India's Paid News Problem
Image Credit: Liz West

India's Paid News Problem

 
 

Last week, I attended the Ramnath Goenka Awardsfor Excellence in Journalism, in New Delhi. A total of 29 journalists received awards for excellence in a variety of categories, and it was a proud moment for so many to be recognized for their commitment to a profession that remains the fourth pillar of democracy.

But despite this moment of pride, there was also an uncomfortable sense of guilt among the wider fraternity of journalists who turned out in considerable numbers for what is generally known as India’s Pulitzers.

So what were they feeling guilty about? The growing problem of paid news.

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Following last year’s elections in Maharashtra, allegations surfaced that the local media had taken thousands of dollars from politicians in return for publishing favourable news stories about them. And, in a panel discussion at the Ramnath Goenka Awards, executives from India’s leading media accepted the sad truth that such media payments are indeed commonplace today.

Arun Shourie, an eminent journalist and politician from the right wing Bhartiya Janata Party, accused the media of adopting the ‘politics of silence’ over this issue, arguing that broadly speaking, there was little internal debate or introspection among the nation’s media houses. According to Star News CEO Uday Shankar, the main reason is (perhaps not surprisingly) the significant amounts of money that media houses are earning from paid news.

A number of politicians in the audience lambasted journalists for indulging in the practice, challenging them to come clean over an issue that’s doing significant harm to the image of a free press in India. Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi, for example, questioned why journalists are generally silent on this pressing issue.

To be fair, senior journalists and media executives present at the awards all agreed that something needed to be done about the issue. But what exactly? Are Indian media houses really going to improve transparency over their revenue sources? And will journalists be allowed to speak out on the issue withoutfear ofbeing victimized?

It’s a sad fact these days that few journalists dare to write the truth about politicians for fear of puttingtheir sources in real physical danger. In addition, media groups ask their journalists to develop a good rapport with politicians and bureaucrats not for the sake of developing good stories, but because of the potential financial and other benefits that such contacts can generate.

An atmosphere of conformism prevailsin the media todayand the angst and ideology of the past—and the commitment to serve society through fearless journalism—havesomehow been diluted in the post liberalization era.

Journalism should befirst a passion then a profession. But with a lack of support from their bosses, for many now it’s just another job.

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