Shekhar Gupta (L), editor in chief, Indian Express and Sevanti Ninan (R), media critic, editor, thehoot.org
What does the term ‘Agenda Setting in Media’ imply to you?
SG: The basic job of media is to question, then through questioning is when you can set the agenda. But agenda setting in media has now become more about unthinking and non delivery. It’s all about ‘because somebody is doing it, everybody is doing it’.
SN: Agenda setting is basically deciding which issues should become a subject of public discourse by picking them up to run stories, or featuring TV discussions on them.
How does it help strengthen media’s influence? Can you quote an instance?
SG: In many ways... For example, campaign against corruption overall, strengthens media influence . In any case, if you are mindful of good agenda setting, you are bound to make an attempt in strengthening media’s positive influence on the society at large. Campaign for gender equality has been very effective, that was good agenda setting. Campaigns for literacy and education are example of good agenda setting. Campaigns for RTI (Right to Information), or smart use of RTI by journalists is good agenda setting. All of this helps a great deal in strengthening positive media influence.
SN: Media has the power to make something an issue or push it completely out of mind. Take its coverage of education. When it focuses on higher education at the cost of school education, it does so because it is catering to a certain class of readers. It attaches importance to IITs , IIMs and business schools, never to primary education or municipal schools. This is in the English language press, but I think it’s also true of the language press which has upwardly mobile readers and gets lots of advertising from coaching institutions. Agenda setting (as in the Anna agitation’s non stop coverage) also increases the power of media to decide what cititzens consider important as a national issue.
Is there a dark side to Agenda Setting in Media? What is it?
SG: Agenda setting has become more of a bhedchaal now. News channels are following an approach to news thinking they are running after their consumers. But all have their balance sheets getting affected. There’s no English news channel in this country which doesn’t make at least 30% of its turnover as loss. Whatever they are carrying as news is being done because of the intellectual vacuum, because of their inability to take a deep breath and realise that it’s not working. Nobody reads the basic documentation that’s coming out of these scams, CAG reports, Parliamentary proceedings or the actual orders of judges. It’s all gone into this ‘sab chor hain’ mindset. The dark side of agenda setting is that it has led to mob mentality of the worst kind.
SN: Dark is not a helpful word in this context. There is a negative side in general which is that the agenda setting that TV news does, for instance, is in line with the kind of audiences advertisers want to reach and the superficial concerns they might have. Confrontational topics are picked up, and questions are posed in a way which sets the agenda. Agenda setting can increase the divide between the privileged and the less so, by not focusing on the latter, except perhaps at election time. You set agenda by the way you pitch an issue, and also by the fact that you choose not to pick up an issue. Privately owned TV channels reduce their daily report on the state of nation in a sense by picking on a single topic that will sell and staying with through much of prime time.
Would you cite an example from the recent times where the dark side may have had a negative impact?
SG: I think what’s going on right now is more about making everybody a thief and just demanding that everybody be locked up in jail. It’s herd mentality, it’s definitely not agenda setting.
SN: I am not into dicussing a term like dark side because it does not define my concerns. There are disadvantages of skewed agenda setting.
What’s the most practical/rational way of fighting that dark side?
SG: I think news channels have to really think hard, it’s easy to say that I’m doing this for TRPs or because Times Now is doing this, but in that process 30% of your turnover is turning into losses, and that certainly means you don’t know what you are a market for. Having said that, I strongly feel that audience’s market will sort this out. After doing whatever the news media seem to be doing, they are making such huge losses that there’s bound to be redemption. Somebody will hopefully see that at least for product differentiation they have to start asking questions. And the questions should no more be pertaining to the traditional 5Ws and 1H of journalism. It has to be about the sixth ‘W’ now, which is ‘what next’!
SN: Fighting the skew, you mean? Regular monitoring of what the media covers and what it doesn’t, when tabulated, analysed and fed back to the media, would help them see how big a segment of the population they leave out when they project issues and concerns on TV or in print. English news magazines’ cover stories are a good example of agenda setting. How poor governance affects ordinary people on a daily basis requires reporting, researching and regular presenting. It would make the government far more accountable if that were done. Picking up some rubbish that Mani Shankar Aiyar may have uttered about Ajay Maken’s college is something that gets acres of TV time. That is a quickie class issue which you can sensationalise. To look at the kind of graduates different colleges produce, and where they fit in the job market is not sexy at all, but probably much more helpful to a country’s public discourse.