The challenges facing India’s media landscape: Shouting on TV news, a social media cesspit, and broken business models
BY TOM BENNER
India’s media market remains strong, at least when compared to many other countries in Asia.
Yet James Crabtree, a former Financial Times journalist previously based in Mumbai, sees three large shifts affecting India’s vast media landscape — worrisome trends that will continue to have a coarsening effect on the state of the media in the world’s largest democracy.
The rising popularity of raucous television news, which comes at the expense of more civil discourse and public interest programming, combined with a lack of gatekeeping policies to prevent the spread of misinformation on social media, has contributed to a rise in nationalistic and anti-minority rhetoric in India. Similarly, the country’s shift from print to digital advertising signals a decline in print media’s influence on the general population.
“The number of educated people with access to the Internet, to print media, to television, is rising very quickly,” says Crabtree, who now works as an Associate Professor in Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “The size of the advertising market, although small, is getting bigger. You’ve had an enormous amount of innovations, particularly because of social media. And print media is still expanding, as opposed to everywhere else in the world. The number of subscribers and readers is going up, and old print advertising hasn’t started to decline yet.”
However, the winds of change are beginning to blow.
The rightward drift of television news
Several decades ago, news in India was dominated by a small handful of print newspapers and one government-owned television station. In the 1990s and early 2000s, television was liberalized, and India’s TV news adopted a format that was heavily influenced by the BBC and other types of public interest television journalism. In the latter part of the 2000s, however, a new kind of television journalism began to emerge.
Enter Arnab Goswami, a prominent news anchor who started his career on a show called “The NewsHour.” In Crabtree’s critically acclaimed 2018 book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age”, Goswami is held up as a prominent example of a shift toward right-wing commentary in Indian news, with Crabtree going so far as to compare Goswami to Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
“[Goswani] pioneered this much more aggressive, over the top kind of television news — which is even more partisan than something like Fox in the U.S.,” Crabtree says. The format of “The NewsHour,” according to Crabtree, generally involved “Eight or 10 guests, everybody yelling at each other at the same time in this cacophonous din in which the aim is to shock and to entertain … If you watch it, it’s incredibly difficult to work out what is actually going on. If your aim, after watching an hour of television news, is to have a perspective on what’s happened that day and to learn something about it, it’s pretty hopeless.”
In the beginning, Goswami made corruption a central issue in his journalism, and he made India’s previous administration his primary target. He has since sided with current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist right, reflecting a more jingoistic and strident tone that is reflected in other television news, Crabtree says.
“That turn in the way that television news operates has had a coarsening effect on public discourse in India,” he says. “It means ratings are pretty good, but it means public interest journalism on television is much harder to find now. Arnab’s approach has been so successful at winning ratings, others have copied him — not just in the English language media, but in the local media as well.”
Social media, rabble-rousing, and divisive politics
The rapid increase in high-speed Internet access across India has elevated the role of social media outlets, such as Facebook and YouTube, throughout the country, particularly with younger audiences. Facebook, for example, boasts 300 million users in India, significantly more than the number of U.S.-based users — and that number continues to grow..
“In countries where, suddenly, social media has arrived with [a] huge force, and there aren’t really these traditions of well-funded independent fact-checking media, this has become enormously problematic,”
says Crabtree. “The speed with which social media has arrived in India is really stunning.”
While the rise of social media is a boon to personal communication across the Indian subcontinent, Crabtree says it has also given way to an online media environment that is rife with misinformation and fake news, as well as communal disharmony and unrest..
“In general, the Indian online social media sphere — particularly Twitter — is a fairly nasty place,” he says. “If you think Twitter is bad in the U.S., Twitter in India is a complete cesspit, particularly because it has become a medium where the right — they call them the ‘Modi Trolls,’ young passionate supporters of the Prime Minister — will engage in online mob violence. Not literal violence, but well-coordinated trolling of opponents.”
India’s social media woes aren’t just limited to Twitter, either. The popular free communication platform WhatsApp has been used to encourage mob violence against minorities, coordinate lynchings, and is responsible for stoking tensions between Hindus and Muslims, Crabtree says.
“It’s pretty clear the political parties know how to spread divisive viral content around these networks,”
he explains. “This has been true in other countries all around the region — in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, in Thailand — but India is larger. Its population of users is bigger. It now has better Internet connections. So, there’s a whole host of problems that regulators are only beginning to learn how to cope with.”
With the effective absence of gatekeepers working in traditional print media, social media has yet to catch up — and India’s spring elections, which began April 11, will prove to be a test for the social media giants. It is reported there are some 87,000 election-related WhatsApp groups alone in India.
“[Social media companies] claim that they have learned the lessons of what has happened in the US, and during the Brexit campaign and in Brazil,” says Crabtree, referencing recent issues involving online political discourse in other parts of the world. “But my suspicion is they’re not really remotely able to cope with the volume of information that is going to be flurrying about the [Indian] election.”
Although social media companies have made efforts to control the proliferation of fake news and other forms of harmful viral content, such as WhatApp’s recent implementation of a ban on message forwarding, Crabtree believes there’s still more work to be done
“It’s hard to see how the social media companies are going to voluntarily take steps to fix these problems,” he says. “They partly don’t know how to respond — and they partly don’t want to, because their…business models are based on the spreading of content. So, they have a kind of tension that is hard for them to resolve.”
Broken business models
While media in India is relatively free compared to other countries in Asia, with spirited and often rambunctious coverage of political news, and as the country’s growing middle class demonstrates a larger interest in media consumption, Crabtree predicts newspaper circulation will fast become eclipsed by digital digital media.
“On the surface, all seems well,” he says. “But underneath, the same tsunami is about to hit the heritage Indian media industry that hit in the West — and in many ways it’s going to hit harder and faster.
“So few people are going to want to access print publications, given the speed with which the younger generation is shifting to phones.
”In the end, who do advertisers want to reach? They want to reach young aspirational consumers — and those aspirational consumers are only going to be reached on digital platforms.” 🗨️
Tom Benner is a Singapore-based journalist and editor of N3 Magazine.