The powerful want to choke it to death. But India has enough journalists who make journalism thrive

Indian journalists have a long list of rants about their profession. When we hang out, we can banter about everything that is wrong with the Indian press for hours at a stretch: stories covered inadequately; stories that were killed; articles without context; interviews without tough questions; planted scoops; sensational headlines; lack of diversity. My own diary is littered with frustration. Some problems exist simply because mediocrity is a culturally accepted norm; others are a direct consequence of the systemic rot in the mainstream press.

So what I am going to say next may sound contradictory: Indian journalism is thriving. It is not dying a slow death—and it is not on a ventilator—as one activist-journalist recently told an American news channel. Amid a tough political climate, precarious economic conditions and transformative technological changes, journalists are, given all the constraints, pushing the bar to do their jobs. If I have a list of things that frustrate me, I also have a list of stories reported by colleagues that make me envious: “I wish I had reported that story”—that feeling.

The alarmist ideologues writing obituaries of Indian journalism fail to draw the line between criticism and cynicism. The singular focus on the increasing volume of bad information in our public sphere blinds them to the good work done by reporters and editors that is happening across mediums and languages. If you care to look, it is out there for everyone to see.

I will make my case by walking you through the complexity of the media ecosystem we inhibit. 

1. Journalism is a collective enterprise

Doomsayers should do a simple thought experiment. Imagine that India’s mainstream media vanishes. Let’s take the four English national dailies; the five most-read regional newspapers; the five most-watched TV channels—all gone. Take a moment and think about the consequences.

Here is my prediction: India will end up in an unimaginable information vacuum. We take for granted the stories that fill up the pages of a newspaper. In isolation, many of these look banal — “who cares, huh?”. In aggregate, that package of information—however flawed—serves as the only record of the events of the previous day.

The presence of the much-maligned “mainstream media’’ is unparalleled: the online outlets (which the cynics believe are the ones doing “real journalism”) don’t have the resources to have reporters across India’s vast geography. The news reports are far from perfect, and leave much to be desired. News judgement—what constitutes news and what doesn’t—is almost always arbitrary and skewed by an editor’s worldview. But the information that ultimately makes its way through this filtering mechanism matters: if this body of knowledge doesn’t exist, others won’t have the raw material that lends itself to further analysis and inquiries.

I say this with experience: While starting a two-month-long freelance assignment to report on the pandemic in 2020 for an online publication, my first step was buying e-newspaper subscriptions of Hindi-language newspapers covering states I was interested in. Reading those short 300-word dispatches from districts whose names I had never heard of, I was able to get a window into the mini-pandemics evolving across India. They directed me to information I would have otherwise ignored, generated questions I would have never asked, and served as the basis for further investigation. More recently, as I moved out of Delhi to live in a small hill town, I had a newfound appreciation for newspapers: they are my only source of credible information—especially about the coronavirus.

The problem is you won’t find newspapers screaming for accountability when things go wrong. It’s an open secret: the multiple pressure points influencing the coverage of a large newspaper (or a TV channel) result in the failure to push the bar on accountability, leading to shrinking space for uncomfortable stories.

But it is disingenuous to downplay the importance of 95% of the reported information or classify it as propaganda because 5% of the critical information is missing. (I just made up these percentages, but you get my point!)

The void left by the mainstream outlets is often filled in by the adversarial press—online portals, for instance: they can dedicate their limited resources to the missing 5%. This is largely what happens in practise.

The single most important thing is for the information to get out: it should not be suppressed. Where it comes from is secondary. As much as you may want the front-pages of Indian newspapers to look differently, don’t forget that technological changes have taken away the media’s monopoly in amplifying information in the public sphere. While it remains a crucial part of its function, stories that send shivers down the corridors of government and corporate houses will reach where it needs to even if it doesn’t find space in the mainstream. 

If you adopt my framework—where the health of the media ecosystem is measured by the collective production of information—a more optimistic picture will emerge. Journalism will appear as the way it should—a collective enterprise: we feed off each other’s work; we complement each other.

2. The role of identity in news consumption

Now let’s get real: most folks won’t accept my framework. My anecdotal observation rejects the idealistic view that the primary driver for news consumption is the desire to gain new information and become better informed citizens. The point becomes clearer once you factor in the role of political identity in news consumption. Andrew Potter, the former Editor in Chief of the Ottawa Citizen, a Canadian newspaper, made that point in his newsletter:

“…readers would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet. This baffled me at first. If you already know the story, why are you angry at us for not covering it? But I soon realized they weren’t angry because they had been left uninformed, they were angry because we had, in one way or another, let them down.”

Potter quotes the economist Tyler Cowen to further his argument: “the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status… The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.”

This explains much of the hatred against the mainstream press. Go back to my made up stats: even if you know that 5% of the information, you are angry that it went missing or did not make it to the front page of the newspaper. 

This leaves us with an irresolvable situation: the reality is that a newspaper is able to publish 95% of the information by leaving out that 5%. I concede right away that reasonable people can disagree if it’s a real cost or manufactured one—but this is my pragmatic assessment at the moment. 

Readers will appreciate the careful editorial calls journalists make to get their stories out if they could get a full view of how hard-hitting stories make it to the publication when they do — I am talking about reports that irritate people in power and lead to infinite phone calls to the editor and the proprietor. The compromises range from giving boring headlines and needless balancing to burying the story in the inside pages.

These compromises boil my blood: “why can’t we just do our damn jobs?” I have looked at editors making these calls with great disdain. But as years have passed, I understand why these calculations—which I still find morally unacceptable and frustrating—are made: most of these compromises would vanish had the Indian polity allowed the flourishing of a free press. That environment doesn’t exist. 

The difference between organisations comes from the extent to which they push before giving in. Some show no interest and kill stories; some surrender too early; few go all the way and fight the good fight; even fewer just take the risk and publish.  

This is complicated by another factor: the dynamics of information distribution. I have lost count of the number of people who refer to a story and say “why is this not being covered by the mainstream media” — when, in fact, it has been.

For instance, in early 2019, I received a message in a WhatsApp group linking to a New York Times story that reported Indian government’s proposed rules to give itself the power to suppress internet content, leading to comparisons with censorship in China. The young man was agitated that the Indian press ignored such a crucial piece of information and used that as an example to say the mainstream media is compromised.

At the time, I was working with the Hindustan Times, and I wrote the story reporting that development for our paper much earlier than the NYT. My article, in fact, was a follow up on a scoop by the Indian Express. That break was all over TV channels for a few days. But it failed to reach the young man. I politely sent him a link and requested him to reconsider his assessment. 

This is funny and worrying at the same time. I don’t know how this can be resolved—but I know it feeds mistrust.

3. Journalism during the pandemic

If any of my arguments seem theoretical, look at the pandemic reportage and decide for yourself. It has shown the stellar work Indian reporters can produce if they had no constraints. The truth was out there for everyone to see and the press rose up to the moment to capture it.

Dainik Bhaskar—a Hindi language newspaper that sells five and a half million copies daily—religiously reported on the tragedy of the situation. Their reporting on the dead bodies floating on the river Ganges—their stories resulted from collaborative work by 30 reporters and photojournalists spread along the banks of the river—remains one of the hallmark stories of the crisis. The paper, generally perceived to be aligned with the ruling party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fought for transparency and accountability. “State officials have tried to stop our coverage several times in the past few days, and have even threatened us with a court case,” the national editor of the paper told CNN in an interview. But that did not deter their coverage.

This is not an isolated example: the local newspapers in Modi’s home state of Gujarat—where, again, the press is considered aligned to his party—published hard evidence countering the official statistics that downplayed the extent of the crisis. All of this appeared in the mainstream press. 

4. The political economy

This doesn’t mean this phase will continue: it won’t. As I had argued in my previous column for the magazine, self-censorship in India is driven by interlinked political and economic forces. Newsrooms whose business models will crumble if the government pulls off routine advertisements can’t function independently—by design. 

And one must factor in the hierarchical structure in which the two institutions—the media and the government—exist. The coercive powers of the state offers asymmetric advantage to the government: if you want to call it a fight (I don’t like that framing), it is not an equal fight. 

The consequences are real. In a private conversation, a former editor in chief of one of India’s largest English dailies explained the government’s standard trick to control the press. Many mainstream media outlets, he told me, are owned by folks who have business interests in non-media sectors. However careful you are, it is always possible, he argued, to find some flaws (real or manufactured) in taxation and accounting. That’s where they hit you when the reporting starts challenging the government’s preferred narrative. Income tax raids are unleashed—at the media house, or at the owner’s non-media businesses. The public will be told that this is a legitimate action of the state: they violated the law, they are paying the price, that it has got nothing to do with press freedom. But it’s not that: selective and targeted action is nothing but political vendetta. 

This is a routine affair. On July 22, a week after I filed the first draft of this column, the offices of Dainik Bhaskar—the newspaper I had mentioned above—were raided by Indian tax authorities in at least four locations. “The raid is outcome of our aggressive reporting, especially during the second wave of pandemic in April,” the paper’s national editor told the Washington Post. “Unlike some other media we reported how people were dying for lack of oxygen and hospital beds.” 

This theatrical exercise is not just about one newspaper: it is orchestrated to send a message to the rest of the press. 

This is my core point: any analysis of the media must factor in the political economy in which it exists. The unprecedented chaos during the pandemic—which left little scope for disseminating propaganda—offered us a counterfactual: it illustrated that the reason why hard-hitting reporting in the mainstream press is limited is a direct consequence of India’s political climate; the journalistic values have not been sold out. While this is not a problem exclusive to the Modi government—earlier governments have been ruthless, too—senior editors I trust tell me it has become worse under this dispensation. 

Simply put, systemic reasons don’t allow the Indian press to fulfil what citizens expect of the fourth estate. But it is not dying—and it is not on a ventilator. The powerful want to tie its hands, strangle around the neck and choke it to death. But India has enough journalists who fight: they are wounded, they are limited in their abilities, but they live to tell the tale. They strive to get the information out. 

Yes, we can do better—100 times better. But we are not doomed—far from it. Indian journalism is thriving, and it will only get better.