'The sort of shoddy opinionated journalism that you see on television isn’t limited to India:’ Andrew Stevens

How often do we hear that Indian media, especially broadcast, is heavily inclined towards opinionated journalism where the prime time is ruled by one sided debates?

The scenario isn’t restricted to only Indian media, but is a global trend, says CNN Asia Pacific editor and correspondent Andrew Stevens, who was in Mumbai recently for the CNN Business Forum 2016.

The specialist business correspondent with over two decades of experience in the beat is known for his extensive coverage of news and business stories across the region. The latest feathers to his cap are covering Hong Kong's ‘Umbrella Revolution’ pro-democracy movement and the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370 in 2014.

A former print journalist with several election coverages across many countries to boot, Stevens’ knowledge in geopolitics and its subsequent effect on the different Asia Pacific markets is unparalleled indeed.

With ‘news’ and ‘business’ being the two sectors that Stevens has expertise on, his take on Indian media industry does put matters into a global perspective.

In conversation with Papri Das, Stevens shares his opinion on the current media industry and prospects of exploring new revenue models for the medium, why there is an audience for ‘debate format’ shows on television news, and why journalists must be careful when entertaining followers on social media.


How do you see India in terms of freedom of the press? Have you noticed any change since the current government came into power?

From an editorial standpoint I think Indian media is pretty free of censorship, and external influence. I am sure there are proprietors who wish to share their views in their own affiliated networks but generally I think it's wonderful how robust the industry is. The different views that are aired daily through the news television networks is an indication of a healthy and thriving press in India.

With regards to the current government, I haven’t seen any significant change. I don’t know if I am in the right position to answer this, but from what I have heard and read, there hasn’t been any serious clamming down of the press that’s visible to the international media.

Do you think international media successfully covers India and doesn’t just scratch the surface?

I find it's a bit of both. It ultimately boils down to the reporter and reporting itself. There is no reason an international media such as ourselves can’t get to the real story. Churning out cliched news is lazy and I don't believe in that type of journalism.

I have been in India often and I find people to be very free and happy to share their opinions. Therefore there shouldn't be an obstacle in gathering and reporting that very perspective internationally.

Do you think digital will rule news and TV will gradually phase out?

Digital media, especially social media is very attractive and an easy option. The news is snappy and one can simply grab a bite and they are done. But our job is to go beyond that.

I don't condone the whole social media as a news outlet. As a journalist I can tap into Twitter or other social media platforms to get good real time information as long as I trust my sources. But one needs to be aware that it's a 15 secs of fame thing. Everybody is a journalist on Twitter in just 140 characters. At the end of the day, journalism is all about credibility and people need to trust what they read or watch. And that credibility can only be built through research and analysis, which is a journalist's job. And that is why I think credible broadcast journalism will survive this digital wave; while those who are still into ‘byte’ form journalism will face tough competition.

Are long form news programs a dying breed in broadcast in this generation of ADHD viewers?

I certainly hope not. There always will be trends. I agree that right now snappy two minute video packages meant for the digital platforms are popular. For those who have a hunger for a holistic picture however, it leaves you wanting more. It is too basic a level and mostly scratches the surface. Yes, consumers of news are busy but they want to read and watch something that answers all their questions, not just make a statement. Like I always say, it comes down to the storyteller. Do I think good storytelling is in jeopardy? No, it still has a huge market and its industry is only growing.

Prime time news in India is heavily dictated by the debate form of news. What is your take on this style of opinionated journalism?

This sort of shoddy journalism that you see on television isn’t limited to India; we have examples of this in the west, and probably we lent this format to different markets. I think that a lot of people watch this because it conforms to their own ideas and opinions. It’s more of an echo chain where the broadcaster and the viewers feed off each others opinions. It’s human nature to keep watching something that we are comfortable listening to -- a broadcaster who agrees with them; who confirms their prejudices or views. Personally, I get bored of that very quickly. I am not saying they are not influencing. I have been following the US Presidential election campaign very closely and the coverage there is very fascinating. Those who are glued to the television and are highly opinionated on the matter may actually end up having the fate of the entire western world in their hands.

In India maximum news broadcasters are heavily dependent on ad revenue? How does a news channel ensure unbiased reporting and not lend itself to crony capitalism while running after ad ex?

It is not only India, advertising remains a very important revenue stream for the broadcast industry all over the world and news is not an exception to that. There are also sponsorship deals now where companies will fund or bear part of the cost of certain content. News channels have a certain responsibility to provide an unbiased report and have to be very careful in striking a fine balance… as long as there is a clear labelling of advertorial, sponsorship and editorial.

I know the lines do get blurred at times and that's what we need to be concerned about. We have to make sure that we are not compromising news at the cost of our consumerist needs. We must understand that an advertiser chooses to lend their name and invest in a bulletin or a news program because the broadcaster and that content carries a certain credibility that they want to be associated with. Therefore a news channel’s primary job should be to not compromise on that. The entire business model should be based on it.

Which do you prefer as a journalist -- a subscription revenue platform or ad revenue platform?

There is a lot of robust conversation about this issue even globally. People in the industry are talking about alternate sources of revenue. The internet has dragged the traditional advertising revenues down for people like us (broadcasters). If you ask me, a network like CNN would not work on just subscription revenue. But for a specialist or niche publication or broadcaster, it would work much better. And that is what we see on the digital platforms these days. People will pay for a deeper analysis in a specific beat rather than a news digest.

How much does breaking the news before others matter to you? Does the rush not lead to an impulsive job?

I think it’s a real danger to credible journalism, this whole practice of chasing after breaking news. That is why we don't entertain any breaking news it until we confirm it ourselves. Suppose we get a news flash that Queen Elizabeth has died; we are not going to go anywhere near it until we verify the news ourselves through trusted and multiple sources. And that is what journalism is all about. The only reason people watch us is because when they hear us say something and they assume it to be true. Being the first mover doesn’t necessarily work, in fact it can be counter productive instead.

CNN has consciously chosen to be those who might not be first to tell you what's going on, but will tell you what is factually right. We don’t encourage sensationalisation of news but there are some news and personalities that lend themselves to controversy whom we also have to cover.

A fine example would be the Republican candidate Donald Trump. We cover Trump a lot but then again Trump is a news maker and we cover news. It doesn't necessarily mean that we agree with what he opines.

What is your take on media debates involving sub-judice matter, which is called ‘Trial by media’ or ‘Media Trial?’

It's not fair but it's a fact of life. This is where opinionated journalism can become very dangerous indeed. There have to be strong laws in place that will prevent this sort of influence by media on the judiciary. For example in UK, there are laws on what you can and can't say when someone is under suspicion or charged with something. It’s partly the responsibility of the jurisdiction. One must understand that there is a whole spectrum of journalism.

How much do you care about the number of digital views CNN generates? How in tune are you with the social media?

I am not a digital native. So me and social media have a very loose association. While I do check from time to time, personally I am hardly tuned in. I don’t think I have tweeted since last November, so you can tell how active I am on the social network.

But if you ask me if broadcasters today need to be social media savvy to stay connected with their audiences? Yes, I do think so. One has to manage that very carefully. I think we do have to be able to justify the stories we write and the pieces we put on air. We shouldn't be hiding behind a mask or corporate wall. But at the same time I am not going to spend my life answering everybody’s question on what I do and why. A journalist has to have a keen ear, granted; but they can’t be influenced by popular opinion either. There has to be a fine balance.

What will you advise budding journalists?

It really depends on what you want to be. Do you really want to be the Indian correspondent internationally? I don't think one needs to restrict oneself to a specific type of platform. As the world of media continues to change with these dynamic times, I feel that there are a lot more opportunities ahead for young and budding journalists out there. It’s becoming more important for young journalists starting up to make a name for their own self. Pick up a beat where you can thrive, whatever be the platform. And the key to it is of course breaking news. Apart from reacting to what is happening, develop skill sets and sources to find out newsworthy information for the world.

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