Tabloidization of Indian News

Tabloidization is the death of good journalism. But I don’t blame our anchors or journalists for this tsunami of tabloid news. I also strongly disagree with the widely held hypothesis that blames the Indian viewer – Indians love tabloid sensationalism … Indians have base, tabloid tastes. So if our anchors are not to blame, and it’s not about viewer preferences – why is India becoming “no country for honest journalism”?….says Dr Prannoy Roy of NDTV. The following is the speech delivered by Dr Roy while accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Mumbai Press Club.


Dr Prannoy Roy
Dr Prannoy Roy

I have accepted this award because of the immense respect I have for the Press Club of Mumbai. This award is essentially not for me – it’s for the person who started NDTV and who is the driving force behind NDTV’s vision, growth, editorial direction and ethics: my partner and my inspiration, Radhika Roy. It is also an award for the entire team at NDTV – simply the finest, most talented and most fun team to work with. And I’m so proud that many present and past members of this greater NDTV team – are being awarded tonight. As far as we are concerned – you never left NDTV, you still have the same DNA and you’re all still part of the NDTV extended family.

I was given my first Lifetime Achievement award about 10 years ago – and I took it as a not-so-subtle message, saying, “Prannoy, it’s time to pack up”. After a couple of more such messages – which pointed to the sunset – I decided to avoid Lifetime Achievement awards. Things reached a climax when – and this is absolutely true – the head of a very prestigious TV award organization – called me up and asked me to accept an “Award for being India’s Most-Trusted Anchor”. A few days later he sent me a formal letter, which confirmed the phone call, except, he left out the “T” in “trusted anchor”!

You may still be wondering why on earth this “rusted anchor” has accepted this award – well, as you know, “we journalists may not be the most important people in the country – we are certainly the most self-important”.

So, apart from being self-important, what is the true state of journalism in India? Where are we at? What is to be done?

May I just give you a quick anecdote that shows how far we have come since the first-ever private news was telecast in India – it was a daily half-hour news bulletin produced by NDTV called The News Tonight for Doordarshan in 1995. It was the first night – I was anchoring – (and like all anchors, I decided to show off a little – all anchors basically have “show-off” engraved into their DNA) – and I said as I glanced at my watch, “Good evening, it’s 8 o’clock and this is the News Tonight coming to you live”. LIVE? Someone in the PM’s office heard the word LIVE – and reacted to it like a 4-letter word. He immediately phoned the I&B Ministry and yelled at them to take us off air – or at least stop this private news from being live. Well, nightly news that’s not live might as well be dead news. How did we get around this? We changed the clocks. There was Indian Standard Time and there was NDTV time. Everywhere in the NDTV studios, we had two clocks – one showing NDTV time that was 10 minutes ahead of India Standard Time. We bought a large capacity hard drive, which could store 10 minutes of Video. So we would start our nightly news at 8 o’clock sharp NDTV time – the video would go into the hard drive – and automatically regurgitate itself 10 minutes later – at exactly 8 o’clock Indian Standard Time. So no censorship was possible, no editorial interference by the government – but, technically it wasn’t live. We have come a long way since then, right?

Actress Deepika Padukone with Dr. Prannoy Roy, Founder & Executive Co-Chairperson, NDTV Malvinder Mohan Singh, Executive Chairman, Fortis Healthcare, and Shivinder Mohan Singh, Executive Vice-Chairman, Fortis Healthcare and others at the launch of `NDTV Fortis Health4U` campaign in New Delhi on Sept 12, 2014. (Photo: IANS)
Actress Deepika Padukone with Dr. Prannoy Roy, Founder & Executive Co-Chairperson, NDTV Malvinder Mohan Singh, Executive Chairman, Fortis Healthcare, and Shivinder Mohan Singh, Executive Vice-Chairman, Fortis Healthcare and others at the launch of `NDTV Fortis Health4U` campaign in New Delhi on Sept 12, 2014. (Photo: IANS)

In fact, I would characterize India’s media as the most crucial ingredient of this, our third phase of India’s democracy. Let me explain. In the first phase, we voted like sheep: 80% of governments (state and central) were voted back into power. The second phase – which I call the “angry, volatile” phase – 80% of governments – good or bad – were thrown out of power. Now in Phase 3 – the last 12 years – I call it the “informed’ phase – in which voters have unparalleled access to media – 50% of governments, generally the better ones, are voted back, while 50%, normally those with a poor performance, are voted out. In the first two phases, voters would see their candidate once every 5 years – at campaign time. Now every time politicians leave their homes, there are dozens of mics stuck under their noses. How things have changed – and all of you in the media are a crucial part of this positive change in our democracy.

So it’s wonderful to see how far India’s media has come. But there are some worrying trends that need course correction – now, before it’s too late.

Proud as we are about our news channels in India, may I list 3 or 4 things that need to change:

First – perhaps the biggest danger we face today is the tabloidization of our news. Every advanced country with a developed, mature media has a wide spectrum of news – from credible and serious journalism to the tabloid – in England, from The Times and The Economist to the Sun and the Mirror; in the United States, from The New York Times to the New York Post; and in television news, from BBC and CNN to Fox News.

But in India there is this dangerous slide to one end of the spectrum. Why has every news channel – English, Hindi or Regional – turned tabloid? Why are we trying to emulate Fox News? And why does every news anchor want to be another Bill O’Reilly? We have so many Bill O’Reillys. It would make O’Reilly proud … and some have gone so far, it may even make him a trifle jealous.

Among leading Hindi News channels, almost 25% of the TRPs comes from Astrology “News”, and another 25% from saas-bahu serial news, and some highly graphic crime news. I have heard a woman anchor on one Hindi channel saying, “break ke baad aapko ek Rape dikhayengey” (after the break, we’ll show you a rape”).

Tabloidization is the death of good journalism. But I don’t blame our anchors or journalists for this tsunami of tabloid news. I also strongly disagree with the widely held hypothesis that blames the Indian viewer – Indians love tabloid sensationalism … Indians have base, tabloid tastes. So if our anchors are not to blame, and it’s not about viewer preferences – why is India becoming “no country for honest journalism”?

Many feel that the advertising fraternity must carry part of the blame. The advertising pie is distributed based entirely on numbers – many in the advertising fraternity tell me that our media buyers are essentially eyeball-chasers (the media equivalent of ambulance-chasers).

While our advertisers and media buyers are as skilled as those in the West in their media modeling skills, for some reason they have not created methods that enable them to evaluate news on factors others than just numbers of eyeballs.

This is not the case in developed media markets. The circulation of the London Times is 400,000 – while the Sun has 5 times that at 2 million – and we all know that Fox News has 3 times the viewership of CNN. Yet the advertising rate for The Times is much higher than for the Sun, and the advertising rate for CNN is much higher than for Fox News.

Do the eyeballs justify that? Of course not. But the advertisers and the media buyers place a premium on the ‘quality’ of The Times journalism and its credibility.

The higher ad rate for credible journalism, and lower rates for tabloid news, has meant that both ends of the news media spectrum have survived and prospered.

Unless we model quality and credibility into our advertising rates, and not go just by the eyeball count, we shall go headlong into tabloidization – with no place for news that is at the serious end of the spectrum.

Think about it – do advertisers in India really want their product to come immediately after “break ke baad aapko ek rape dikhayenge“?

The day advertisers in India distinguish between tabloid news and serious news like it’s done all over the world, India will see the growth of better quality media and an end to the mushrooming of eyeball-chasing tabloid TV. Don’t blame the viewer, let’s look inwards and do our research.

As you probably know, NDTV has recently been awarded “India’s most Trusted Brand” across all media – print and TV – for the second year running. This is how VIEWERS assess us and value us.

Perhaps it is because of our determination to be India’s only non-tabloid television network.

For the second point, I like to use a phrase we coined at NDTV: it’s called the “Heisenberg principle of journalism”. The original Heisenberg principle, crudely interpreted, suggests that as you get closer to a target or object, you yourself change. The ‘Heisenberg principle of journalism’ states that if you head towards the sole objective of eyeballs or sensationalism, the very nature of your own journalists and journalism tends to change. Also it is well known that if a journalist gets too close to her or his sources, the nature of the news changes – some call it quid-pro-quo journalism.

As journalists we are not “insiders” – we are not to be on first name terms with politicians – we don’t go to the same parties.

The third factor that needs change – and it’s one that most of my fellow editors don’t want me to speak about, because it hurts us – Indian media today lives and thrives in what I call a “punishment-free” environment. We can say what we like, defame whoever we like, make false accusations against whoever we like – and nothing happens to us. Our defamation cases take 20 years to settle – and even then, the verdict has rarely punished any media house.

The result is we are getting slack – forget research, we don’t even need to check our facts, we don’t care if we wrongly defame anyone – the bottom line is we are dropping our standards. If this decline in quality continues, three years from now, Indian media will have no credibility left.

We need tough defamation laws, and we need verdicts to be decided quickly (not 20 years). With possible punishment hanging over our heads, we will be more careful with our facts, be more thorough in our research, and only then will we retain credibility and the trust of our viewers and readers.

This punishment-free-zone we live in today is lovely for us in the media today – but very damaging three years from now. Let’s push for a change voluntarily – take the lead and set an example.

I want to make one thing clear however, tougher defamation must come from our courts and our legal system – not the government. There is absolutely no role for the government in the media – no role at all.

The fourth change refers to the Internet in India – and I am not referring to net-neutrality, which we must fight for and preserve at all costs. Net neutrality is crucial for our new democracy – it’s now almost as important as the right to vote. Lose it – or even allow big operators to nibble away at the fundamentals, and it will be as damaging to our democracy as losing the right to one-man-one vote. But that’s a topic for another session another day.

The issue I wish to raise here is the Danger of Anonymity and an unrestrained Internet.

It’s clear for example that, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others are aware of the dangers of anonymity in certain areas that might cause a threat to their own society – like pedophilia, cyber bullying, and terror threats – and have rightly put in safeguards to screen their content for these dangers.

But are these same sites as aware of the dangerous consequence that a different kind of image or message has in developing societies like India?

In volatile countries like India, where social tensions simmer beneath the surface, the violent consequences of anonymity can be as damaging as sex crimes and cyber-bullying in western societies. For example, an organized surge of anonymous messages against a particular religious community or caste can lead to – and has led to – violence, panic and death.

Those who send these messages are never caught because they hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. A provocative message on Twitter in a sectarian confrontation can erupt into riots.

While there are many advantages of anonymity – in many ways it IS the essence of freedom on the net – it is important to recognize that the inherent dangers (terrorists constantly use the anonymity of the web) might, in certain circumstances, outweigh those very benefits. Maybe it is time to bring the Internet a little closer to the responsibilities that all other forms of media face. Surely, one should take responsibility for what one writes. How many lives have to be lost in the name of anonymity?

Perhaps it is time for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to become sensitive to messages that are dangerous or, by taking advantage of democratic freedoms, are actually harmful to democratic societies like India. We have different situations and different flash-points to those in America or other countries of the West, and we have a responsibility to address them before they incite sectarian or communal violence.

And just as they pre-screen their sites for themselves, are they ready to invest in similar systems for other kinds of dangers in different societies to their own?

Let me be clear: we are not arguing for a complete ban on anonymity on the Internet. In everyday use, for comments, criticisms and opinions, anonymity must be allowed to continue. What we need, perhaps, is a law that permits the piercing of the veil of anonymity only when a serious crime is committed — the very last resort. And, once again, it must be the judiciary, not the government, that should decide when this can be done – and ensure it is done only in the rarest of rare cases.

So we, the media in India have so much going for us – we have democracy in our DNA, we can, and do, question everything, we are at the cutting edge of new technology that bypasses government controls and frees our wings, our media is more vibrant than anywhere in the world – let’s not throw it all away and commit hara-kiri as we are pretty good at doing. As journalists, let’s not chase profits without purpose, let’s not forget the Heisenberg principle and turn into insiders, let’s voluntarily accept legal discipline when we defame and fail to do our research – and let’s embrace the new world of the internet with imagination, and leverage that democracy in our DNA.

NDTV for one is now focusing on becoming a digital company – more than a television company. We learnt a lesson during the last elections – our website – with what was widely considered to be non-tabloid election coverage – had 13.5 billion hits in 24 hours. The internet is the future for all of us. It’s a new sunrise for journalism.

So do watch this space. I’d like to end tonight with the same five words I used 10 years ago when I was awarded a lifetime achievement – “You ain’t seen nothing yet!