and readership figures? Or, is it lack of opportunity—of the kind TRP fixing provided—that kept the print media from stooping this low?

A quick look at the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) results in recent years, besides long-standing marketing and circulation tricks of newspapers and magazines show that they may be no less compromised than TV channels. The stink though could be relatively less because it happened over a longer period and readers benefited from some of their corner-cutting.

The big names in print media have their own TV channels; some of them more than once and in multiple languages. These channels are also very much in the TRP race. The fact that they share the logos and images associated with the group’s publications help recall among those surveyed for computing readership. Newspapers which are not seen on TV are less imprinted in the minds of readers and tend to fare worse than those that feature on TV; and, the survey results tend to get skewed, which is the bane of IRS.

IRS results are invariably greeted with cheers and jeers. Big Media products seem to fare better than equally important and more credible publications. There have been years when newspapers like The Hindu have rejected IRS results for its ridiculous conclusions and avoidable inaccuracies. There are instances of IRS figures contradicting verifiable facts and figures. Yet newspapers which benefit from favourable IRS conclusions never acknowledge that the exercise is riddled with inadequacies and dubious findings which undermine the survey’s purpose and outcome. Advertisers generally keep mum to avoid offending bigger and more successful publishers.

There are many reasons for which the IRS is controversial. These include small sample sizes which are then extrapolated upon for exaggerated conclusions; missing metrics such as time spent on reading and attention to sections; inaccuracies where, at times, readership appears as a negligible proportion of the print order, dubious conclusions, gaps in reckoning circulation gain and loss and inconsistencies in readership results over the years. Thus, it is a moot point whether the IRS serves the interests of readers, advertisers and publishers.

As if these are not problematic enough, now there are demands that IRS should take digital readership also into account. This year newspaper circulation and revenues have taken a hit as a result of the pandemic. More important circulation, revenue and readership, what has fallen is trust in the media.

The loss, if not demise, of trust in the media at a time when the other estates, namely, Parliament, Judiciary and Executive are under fire bodes ill for not only the press and freedom of expression but also India’s diversity, democracy and pluralism.  (MR, Inputs: Agencies).

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