Heady with India’s growth story, this class often tends to ignore—or even detest—media reports that point out the large-scale inequality, deprivation, and lawlessness that still pervade much of India. The typical urban media consumer does not want to read much about India’s villages, where three-fourths of all reported rapes happen; it does not want to read about the Indian army’s alleged crimes against women in Kashmir or Maoist areas; it does not want to hear about rapes of Dalits, the most marginalized people in India’s caste hierarchy.
Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, pointed to this class bias in a powerful essay, “The Glories and Blemishes of the Indian News Media,” published by The Hindu in January 2012. As Sen wrote:
Since the fortunate group includes not only business leaders and the professional classes, but also the bulk of the country’s intellectuals, the story of unusual national advancement gets, directly or indirectly, much aired—making an alleged reality out of what is at best a very partial story.
What also holds back the Indian media from strong investigative or explanatory journalism, from tackling pressing issues like corruption, is the excessive profit-mindedness of the owners and the influence of their corporate advertisers. A December 2012 report by Caravan magazine detailed the profits-first, journalism-second thinking inside The Times of India, the world’s largest-selling newspaper. “The job of the newspaper is to deliver the reader to the advertiser,” a corporate manager is quoted as saying.
India’s newspaper industry is one of the most profitable in the world, in a country with improving literacy rates and low Internet penetration, at least so far. Between 2005 and 2009 for example, there was a 44 percent increase in the number of daily newspapers, to
2,700. The total number of newspapers, meanwhile, increased by 23 percent—to more than 74,000. In terms of readership, India overtook China in 2008 as the world’s largest newspaper market. Though hit by recession, major Indian publications are still adding anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000 readers every quarter.
This won’t last forever. While Internet penetration currently stands at just above 10 percent of the population, a recent McKinsey analysis predicts that this number will nearly triple, with 350 million Indians having Internet access by 2015, driven largely by Web-enabled mobile phones. Analysts say the industry is in for a bit of a shock in the next few years, unless it also learns to master the Internet.
An unfortunate victim of the industry’s deep thirst for profit, meanwhile, has been the quality of its journalism. Just about every part of the newspaper up for sale, in a cutthroat competition to maximize ad revenues and reduce selling price in order to gain more readers. Since India’s largest corporations either own the press or are its largest advertisers, most big publications shy away from stories on crony capitalism. The press stands accused of trivializing news—churning out sponsored Bollywood and society gossip columns while ignoring issues of development and outsourcing the job of exposing corruption to social activists.
So it was bracing to see the media coalesce around an issue of great
public importance for once, asking uncomfortable questions and unearthing moving details of the Delhi rape and its aftermath, and exploring the reasons behind the nation’s high rate of sexual assualt—an effort that has kept the issue alive in the public consciousness.
Has Indian journalism taken a new turn after this story? Perhaps not. Not until media executives are convinced that serious news can be good business in the long run.
Still, something feels changed in the wake of this crime and its coverage. One detail: the victim’s name has been published. It was released by her father, Badri Singh, who told reporters that she had wanted to become a doctor, that the family’s life had revolved around her, and that “we want the world to know her real name.” She died of a heart attack under medical care on December 29. She was 23. Her name was Jyoti Singh.