The sadya (feast) is one of the highlights of Onam celebrations. Why not prepare a media research feast—an annual Journalism in Kerala report—and serve it to Malayalis every year? Here, I think aloud on why we should have such an annual initiative and what the report could contain.
Rationale for the Report
There are several reasons why we should begin publishing a periodic report on the news media industry in Kerala. All the reasons must be read against the overarching backdrop of a democratic society, in which news and news media play important roles.
An annual report on the health of the news media industry in Kerala will be a mirror of the industry’s own well-being; in the process, it will also help in flagging concerns and serve as an early warning system.
First, a report is a health check-up of sorts. Like an annual consultation with a friendly doctor, it informs news media producers and consumers about the commodity (news) that they produce and consume. A report that is published periodically will help in early diagnosis or anticipation of problems, which can then be tackled before the infection spreads, intensifies, and causes greater pain.
Whatever the problem—paid news, blurring of lines between PR and journalism, cross-media ownership—a reluctance to acknowledge and understand its scale and impact will only worsen the problem. An annual report on the health of the news media industry in Kerala will be a mirror of the industry’s own well-being; in the process, it will also help in flagging concerns and serve as an early warning system.
Second, an annual report will help to protect the independence of the sector, increasingly under threat from the state and the market.
In recent years, left to themselves, media professionals in India (barring an exceptional handful) have shied away from whistleblowing and engaging with the public about the ills of the news industry. That is why when an “external” institution, such as a parliamentary committee, pinpoints dark spots in the practice of journalism in the country, the enlightened media professionals’ response—self-regulation—sounds hollow and insincere.
Those of us who believe that legislation (where the state draws boundaries on how the press should behave) will weaken democracy rather than strengthen it, cannot stop at merely demanding self-regulation. We must go a step further by demonstrating the news industry’s will and capability to undertake self-regulation.
In this regard, the annual report can be a first step. Both as a diagnostic tool that identifies issues as well as a prescriptive tool that suggests remedial measures, an annual report will demonstrate the industry’s commitment and capacity for self-regulation. It will also help to shore up the sector’s credibility and win public support for media autonomy.
Third, preparing the annual report will stimulate media research on Kerala, the benefits of which will reach society in two ways: (a) in the form of better media products that meet consumer tastes and social needs; and (b) in the form of information generated for public policy debates.
The need for the latter is evident from the way we discuss issues, including those related to the media. There is no reliable data on paid news in Kerala or cross-media ownership in Kerala. Nor do we have any assessment of how self-regulation has worked in the state. Yet, there is no shortage of punditry on these topics.
Content of the Report
What all would an annual report on the news industry in Kerala contain?
Let us briefly look to the United States, where the non-partisan Pew Research Center has been publishing a State of the News Media (SONM) report, every year since 2004, under its Project on Excellence in Journalism.
The recent edition of the SONM contained two types of data: (a) data generated by other organisations or individuals; and (b) fresh data generated for the SONM.
In the Kerala context, all of this may not be possible in one go, because the research ecosystem is weak and very little data exists in the public domain, on any sector of the media.
The SONM presented data on different sectors—print (newspapers, magazines), radio, television (cable, local, network), and digital (websites). For each of these sectors, the data was organised into seven “primary areas of interest”—economics, audience, content, ownership, newsroom investment, alternative news outlets, and digital trends. To illustrate, on print sector, it presented data on the following: revenue (from circulation and advertisements) and stock prices of newspapers; reach of print and digital editions; coverage of topics like foreign policy and health; and demographic data such as age, education, and income of newspaper readers.
In addition to such data collected from various sources, the SONM also carried special reports based on surveys conducted as part of the project, for example on television news programming and consumption. Overall, the data collected and the data generated were used to prepare an essay on developments in each sector during the past year.
In the Kerala context, all of this may not be possible in one go, because the research ecosystem is weak and very little data exists in the public domain, on any sector of the media. The bulk of the initial effort would therefore be on aggregating data directly from various news outlets in different sectors. The statistics section of the annual report would be a trendsetter for the media industry and civil society nationally.
Also, unlike the SONM, whose “intention is to inform, not persuade,” and which aims at a “research report, not an argument,” the Journalism in Kerala report should go beyond presenting data. Considering local challenges, each year it can identify one contemporary issue, generate data on it, analyse the topic from a theoretical angle, and outline practical steps that media professionals and consumers can take in their daily lives. In this, we can learn from the thematic annual reports on human development (from the UNDP) or on economic development (from the World Bank) which have been effective in advocacy and setting the policy agenda. Their usefulness and appeal to policymakers, professionals in the respective sectors, as well as citizens engaged in public debate, stem from the mix of theoretical and practical content.
By offering data and insight, one hopes that the Journalism in Kerala report too shall one day be a much-awaited annual arrival, like the visit of Mahabali.