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Indian media should gear up for technology impact

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The new technologies are accelerating a shift of power away from traditional voices of authority in journalism and politics. However, new media designers predict that the day-to-day mass audience will splinter further into niches, because people will want to create their own customized flows of information.

In politics, citizens already are treated as demographic niches, and our common values rarely are addressed. Candidates and political interest groups deepen our divisions by fashioning single-issue appeals to narrow voter populations. If we are looking for a national sense of citizenship, of shared interests and goals, we will have even more difficulty finding them in the niche media.

Technological trends are radically privatizing or individualizing how we spend our limited free time. The fundamental values of both journalism and politics are being challenged, in part because of the new technologies. Their problems--and their revitalization--are inextricably linked. The future of both depends on how effectively they can revive their core standards and regain the public's trust. Today, "news especially electronic media news," many times an artificial construct is under cloud. Unless journalists work now to save it, ethics of objectivity that developed in journalism in the seventies and eighties as both a reform effort and a response to market opportunities may be doomed.

    

"If the television news channels continue to cover the world cynically and assume that everybody is Machiavellian and motivated by their own self-interest, it might invite their viewers to reject journalism as a mode of communication"        

    

The idea that these audiences simply have fled to television news is not an adequate explanation. Latest NRS (National Readership Survey) figures prove that in spite of television news penetration the newspaper readership has expanded. Indeed, the national television networks, which once enjoyed the attention of a captive nation, now compete with many alternative offerings on cable. Now that legal obstacles have been removed, the new telephone companies are laying fiber optic networks, enabling them to transmit their own news and classified services directly into the home. Ironically, we are losing our gatekeepers just when we need them most.

People are overwhelmed by news products and imitations: infotainment magazine shows, infomercials, docudramas, home videos, talk shows, and Internet gossip, all competing with traditional news stories in the old and new media. Citizens need a trustworthy guide not just for reports about what "officially happened" around the nation each day but for the enormous flow of information that is gushing into their homes.

News organizations have responded to the new media environment in several ways. Many journalists, instead of beating their entertainment and propaganda competitors, are joining them. The increased competition spawned by the new technologies has led some traditional news purveyors to "go tabloid"-increasing coverage of celebrity gossip, bizarre crime, and sex scandals to try to retain their mass audience. Television news and magazine programmes on Indian news channels, in particular, have loosened their standards and definitions of what makes news.

As news organizations react to these new technologies, many are concentrating on the look and feel of their delivery systems, trying to figure out how they will sell what is basically the same old content in new media formats. This may be the wrong focus. Digital technologies now free the news from any fixed delivery medium, enabling consumers to convert content instantly into video, audio, or text. The journalist's challenge isn't the medium but the message. As consumers start experimenting in cyberspace, journalists need to address more urgently not the delivery format but the quality of their core product: reliable and useful information on which citizens can act.

Many journalists would vehemently deny that their product is in trouble. Certainly some of the best journalism ever practiced is the work of the current generation of news professionals such as Rajdeep Sardeasi, Shikha Trivedi, Dibang, Deepak Chaurasiya, Prabhat Shunglu, Nupur Basu, Rajesh Badal, Barkha Dutt in television and Sankarshan Thakur, Ritu Sarin, Shudiranjan Sen, Rashmi Saxena, Basavi, Sreekant in newspapers. And some highly successful news offerings by NDTV on Star News, Aaj Tak, the Indian Express, India Today, The Hindu and Business Standard prove that audiences still appreciate high-quality journalism.

News is India's daily meal of politics and policy information. Instead of informing citizens in ways that might be useful to them, today's influential reporters often focus on interpreting political and public policy news as if they were professional wrestling referees. It is common on any television news channel that the reporters provide narrow, superficial, pseudo-insider coverage of the government's actual business or activities. The citizens are never provided the real news on policies, reforms and public welfare decisions. What you get to read or watch is nothing but neatly packaged infotainment where even the most sombre or poignant information is dramatized in the form of sensational revelation of innocuous information. Young journalists, taking cues from their more prominent colleagues, instead of asking a contesting political candidate, "Why are you contesting for this Assembly or Parliament seat?" the question is often asked, "How do you plan to win the election or how can you win?"

The journalist earlier used to gain status by dining yet not aligning with his subjects; now he gains status by just aligning with them. Instead of highlighting problems in a way that would corner the political system or administrative system, journalists now reward the politicians, by not letting any relation to serious political argument, let alone to grown-up ideas about conduct and morality. Instead of proving that journalists are unbiased guardians of the public trust, this perpetual negativity may one day backfire.

If the television news channels continue to cover the world cynically and assume that everybody is Machiavellian and motivated by their own self-interest, it might invite their viewers to reject journalism as a mode of communication because it must be cynical too. Increasingly, people see journalists as a special interest group, like any other, which manipulates them in order to throw its weight around or make a buck.

In the digital world, journalism is liberated not just from time but also from space constraints. The reporter's dream has come true: now there is a bottomless news hole, thanks to new technologies and the Internet. Online news customers become archaeologists; they can start at the surface with the headline, digest, or summary of the news, and then click on words or pictures to enter layer upon layer of longer stories, related features, analysis pieces, and sound and video clips. Finally, they will reach original documents and discussion groups on an issue.

The new technologies offer journalists not only the potential perils of competition and scrutiny but also the potential benefits of an expanded role: connecting citizens to information and to each other. To succeed, journalists cannot connect simply for the sake of connecting; they will have to deliver something of additional value to the customer. Interactivity is only one of the dramatic technologies now changing the television news. More significantly, the hot "scoop" loses its commercial value in this competitive environment. Reporters, who rate each other on who gets the news first, prize scoops. However, the value of the time-sensitive scoop is lost in the constant news marketplace. Even though more and more television news channels "burn their brand" into each video frame to mark their scoops, the news consumer rarely remembers who had a news item first as she surfs through scores of channels.

A news organization will need something exclusive to offer if it is to occupy a distinct niche in the multichannel environment. A news channel with a trusted anchor and a newspaper with trusted editor will have an advantage in the new marketplace, and a different kind of exclusive scoop--a research or analysis piece that has been developed by the news organization alone--will sharpen the purveyor's competitive edge.

(The writer was editor of Zee News and Star TV Interactive and is currently working for the Community Media .)

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