Mushrooming of paid news culture in India

Cobrapost exposé sheds new light on an old ailment

Business & Politics

June 17, 2018

/ By / Kolkata



In 2018 India reached 138 in world press freedom index

In 2018 India reached 138 in world press freedom index

The role of the media is supposed to facilitate greater accountability of public personalities and bring the corruption into light. But seeing the recent trends the credibility of media is being questioned.

Only after a month of ‘Operation 136’ Cobrapost, an independent investigative website came out with another sting operation called ‘Operation 136 – Part II’ that had the name of top media channels willing to run communal agenda for money. This has come at a time when the credibility of media is already being questioned. This issue has questioned the power of media and how adversely it impacts democracy by influencing the minds of voters.

A reporter from Cobrapost assumed a fictitious identity and approached media organisations that were ready to strike profitable business deals to promote the hindutva agenda. The reporter proposed a campaign beginning with “soft hindutva”, which would accustom the electorate with hindutva politics before the 2019 General Elections.

The investigative website released the name of 25 leading media organisation accused of running pro-Hindutva advertisements. Some of the leading media corporate involved are Times group, India Today, Zee Media, ABP News, Dainik Jagran, Network 18, Hindustan Times, OPEN Magazine and DNA among others. Only two Bengali newspapers Bartaman and Dainik Sambad refused to be baited.

Operation-136 is titled after India’s rank in the 2017 world press freedom index. In 2018 India slipped down by two more ranks and reached 138, just one place above Pakistan. As per the Index’s definition, the quality of press freedom in the country is bad.

Paid news culture in India

Paid news culture in India is not new. Decades ago, in the 1990s, during a stock exchange boom, when companies of all kinds and sizes rushed to list their shares on the stock market, often at unjustified premiums, it was a common practice to handout envelopes with cash to journalists attending press conferences where the executives announced their Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) or listing on the stock market. Cash for news has indeed come a long way from those days, with some leading media houses today flagrantly charging companies, institutions and even individuals to provide them coverage in their newspapers and magazines, passing the advertisements as news, violating the basic principle of journalism.

The sums involved have of course grown multifold from the INR 500-2000 that were handed out at IPO press conferences. Several companies/political parties have often been accused of paying millions of rupees to leading media houses in order to get coverage that portrays them  in a positive light. Several newspapers and magazines are full of paid news, but most go unnoticed. One such instance did make news in the  2012, when Member of Parliament Navin Jindal claimed that  Zee News, a leading television news channel, had attempted to extort INR 1 billion from him for not airing stories against his company in coal block allocation. The channel denied the allegations.

Paid news is mostly in trend during the time of elections. Political parties pay a lump sum of money to media organisations in order to portray them in good light. In 2009 during Maharashtra assembly elections a complaint was filed against outgoing Congress Chief Minister Ashok Chavan  alleging that he had paid money to some Marathi and Hindi newspapers during the 2009 elections to write in his favour. Several other political parties/entities have been accused of the same.

The role of the media is supposed to facilitate greater accountability of public personalities and bring the corruption into light. It is only when the media itself indulges in corrupt practices, it undermines the structure that is meant to uphold and strengthen democracy in the country.

The rising trend of fake news

Recently there has been a rising trend in circulating fake news on social media and other portals. The situation is so that sometimes even big media organisations do not check the credibility of the news and broadcast/publish it. Last year Republic TV broke news about Jama Masjid being in dark due to non-payment of electricity bills. They presented the news with a headline, “Jama Masjid in dark due to non-payment of electricity bills over four crores,” without even checking the facts. It turned out to be fake news that had originated from various Hindutva handles and Postcard News, a renowned fake news website. After Alt News.in, a website that acts as an antidote to fake propagandists, exposed the fake news, the channel quietly removed the tweet without any explanation.

Similarly another story did rounds on social media, where Robert Vadra, Priyanka Vadra and Rahul Gandhi were seen with a Chinese envoy. Times Now and Republic TV did prime time shows on the issue. The truth was later revealed again by Alt News that the picture was from a Chinese food festival that was also attended by India’s railway minister Suresh Prabhu, and other leaders from BJP, CPIM and JDU.

Indian media has time and again published unchecked stories. Fake news goes viral as there is a team of political organisations behind it who want the news to thrive. Researchers in the western media have  have developed  organised efforts not just to teach the methods of identifying fake news and their sources but also to understand the ‘ecology’ of the consumers of news.  Researchers have developed ‘generative adversarial network’ (GAN) – a type of machine-learning algorithm that challenges the original image. In Europe media organisations get their stories checked through several consortiums. CrossCheck is one such consortium where participants include the BBC, Channel 4, Le Monde, Agence France-Presse, and BuzzFeed get their stories stamped ‘true’ or ‘false’. The stories that are found to be suspect even after cross- checking are marked ‘caution’. India media often fails to do fact check and broadcasts the news. AltNews.in is among the few websites in India that are doing an admirable job in identifying the sources of the fake news published.

The Cobrapost operation only shows the gigantic hole in Indian media that needs to be filled. “Operation 136 of the Cobrapost rammed the knife deeper into the rot that has set in and exposed the dirty details. A free and independent press is the hallmark of a progressive democracy. But the growing corporatisation of news is changing it from a “public good” to a commodity that is sold to the highest bidder. This is bringing a profession, which is premised on the ‘high ideal’ of empowering citizens with proper information, into disrepute. The big media houses should not allow profit to trump over media responsibility and ethics.  If the media outlets stop being sources of information, and are simply echo chambers, they lose their credibility. What’s important here is the role of the editors. Editors should be journalists of integrity; those who protect their reporters from political and corporate pressure and train them to be discerning and objective,” said Dr. Sangeeta Mahapatra, Executive Editor, Business Economics, while talking to Media India Group.

 

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