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Loss of Trust in Indian News Media: The Story of Concentration and Contradiction

Sr. Copywriter, KocharTech
Oct 20, 2018 4:52 AM 4 min read
Editorial

India as a market is experiencing an ‘extreme loss of Trust’ in its key institutions i.e. the government, businesses, NGOs, and finally the media, as per a 2018 study conducted by noted American PR and marketing consultancy firm, Edelman.

 

The percentage drop it turns out, has been most acute for media, with more than 70% of surveyed citizens worried about false information or fake news being disseminated as a weapon. India’s Press now ranks a dismal 138 out of 180 countries, as per the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, dropping 2 positions since 2017.

 

Why is our country’s fourth estate, historically tenacious, losing its credibility?

 

Why are newspapers and news television channels promptly bucketed by viewers along polarized lines – left of center, conservative, ultra conservative, regressive, anti-establishment, pseudo secular and what not?

 

Firstly, this is hardly an issue specific to India. Even in a perceptibly much more sophisticated media ecosystem such as the United States, there’s a reason why conservatives prefer to watch Fox News or liberals read The New York Times. In fact, 55% of Americans are virtually “disengaged” from news vs. 35% Indians.

Loss of Trust in Indian News Media: The Story of Concentration and Contradiction 

Media businesses by nature are designed to thrive as oligopolies achieved through concentration of ownership. The said concentration is the result of their natural tendency to grow via cross-media integrations, be it horizontal, vertical, or diagonal.

 

Consider this. Even though India has over 100,000 newspapers/periodicals, almost 900 television channels, and a similar number of radio stations, as per a July 2018 study conducted by the Economic & Political Weekly, there are only 12 major producers of news content nationwide due to widespread cross-media/multiple media ownerships.

 

The said cross ownership, by definition, leads to a reinforcement of “business relations”, driven by cross holdings in firms with which a given company does business. In case of media, there is a rapid movement from simple reinforcement of business relationships, to naturally taking over control and influencing the kind of content produced and consumed therein.

 

Patterns of ownership can exist vertically i.e. across different media like print, television and digital – for instance the Bennett Coleman and Company Limited owns the country’s largest English language newspaper as well as a major English TV news channels. Thereby message across one medium can be reinforced via another.

 

Integration can also be executed horizontally, essentially meaning the absolute dominance of one player within a geographical region. For instance, Sun Network in South of India owns 32 TV channels, monopolizing televised news in the region.

 

Such dominance by corporations and political institutions not only lead to biased content creation but also selective presentation, loss of editorial independence through self-censorship, interference with regulatory mechanisms and an oligopolistic market. Case in point can be PTC News in Punjab, which doesn’t only serve the Badal family commercially by directing major advertisers to their own channel, but also politically, by broadcasting information that is favorable to their name. A similar pattern can be observed in case of Sun Network and Kalaignar TV, the former owned by grand-nephew of late M. Karunanidhi of DMK and the latter by his wife and daughter.

 Loss of Trust in Indian News Media: The Story of Concentration and Contradiction

 

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recognized this concentration in ownership and a potential threat it poses to a free and fair media. To this effect it put forth recommendations in 2009, concerning horizontal integration, vertical integration, and to place a limit on number of broadcast licenses to be held by a single entity.

 

Concentration of control/ownership across media and across telecom and media companies was additionally touched upon in 2014. The need for a transparent and harmonized disclosure along language lines by media companies was reinforced. Such a framework would be critical to monitor market shares of media players, and to put in check any concentration risks which may emerge. Media mergers & acquisitions were proposed to be approved based on metrics of concentration. Political and religious bodies, public/government-funded organizations and their affiliates were suggested to be prohibited from entering the media market.

 

Recommendations to restrict the control of corporates on grounds of conflict of interest, along with submission of documents like shareholding patterns, loan agreements, subscription and ad revenue, advertising rates etc., were included.

 

However, this proposal has remained in limbo to-date, adding 4 more years to the 6 years that had elapsed since this concern was first flagged.

 

There is one school of thought that believes regulations on media ownership, specifically cross media holdings, will hamper growth of media houses and restrict their diversification into other mediums, the result of which will be lower visibility and hence, bad business. However, another school of thought deems that if media moguls expand to and enter different mediums, it would limit perspectives in the industry, to the ones that are favorable to the people in control; thus, leading to loss of plurality of views.

 

Maybe we should pause to reflect on the weight of the power media moguls of today have. After all, the media – old and new – have the influence and control over an average person’s understanding of themselves and their environment. The same Edelman survey cited in the beginning concludes that 46% of Indian news consumers are “Ampfliers” i.e. they consume, share and post news content regularly.

 

The question is whether Indian media can be made tough enough to speak truth to power, and to them?

 

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