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Tuesday 10 January 2012

The glory and the blemishes of the Indian news media

January 7, 2012
The glory and the blemishes of the Indian news media
Amartya Sen

Our free media, including our largely unfettered press, are a hugely
important asset for democratic India. And yet the celebration of the Indian
news media can go only so far — and no further. There are at least two
barriers to quality that need to be overcome. The first is some real laxity
in professionalism in achieving accuracy. The second is the bias, often
implicit, in the choice of what news to cover and what to ignore, and the
way this bias relates particularly to class divisions in India.

One of the great achievements of India is our free and vibrant press. This
is an accomplishment of direct relevance to the working of democracy.
Authoritarianism flourishes not only by stifling opposition, but also by
systematically suppressing information. The survival and flowering of
Indian democracy owes a great deal to the freedom and vigour of our press.
There are so many occasions when, sitting even in Europe or in America, I
have wished for something like the vigour and many-sided balance of the
Indian press to confront the vilification of chosen targets.

One longstanding example of some moment is the organised
mischaracterisation in the USA of the British National Health Service and
similar public health arrangements in most of Europe. Despite the fact that
America has some superb newspapers, such as *The New York Times*, the
information industry has managed to undermine thoroughly the understanding
of the great accomplishments of public health care in Europe, and its
contribution to enhancing health security, life expectancy, and the quality
of life. Rather, the National Health Service and other such medical
arrangements are often seen as some kind of a “health lock-up,” generating
a widespread horror of what is called “socialised medicine” (I have heard
of a rumour that American children are persuaded to eat broccoli by
threatening them with “socialised medicine” as a dreaded alternative).

Despite the limitations of the Indian news media, some of which I will
discuss presently, we have every reason to applaud our free media,
including our largely unfettered press, as a hugely important asset for
democratic India. And yet the celebration of the Indian media can go only
so far — and no further. There are at least two huge barriers to quality
that are very worth discussing: one is concerned with the internal
discipline of the media and the other relates to the relation between the
media and society. The first problem is that of some real laxity in
professionalism in achieving accuracy, which can be harmed even without any
deliberate intention to mislead or misinform. The second is the bias —
often implicit — in the choice of what news to cover and what to ignore,
and the way this bias relates particularly to class divisions in India.

Indian reporting can be, and often is, extremely good. I always marvel at
the skill of the reporters, often very young men and women, in being able
to capture and bring out the nuances of points that are hard to summarise
accurately. However, Indian reporting is characterised by great
heterogeneity, and sometimes serious inaccuracies can receive widespread
circulation through the media (or initiating in the media). While I have
been personally lucky, most of the time, I am aware of problems that others
have had, and sometimes I see them in my own experience. As an Indian
reader, I would like to be sure, when I open the morning newspaper, that
what I am reading — that A said B — is actually accurate. It is hard to
have that assurance.

Let me give a couple of examples, despite — I should re-emphasise — my
generally good experience with reporting in the press. Four days ago in a
public discussion I said in answer to a question about the Lokpal
initiative that the solution to the extremely important problem of
corruption would have to be sought within the Indian democratic system
(including our courts and Parliament), and also that I had not seen the
blueprint of any effective Lokpal Bill – neither from the government nor
from any faction of the Opposition.

When, later on, I opened the web, I found reports with the following
headlines: “Lokpal Bill well thought out: Amartya Sen” (*The Times of India*
, *India Today*, Zee News, NDTV, among others); and “Lokpal Bill not well
thought out: Amartya Sen” (*DNA News*, *Money Control*, *The Telegraph* [which
did not make it a headline], among others). One paper first distributed the
former story and then the latter, without noting that there is a correction
here, and I was amused because it is a paper — *The Economic Times* — with
which I am personally associated, since I was given the privilege of
editing the paper for one day a few years ago (it was a great day for me,
though I gather from the Editor that I drove them all mad, by rejecting
entries and asking for several rewrites).

Based on another meeting in Kolkata on the same day, a lecture for the
Cancer Foundation of India, I found the following headlines: “To smoke is
individual option” (*The Statesman*) and “Curb smokers' liberty:
Amartya” (*Hindustan
Times*). All this is just from one day. Unfortunately, a misreport on one
day can have quite big consequences. *The Times of India *said on December
15: “Amartya Sen: People on street can't deal with corruption.” I had said
nothing of the sort, as the audio record of the speech confirms, but once
that misreporting, coming from a news agency apparently used by many
newspapers, is in the public domain, it is hardly surprising that I would
be showered with rebuke and moral advice. Dozens of pages of denunciations
materialised immediately. Much of the moral advice to me would be sensible
enough had the statement reflected something I had said. The one I liked
best said: “I think Mr. Sen should keep his mouth shut” — an eminently
sensible piece of advice given the constant danger of misreporting by a
careless press — or, as in this case, a careless news agency on which many
papers mechanically rely.

What I had, in fact, said was that the judgment and penalty for corruption
cannot be a matter for street justice, and must come through the democratic
procedures that we cherish in India, including the courts and Parliament. I
believe the Indian people are fully committed to that democratic priority,
rather than “summary justice.” What they really complain about is that the
democratic procedures are not being applied sufficiently vigorously and
stringently to corruption. This is indeed an important demand, and this
understanding is very far from any dismissal of the ability of “street
people” to comprehend the political challenge arising from corruption.
Since I have taken part in street demonstrations myself, complaining about
many injustices in India (one recent activity of this kind was related to
the public agitation for the right to food), I must stand up for the right
of ordinary folks — what the news agency called the “street people” — to be
heard loud and clear.

So what can the media do to deal with the lapses from accuracy in
reporting? I don't know the answer — my main intention here is to raise the
question — but one thought that is fairly straightforward is to get all the
newspapers to agree to publish corrections of their own stories as a
regular feature (and highlight them online, along with the corrected
accounts). This is done with much effectiveness by *The Guardian *and *The
New York Times*, and some Indian papers already have such a section (the
host of this essay, *The Hindu*, has had this for many years), but the
practice can be made more universal among the papers, and also more active
and more well-known.

There is also an issue of journalistic training. Taking notes in a rush is
never easy, and it has become harder still since most reporters today,
unlike those in the past, do not know shorthand. But there are marvellous
recording devices in our modern world, and they can perhaps be used more
uniformly, rather than the reporters tending to rely on memory, as many
still seem to do. There are surely other ways of reducing inadvertent
inaccuracy, and it would be nice to see more discussion on it. But now I
must move to the second problem to which I referred.

If greater accuracy is mainly an internal challenge for the media, avoiding
— and fighting — class bias involves an external challenge that relates to
the divisiveness of the Indian society. Of course, class divisions are
present elsewhere as well. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has drawn
attention to what it sees as the contrast between the very prosperous — the
1 per cent at the top — and the rest of the 99 per cent in the United
States. I will not comment here on the veracity of this 1%-99% contrast, as
applied to the United States, but relying on a similar division in India
would miss the mark by a long margin. There are, of course, many divisions
in India — and some apply to newspaper ownership as well — but the division
that introduces a generic bias in Indian news coverage, related to the
interest of the newspaper reading public, is more like one between a
fortunate fifth of the population who are doing just fine on the basis of
the economic progress that is taking place in India, and the rest who are
being left firmly behind.

There is, in fact, a substantial part of the Indian population — a minority
but still very large in absolute numbers — for whom India's economic growth
is working well, along with those who were already comparatively
privileged. An exaggerated concentration on their lives, which the Indian
media tend typically to display, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of
what is happening to Indians in general. There tends to be fulsome coverage
in the news media of the lifestyles of the fortunate, and little notice of
the concerns of the less fortunate. To refer to three of many unfortunate
facts (the list can be quite long): (1) India has the highest percentage of
undernourished children in the entire world, measured in terms of the
standard criteria; (2) India spends a far lower percentage of its GNP than
China on government-provided health care and has a much lower life
expectancy; and (3) India's average rank among South Asian countries —
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan — in the standard
social indicators, varying from life expectancy and immunisation to infant
mortality and girls' schooling, has dropped over the last twenty years from
being second-best to second-worst (even as India has surged ahead in terms
of GNP per capita).

The problem here does not, of course, originate in the media, for it is
social division that feeds this bias in coverage. But the media can play a
more constructive part in keeping the reality of India persistently in the
view of the public. The bias in coverage, even though it is by no means
unpleasant to the reader, contributes quite heavily to the political apathy
about the urgency of remedying the extreme deprivation of the Indian
underprivileged. Since the fortunate group includes not only business
leaders and the professional classes, but also the bulk of the country's
intellectuals, the story of unusual national advancement gets, directly or
indirectly, much aired — making an alleged reality out of what is at best a
very partial story.

The group of relatively privileged and increasingly prosperous Indians can
easily fall for the temptation to assume that given the high rate of
economic growth, there is no particular need for special social efforts to
enhance the lives of people. When, for example, the government introduced,
as it did recently, its plan of providing subsidised food for the Indian
poor, an enormous number of critics pointed immediately to the fiscal
problems involved, and some even talked about the sheer “irresponsibility”
that is allegedly reflected in the Food Security Bill.

There are indeed many serious problems with the Food Security Bill that has
been tabled, and the Bill can be much improved and one hopes it will be.
Furthermore, fiscal responsibility is certainly a serious issue and the
financing of food subsidies, like other social programmes, demands critical
examination. But it is worth asking why there is hardly any media
discussion about other revenue-involving problems, such as the exemption of
diamond and gold from customs duty, which, according to the Ministry of
Finance, involves a loss of a much larger amount of revenue (Rs.50,000
crore per year) than the additional cost involved in the Food Security Bill
(Rs.27,000 crore). The total “revenue forgone” under different headings,
presented in the Ministry document, an annual publication, is placed at the
staggering figure of Rs.511,000 crore per year. This is, of course, a big
overestimation of revenue that can be actually obtained (or saved), since
many of the revenues allegedly forgone would be difficult to capture — and
so I am not accepting that rosy evaluation. And yet it is hard to
understand why the cost of the Food Security Bill should be separated out
for fiscal gloom without examining other avenues of fiscal soundness. An
active media can draw attention to what is being probed and what remains
underdiscussed and underexplored.

The impact of India's division between the privileged and the
non-privileged can also be seen in the political power of the advocates of
continuing — and expanding — subsidies on fuel use, even those that go
particularly to the relatively rich (such as petrol for car owners), or of
fertilizers, which yield major transfers of a regressive kind, even as they
help with agricultural production. It is possible to redesign these fiscal
arrangements to introduce more economic rationality, greater environmental
awareness, and the demands of equity with efficiency. The political support
for tolerating — and defending — the present profligacy in catering to the
relatively better off contrasts sharply with the fiscal alarm bells that
are sounded whenever proposals for helping the poor, the hungry, the
chronically unemployed come up.

If the first problem I referred to, that of accuracy, is one of improving
the performance of the news media through better quality control, the
second, transcending class bias, concerns the media's role in reporting and
discussing the problems of the country in a balanced way. The media can
greatly help in the functioning of Indian democracy and the search for a
better route to progress including all the people — and not just the more
fortunate part of Indian society. What is central to the functioning of the
news media in Indian democracy is the combination of accuracy with the
avoidance of bias. The two problems, thus, complement each other.

*(Amartya Sen, the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of
Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, won the Nobel Prize in
Economics in 1998. The Bharat Ratna was conferred on him in 1999

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