Can a citizen-led rating system make India’s TV news less toxic?

It would require news channels to commit a certain proportion of their daily airtime to essential subjects.

ByPrakash Gupta
Can a citizen-led rating system make India’s TV news less toxic?
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I learned about the TRP scam and the possible involvement of Republic TV in it through a WhatsApp group of my friends. My first reaction was, “Maharashtra has a non-BJP government, they can really make life of Republic TV promoters difficult. And, they should.”

My friend responded, “This is the state of press freedom in our country, isn’t it? The treatment of the press depends on the kind of political regime in place. Would it be justified if anything were done to NDTV in future?”

It was then I recalled the one-day ban on NDTV in 2016, and the history of TV censorship by various governments. I hate the kind of journalism Republic TV and several other TV channels practise but I uphold press freedom. If not retribution, what can improve the state of journalism in our country? Is it the fate of the Indian viewer that despite a plethora of TV news channels, high-quality journalism is rare to find?

While government regulation does tend to be misused by the governing establishment, the alternative of self-regulation has not lived up to expectation either. In 2018, for example, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, a self-regulatory body, asked Republic TV to tender an apology for “inappropriate comments” made by its chief editor, Arnab Goswami. Instead of complying, Republic TV bandied together with some other TV channels to launch a new self-regulatory body in 2019, with Goswami as its president.

Given that neither government regulation nor self-regulation have achieved the desired goal of ensuring ethical journalism, what should we do? Should we accept that India’s broadcast media is beyond repair?

I propose that the solution lies in reanalyzing the normative thinking behind press freedom and reorienting the regulation accordingly.

Race for TRPs

Any regulation must serve to ensure fair, responsible journalism. The problem is that the nature of journalism today is shaped not by the normative framework of responsible journalism but by TRPs, which is a measure of viewership more appropriate for entertainment channels rather than TV news.

Even if we assume that TRPs are not manipulated and that the methods of data collection and evaluation are robust, the fact that they are the only measure of success is a problem in itself. TRPs alter the value system of journalism by limiting the notions of success and impact solely to viewership, which is the most crucial metric for advertisers. Greater viewership, the thinking goes, enhances brand visibility and recognition for advertisers. This reduces journalism to just another medium of marketing.

On the flip side, most news organisations depend on advertisers for the bulk of their revenues.

It’s a flawed business model because it undermines the essence of journalism.

A responsible system

I am not arguing for doing away with TRPs or that we should not treat news as a business. I am arguing for the values of ethical journalism to be brought to the forefront and pushed as a key factor in guiding viewership measurement and advertising. This can be done by introducing a new rating mechanism based on a twin objective – to promote responsible journalism by TV news channels and to deter them from practising unethical journalism.

The logic is similar to that of the Human Development Index, which pushes national governments to rethink development beyond GDP numbers.

The proposed rating mechanism would require TV news channels to commit a certain proportion of their daily airtime to “essential subjects”. Here’s a sampler:

All TV news channels would be required to compulsorily report the extent of coverage of essential subjects to an independent agency – a civil society group, say – every week. Compliance with this process would get weightage in the rating system, but non-compliance would not attract punitive action, which would be reserved for false reporting. The various media houses would be free to report on the essential subjects as and how they prefer and their opinions on these matters wouldn’t be judged to ensure freedom of the press.

To achieve the other objective of deterring news organisations from indulging in yellow journalism, the proposed rating system would incorporate complaints from members of the public about ill journalistic practices – inaccurate reporting, including fake news; ignoring important issues such as unemployment and economic hardship; and stereotyping a person or a community on the basis of race, religion, caste, gender.

The primary judge of what constitutes an ill practice would be the public in that the number of complaints would be the criterion. Of course, the complainant would need to substantiate their claim. Again, for the cause of press freedom, the complaints would not lead to punitive action. They would, instead, adversely affect the ratings of the channel in question.

Changes in behavior

Think about this from a viewer’s perspective. A news channel uses TRPs to boast that it is “number one”, and the viewer might take this to mean it’s also the most credible. If they were to know the most-viewed channel might not necessarily be the most responsible, they would reconsider their choice of watching that particular channel, or at least start questioning its reporting.

Similarly, an advertiser uses a TV channel to sell their product to a potential consumer who also happens to be a consumer of news. The overlap in consumer bases would pressure advertisers to not support a channel that does unethical or irresponsible journalism. The fear of losing consumers for supporting an unethical channel would nudge the advertiser to reconsider their investment. On the other hand, the consumer might think highly of a brand associated with a channel practising responsible journalism. Recently, Parle and Bajaj announced that they would stop advertising on TV news channels that indulged in sensationalism.

In conclusion, whatever rating system is devised in keeping with the above suggestions, it must recognise the public as a primary stakeholder in order to promote responsible journalism by India’s television news industry.

Prakash Gupta is a master’s student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

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Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.

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