The New York Times quotes Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of American democracy as having said that “he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers.”
If such is the exalted status which a founder of the world’s oldest democracy gave to the media, it is perhaps important for the media in India to take itself more seriously, and get over its highly individualistic attempts at capturing the Indian market. I propose a few solutions geared to making the media more credible, and of greater utility:
1. Start with the entire industry agreeing to regulate itself, rather than force the government to clamp down on it.
2. Such regulation should cover:
a. Minimum standards of content,
b. Transparency regarding the methods by which it covers news and communicates it,
c. Investment in R&D – train young journalists thoroughly so that standards and ethics are in-built rather than enforced, and lastly,
d. A system of sanctions or penalties to ensure those violating these regulations do not get away with it. This is important as no system of rules can work without ensuring that there is a cost attached to not abiding by them.
It is imperative that the media agrees to govern itself. Everyone propounds that in the end, free-markets ensure the best results in terms of the final product, and motivating those entrepreneurs (read journalists) to get the best news possible. However, free markets work best when there is: a. complete transparency, and b. when there is a low-cost attached in operating in the market (read costs of infrastructure, broadcasting, production etc.).
Complete transparency, and a collective decision to abide by certain minimum standards in many cases, automatically reduces costs of operating in the market. Therefore, it is essential that there should be self-imposed regulations by which the entire industry agrees to operate.
There are numerous big, noteworthy associations of journalists and newspapers who can take the initiative to frame such regulations. It is increasingly important that some internal regulatory framework be created at the earliest.
A final analogy for the incentive to frame such regulations: Corporate Social Responsibility. One of the reasons companies indulge in CSR is that it increases their credibility within society, and creates a positive image regarding them and their products. So, they agree to perform certain activities which do not benefit them directly, but end up creating a positive vibe regarding them in society, which in the long run may benefit them.
The Indian media has to take time out from its daily rush to churn news out, and think in terms of gaining greater credibility in the eyes of consumers. This can only be done by agreeing to set common minimum standards, and letting their audience know that they are going to stick by them.