Does media need self regulation 3.0?

BY MURALIDHAR| IN Media Practice | 16/08/2013
Paid news is a deeply troubling phenomenon. But are there other distortions - potentially unpaid - that are equally disturbing? Inherent bias for one?
MURALIDHAR S suggests some regulatory solutions for the distortions. PIX: Activism.com
Media, due to its inherent nature of reach and influence on masses, plays a vital role in a country’s political, economic, social and cultural set up and is considered as an important vehicle of communication to carry information to the people.
 
These are the opening lines from the recent report on issues related to paid news by the standing committee on information technology constituted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Nobody seems to be disputing the power of media, but is there consensus on the challenges confronting it? Paid news, a deeply troubling practice, is the most visible manifestation of the systematic deterioration of integrity and independence among Indian media houses. But, are there other distortions – potentially unpaid – that are equally disturbing?
 
Back in July 2012, an international news channel organised a panel discussion on the simmering online tensions between the ‘seculars’ and the ‘internet Hindus’, a term that some consider offensive, but is nevertheless used to describe abusive members of the Indian right. Among the panelists was a high profile TV journalist, credited with coining the term, who had this to say when asked whether there is bias in political coverage:
 
There is a mythification of the enemy… the enemy is the liberal, secular media which is groveling at the feet of the establishment...which is socialist, which is left wing, which is liberal, elitist… That’s so not the case. .. we cover every political party… we cover every issue.. we cover every politician …we cover the Congress, we cover the BJP, we cover left wing, we cover right wing…It is just mythifying an enemy and making this liberal aristocracy the enemy that we have to fight against with our grass roots nationalist credentials… a binary opposition that doesn’t exist.. it is in the mind completely.
 
Tale of 2 elections
 
To verify these claims, I analysed how the journalist’s own channel covered 2 crucial elections – the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat assembly elections. Rahul Gandhi in UP and Narendra Modi in Gujarat were the de facto super stars of the campaigns. The fact that the media believed these 2 are prime ministerial contenders made the coverage all the more frenzied. Having the luxury of hindsight, one must say that the media wasn’t wrong in its belief – post elections both leaders were elevated within their own parties with an eye on 2014, but neither has been officially named the prime ministerial candidate by the parties. But, the context helps us to analyse the coverage.
 

Leader
Stories
% of critical stories
Rahul Gandhi
92
27%
AkhileshYadav
 
27
40%
Mayawati
99
58%
Narendra Modi
191
46%

 2 month period for UP election Jan 01 –Feb 29 2012, Gujarat 15 Oct-15 Dec 2012.Source: Channel website

 
If these leaders were equities in a stock market, the stock to benefit the most from the news flow from this channel is Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi had 30 critical stories over a 58 day period while Modi and Mayawati had thrice and twice that number respectively. In other words, a viewer of this channel is three times more likely to see critical coverage of Modi and two times more likely to see a critical story about Mayawati than about Gandhi. When it came to stories on PM ambitions, only 8% of the stories were negative about Gandhi while the corresponding figure for Modi was 60%.
 
Akhilesh Yadav, who eventually became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, received a third of the coverage that his rivals received. However, in early March when it became clear that the Samajwadi Party (SP) was in pole position, there was a flood of pro-AkhileshYadav stories along with a corresponding uptick in the number of critical stories on Gandhi. Clearly, Yadav was now the new darling.
 
(The monitoring period was 2 months for both the polls. The reference to uptick in Akhilesh Yadav stories is an additional inference. The aim was to highlight how Akhilesh Yadav, who got just a fraction of the coverage compared to his peers till February end, suddenly became a media darling once exit polls showed that his party has performed well.)
 
One can further slice and dice the data on the channel’s reporting and unearth more insights; but, that’s not the purpose of this exercise. Rather, the objective is to validate the journalist’s denial of skewed coverage. The journalist was right in saying all political parties and all politicians are covered. But, that’s only half the truth, for there are significant quantitative and qualitative variations in coverage. There is nothing to suggest that the ‘paid news’ phenomenon is at work here. But, the wide difference in share of voice during peak election time distorts the level playing field.
 
The cancer
 
In order to recover from a disease, one must first acknowledge it. Sadly, the media in India is in a state of denial. Editors indulging in serious professional indiscretions are seeking cover under editorial judgments for their acts of omission and commission. In a raucous, argumentative and young democracy like ours, the media can be a very powerful megaphone to get one’s voice across and shape an opinion. If TV debates are any indication, the loudest voice prevails. Quality journalism comes at a price. In a ‘free’ democracy like ours, people’s strong reluctance to pay for quality content only exacerbates the financial ruin that most media outlets find themselves in.
 
For struggling media outlets, the choices are clear – sell out, get creative or shut shop. Vested interest groups such as big advertisers have the money, but crave opinion shaping influence. The media has the latter and desperately needs the former. Can there be a more fertile ground for an unholy alliance of convenience?
 
For outsiders, this may seem like an open and shut case for a strong regulator to step in. The fact that TV channels have been remarkably successful in fending off calls to regulate them is a reflection on the questionable intentions of the government. Of all the vested interest groups battling to control information dissemination, the government is the most feared. Like most things in India, journalism too isn’t homogenous. The same media that indulges in extortions, agenda-driven journalism and employs questionable tactics has also kept the government on its toes by relentlessly covering corruption, deteriorating law and order and other issues of public interest. How does one ensure that the media does more of the latter and less of the former while precluding the possibility of vested interest groups (including the government) manipulating the fourth pillar of thedemocracy?
 
The cure
 
Learn from the rest: Historically, untrammeled power has been confused with impunity and has led to horrible abuses. It is mischievous to equate bona fide calls for regulation with attempts to muzzle the media. While the moremature media markets in the West have embraced regulation (without any hint of erosion in independence), the Indian media is behaving like a tantrum throwing teenager. A comprehensive study of successful regulation in other parts of the world should allay genuine Indian fears. Lessons from those efforts should be adapted to the Indian context to frame a draft regulatory policy and circulated among the stakeholders.
 
Stay focused, build consensus: This isn’t a power struggle, but an exercise to maximize public good. Any regulatory effort must be seen from the perspective of the public and not be hijacked by the urge to serve self-interest. In order for meaningful regulation to take effect, a consensus must evolve. In its absence, actors will invest more effort in unearthing loopholes than adhering to regulations.
 
Media audit: The first step in course correction is to prove that one has veered off the course. When even top anchors are blissfully unaware of distortions in their own channel’s coverage, it becomes imperative to introduce industry wide standards to not just prove deviations, but also quantify them. Let’s not forget that the 2G pot that was boiling for months blew in the face of the government only after the CAG quantified the loss. Media metrics can be a powerful tool to hold media houses accountable and protect the regulator from external influence. Taking a leaf out of the practice of listed companies to come up with periodic statement of accounts, media companies must be asked to publish periodic reports adopting the media equivalent of GAAP.
 
The report must contain the following summary quantitative information (indicative list):
  • Top 10 advertisers in each of the following categories – private (business group level), public (state and central) and political entities
  • If a business house or a public entity has been the topic of reporting in the preceding 2 quarters, information on ads from these entities must be listed separately.
  • Top 10 sectors by ad spend (excluding government)
  • Share of voice of political parties (top 10) – based on column inches/minutes devoted
  • Trending topics (top 10) – based on column inches/minutes devoted
  • Trending personalities (top 10) – based on column inches/minutes devoted
 
Qualitative data (indicative list):
 
a) Details on axed/unreported/unpublished stories pertaining to a and b above, if any. This should be a list with a 2 line summary of the omitted story along with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to the question – is there a reason for the editor to believe that the omitted story may be inimical to the business/political interest of the lead subject?
 
b) Details of awards/endorsements/partnerships announced by the media house. Are the beneficiaries associated with entities that have had commercial dealings with the media house?
 
Self regulation 3.0: Almost all media houses have digital presence and their own content management strategy using which every type of content – text, video, images etc is tagged, indexed and stored in a repository. The regulator must define a common standard for content management that would allow data flow from the media server of channel/paper to the regulator’s server. By aggregating data from all the media companies, the regulator will have data on all the channels it regulates. Using text mining and data analytics, the regulator can gain deeper insights into the anatomy of reporting and devise intervention/warning systems when the reporting is skewed or when certain metrics are breached.
 
For example, during election time, if the average share of voice for a candidate is 13% across all media but one channel devotes thrice that amount, it is a ripe case for intervention. The metrics can be decided based on consensus and since intervention is transparent and rooted in solid evidence, the threat of a witch hunting regulator is eliminated. In a way, this is self-regulation 3.0. The average metrics are based on the behavior of the peers and only the outliers will invite regulatory scrutiny. This is not to suggest that every outlier is up to something suspicious. During the Radia tapes controversy, most of the media outlets initiallyblacked out the news. In this case, the few that did cover the story will be outliers. TV channels that swear by self-regulation should have no problem with this arrangement, for even the data that is exported to the regulator’s server is public.
 
Ethical guidelines: A standard practice in western journalism is to declare conflict of interest at every available opportunity. The Wall Street Journal while reporting the phone hacking scandal that happened across the Atlantic didn’t fail to mention the group connection in every story. The Washington Post while analysing the Obama administration’s for-profit education reforms didn’t hide the Kaplan link. Since different outlets have different ethical standards, the regulator ought to define certain minimum ethical standards to be upheld. In India, this is particularly important given the maze like ownership pattern. If a newspaper is publishing a news item on a mobile phone company that belongs to an industrial conglomerate that also makes cars that are advertised heavily on the said newspaper, the paper must declare the connection along with the story. Given that most advertising at conglomerates is centralised to maximize buying power, it is fair to expect a full disclosure even when the paper is reporting a story on a rival phone company. This again is an easy to enforce rule given that business outlets already print an index of the companies covered in the day’s issue. One simply has to match this list against the advertiser list.
 
Responsible ratings: In addition to setting standards and defining guidelines, the regulator must act on system generated metrics violations and complaints from the public/competition. The regulator must have the power to fine and/or initiate appropriate penal action against repeat offenders. The regulator must also maintain points based rank list of top performing media outlets (in terms of giving share of voice) while simultaneously naming and shaming those that fail consistently. Hopefully, media houses will someday hope to top this chart as against chasing the TRPs and circulation figures through dubious means.
 
Incentivise responsible journalism: Given that the government is a huge ad spender, there must be a strict policy to buy ads only from responsible news outlets. This will incentivise responsible journalism while ensuring that cozy politician-media relationships can’t be monetised.
 
Strengthen public broadcast: At the end of the day, information dissemination is a public service. Information feeds the intellectual hunger of the people. A well-informed population is fundamental to a healthy democracy. A modern, fiercely independent and responsible Doordarshan will be a game changer. With unprecedented access to the political leadership of the country, the Doordarshan must reinvent itself such that it emerges as the preferred platform for political debate. Unfortunately, the CBI isn’t the onlycaged parrot in the country. The I&B ministry makes no secret of itsintention to use the supposedly autonomous Prasar Bharti as its lap dog. Financial independence is the key to operational autonomy. A popular suggestion is to introduce a BBC like license fee to fund a revamp in the hope that the Doordarshan will bring in enough revenue to self-sustain. If DD does well in the responsibility rankings, it can also hope to get a bigger slice of the government’s advertising pie.
 
Model code of Conduct: Election time is bonanza time for unscrupulous media elements. The regulator must partner with the election commission to bring the media under the model code of conduct to ensure a level playing field.
 
Propensity to pay: Since quality journalism doesn’t come cheap, people must be willing to pay if ever they hope to see the kind of hard hitting documentaries that’s common in the West.
 

About the author: Muralidhar S is an analyst who writes on media and political affairs. His twitter handle is @murhari

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