The media industry has been going through a lot of turmoil over the past years as it adapted to the onslaught of the digital, mobile and OTT platforms. As if this was not enough, the covid19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst, exacerbating many of the long term trends that were being documented, particularly in the last decade.
Developments this year, with an extended coronavirus threat, is further putting pressure and changing the landscape of many traditional media models. At the same time, the realization and importance of trustworthy news from independent news channels and organisations has gained importance with the public across continents.
Coming up with its 10th edition of the just released, Digital News Report 2021, the Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism, has thrown up many facts and figures that could be utilized to predict and prepare for the coming times. The most important of all aspects brought out by this year’s survey is the evidence that many a brands have benefited from a public desire for trustworthy information – both in terms of higher reach, reliability and the eventual conversion into more paying subscribers. This became all the more important as has been seen in recent months wherein the Indian media industry, plagued with accusation of impropriety and promoting fake narratives, lost much space to international behemoths like the NY Times, the Washington Post et al. The likes of these international media giants, notched a bit higher in terms of reliability and trust worthiness, did brisk business and continue to pick up tens of thousands of subscribers from the Indian subcontinent.
Now to talk about Indian media. Well the Indian media is extremely diverse, with thousands of small and medium organizations, operating in a plethora of languages that abound the country.
However the peculiarity of the Indian media is that much of this sprawling media is controlled by huge, solely for profit corporations, many of them closely and privately held. The main source of funding for these conglomerates is through the advertising route and so money often takes precedence and this leads to compromises on the quality of reportage.
Of late, many of these business models are also being disrupted by the rapid growth and expansion of online news consumption. The impact of COVID-19 taking its own toll, even though it can’t be said if this will be permanent or remain a temporary phenomenon.
Legacy print media brands, with some of the prominent ones like the Times of India, The Hindu and the Hindustan Times, alongwith many other newspapers across India, have borne the brunt of the slowdown. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the print circulation which in turn has led to a significant decrease in advertisement revenues. Many of these companies have got down to slashing salaries, laying off employees and closing many a non-profit generating editions across the country. Much of this is attributed to the economic decline that followed the world’s most abrupt and the strictest lockdowns known.
The extent of misfortune falling on the Indian media industry could be gauged from the fact that an advertisement hungry government reduced it’s advertisement spends by more than half since the start of the pandemic.
Top news channels like the NDTV also announced salary cuts for a time, while the like of ‘The Quint’ resorted to sending its staff on furloughs and had to shed its plans for opening up a TV division after 3 years of unsuccessful attempts to get a broadcasting licence from the govt
As if all this was not enough, in Oct 2020, much of the TV news industry was jolted with a credibility crisis as their TRP Rating became suspect due to the alleged involvement of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) in fiddling and manipulating statistics. The Republic TV led by its, now accused, Arnab Goswami and two Marathi entertainment channels have been under investigation by the Mumbai police for tampering with metering devices installed in selected sample households to manipulate and boost their ratings.
Broadcast TV channels, like print media in India, are self-regulated. These often maintain strong political affiliations and corporate ownership. The worst is that there are no regulations on cross-media ownership, resulting in few conglomerates owning a major chunk of the media. The sensationalisation of news is the direct result of channels trying to browbeat each another by indulging in 24×7 ‘breaking news’ models and polarised debates that often go nasty.
RELIABILITY & TRUST
The Reuters study in the report finds that Print brands, in general, are more trusted than the television brands. The latter are found to be far more polarised and sensational in their coverages. Republic TV, despite its sudden rise as a news source, in a short span of time, has been found to be the lowest trusted amongst the lot than any of the legacy print and television brands. This renders The Republic to be the most Distrusted channels and news source.
India has emerged as one of the most mobile focused markets in this global survey. A whopping 73% have been found to be accessing news through smartphones while only 37% access these news via computer. This however goes with the overall percolation of mobiles for accessing internet globally, with less dependence on static PC’s and Laptops.
India has more than 600 million active internet users with an internet penetration of 54%. With data charges being amongst the lowest in the world, thanks to Reliance for having increased the reach to the bottom most echelons of the society, much of this population now accesses the internet through handy and cheaper mobile phones.
The study churns out that WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube are widely used for news. With 48% sharing news via social, messaging or email, it brings into focus the serious problems of misinformation and hate speech. Much of this is being attributed to the infamous What’s App University knowledge (a demeaning parlance) being responsible for spreading false and misleading information.
Top Social Media and Messaging
In late 2020, Facebook India’s policy head resigned after being accused of deliberately taking a lenient line on ruling party supporters who allegedly violated hate speech rules with anti-Muslim posts. As a reaction to any action, a number of ethical fact checking organisations have also come up in recent years. The most prominent being the AltNews led by its founders Pratik Sinha and Zubair. With memberships, recognitions and support from international tech companies, these organizations are doing a yeoman’s service by busting fake news and bringing such originators of fake news to the notice of law enforcement agencies both national and international.
The Reuters report has been quite scathing citing about India having declined consistently in Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders in past few years, slipping to 142th postion out of a total of 180 nations indexed.
RSF’s 2021 report also observes that journalists in India have been facing increasing violence, trolling and threats of rape and death on social media, along with an excessive use of sedition laws for criticism of the government or its policies. Freedom House recently changed India’s status from ‘FREE’ to a ‘PARTLY FREE’ country. This despite frequent rebuttals by the Government of India denying such accusations.
The Digital News Report 2021, in its entirety, prepared by Reuters Institute For Study Of Journalism (RISJ) can be accessed and downloaded here in pdf format: