Tabloidisation of media
It was a very stimulating discussion. Students had a number of questions on where the media is headed for. There was a sense of concern among the students on what they said was "decline of serious journalism". Mr Sathyamurthy said whether it be tabloids or broadsheets all types of publications had their place in a society. Mr Grover said often ideal methods were overtaken by practical constraints and realities. All of us touched upon the diversity of Indian media and choices people have today to pick the media of their liking.
I put forward my views on tabloidisation in a paper which I presented at the seminar. The following the full text:
Dear members of the panel, Principal, members of the faculty and students,
First, let me thank the Bishop Cotton Women's Christian College for inviting me to this seminar.
In a way, I am quite pleased that we have this topic of "Tabloidisation of Media". Not least because it's an easy one to speak on. I am pleased because we have today an opportunity to discuss what tabloidisation actually is.
Personally, I feel tabloidisation is a much misunderstood term, leading some people to even make almost dooms-day predictions of journalism's imminent death. Incidentally, there are some people who feel journalism is already dead!
Well, I have my own views about it. So, let me very categorically say that whatever is happening around us, journalism has only, quite contrary to popular beliefs, got more vibrant and serious.
Let me present to your four postulates on this topic:
One, tabloidisation is not the same thing as becoming a tabloid.
Two, there's nothing to be alarmed about this change.
Three, tabloidisation is not a dirty word.
And, four, we haven't seen the last of the changes.
I shall dwell upon these as we go along. At the outset I wish to strongly assert that the current global wave of tabloidisation -- which is just about 10 years old -- is nothing related to the typical tabloids which have been in existence for around 100 years.
Tabloidisation is one thing, tabloids are another. A tabloidised media has not necessarily become a tabloid. The Indian media – both electronic and print – have become tabloidised to various extents. But they haven't become tabloids themselves.
I hope this distinction is getting clearer. Hopefully it'll become as we go along.
Let us see what constitutes a tabloid and what constitutes tabloidisation? The crucial difference between the two lies in the message.
Tabloid is a concept wherein the message is not serious in nature. The first tabloids appeared in early 1920s; and prominent among them was the New York Daily News. For the first time, as tabloids, they came out in half the size of a normal newspaper.
A tabloid is a product. The oddities and the trivial occupy more space than serious issues like education, science, foreign policy, economic policy etc.
What characterises a tabloid typically is the 3-S formula: Sex, Scandal and Sports. More than half the space of these tabloids was taken up by detailed reportage on crime, gangwars, bootlegging, sex and financial scandals.
Typical tabloids of early days, gave lots of importance to murder trials and love affairs. Some 20 per cent of space was devoted to sports, racing results etc. Serious issues were completely avoided.
If you look at the English language tabloids in our country, they don't even fit this description, except in the size of the paper and probably the use of big photos. Not only that, they also cover serious issues, probably from a different angle. Actual tabloids can be found in the vernacular press.
What is tabloidisation
Tabloidisation at one level is demystification of everything that is academic; use of colours, use of graphics, illustrations etc. Tabloidisation at another level is giving emphasis to individuals rather than the state. Tabloidisation is more of practicals and less of theory. Less of concepts and more of reality.
Why do we have this issue of tabloidisation staring at us?
There is a one-word answer to that: technology; and if I may add one more word, Information Technology. We are in the midst of an extremely dynamic era in the whole history of our civilisation. There haven't been many inventions like the computer and the internet which has had such a dramatic influence on our daily lives.
When this is the case, I really don't understand how journalism can be isolated and insulated from these changes. Journalism is a social science. And, it evolves as the society evolves. The changes in journalism are only a reflection of changes in other aspects of our daily lives.
We live in an era of multimedia. There are multiple means of getting information. News spreads the fastest through the mobile phone network. Radio and television come after that. Technology has redefined not just news value but the manner in which news is disseminated.
Look at the growth of blogs. Conventional media, both print and electronic, have acknowledged their presence. The news and views given by a citizen journalist is valued as much as that of a veteran journalist. It's no longer a one-way flow of information from the media to the people, there is an equal measure of reverse flow.
I hope you may have noticed how one TV news channel last week began a programme called My News, wherein the viewers are given an opportunity to select which news item they want to watch. Every news organisation has become highly interactive.
Don't be alarmed
This brings me to my second postulate. Don't press any panic button, because journalism has got tabloidised. There is nothing to be alarmed. As I said before, serious journalism is still vibrant, much less dead. Why do I say that? Because I see it all around me. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open, be a bit more perceptive to what is printed and telecast. I'd even go to the extent of saying that serious journalism has only got more serious now.
Examples are aplenty. Let us take one: last year's flood in Mumbai and Bangalore. I don't think at any point in Indian journalism floods got, not just such an extensive, but such an incisive coverage in our media. Issues were dug out and examined with clinical precision – the issue of unplanned development; lack of an administration that a metropolis like Mumbai or an upcoming global city like Bangalore should have; the inability to handle growth of the slums; the skewed pattern of development wherein tier 2 and 3 cities don't get official patronage; so on and so forth.
Now, here in Bangalore we have a very serious issue of over 1,000 schools being shut down, midway through the year, and students and teachers being left in the lurch. This is a serious issue, one that is concerning students' education and future. Media has taken up this.
Another example is infrastructure and civic amenities. The Bangalore media have taken up very seriously this issue.
Yet another is health issues. One newspaper recently carried an article on how doctors are discovering Uric Acid as the new villain, in lifestyle diseases.
Don't be shy
Just as we needn't be alarmed about tabloidisation, we needn't be shy about it: because I interpret tabloidisation as a democratisation of news; a process of demystification.
A recent issue of Newsweek has on its cover, the topic of many families the world over preferring not to have children. One may argue that it is personal matter for a couple. Why should it make it to the cover of an international news magazine. But, this is a very relevant topical issue; and can't viewed as sensationalism.
In the public domain, in the common parlance, the tabloid does have a negative connotation. That could be one reason, why the venerable Times of London decided to use the word compact instead of tabloid when they converted the paper to tabloid size on Nov 1, 2004.
When Amitabh Bachchan had to undergo a major surgery and also when Vajpayee had to undergo a knee-replacement, media had a lot of reports on the medical aspects of it; trying to demystify the issue for the reader. Newspapers and magazines carried a number of illustrations on medical problem and the surgical processes.
When a newspaper carried an illustration of the abdominal area to explain better what Amitabh's illness actually was, one person told me, that the newspaper was invading the privacy of the great actor, the illustration was in bad taste, that there was no need to explain his illness in such detail etc. A very similar point was raised about Vajpayee's knee. Why the PM's knee so important? Is it more important than the Prime Minister's views on our country's secular fabric?
In both cases the point that was missed was that a lot of scientific and educative input had gone into the reportage. It was not just a picture of the abdominal area.
It's not over yet
We haven't seen the last of anything, that's my last postulate. Tabloidisation itself is in various forms and degrees. The clear-cut demarcation between highbrow journalism which broadsheets pursued and the lowbrow journalism that tabloids followed, is gradually getting diffused. A lot of grey area has crept in, probably one reason why there is a lot of confusion over this change.
Today we have a lot of middlebrow journalism. While broadsheets are getting more informative and entertaining, tabloids aren't ignoring serious issues either. Today, if you look at some of our tabloids it's not all entertainment and gossip. There are lots of articles worth reading.
Let me conclude with a suggestion to the students. Try to understand contemporary media. Merely noticing the changes in journalism today is just half the job done. Try to look at them in the context of social evolution. Learn how media profile has changed over the years, how it is changing today, and how it could change further. Evaluate and understand the different roles media have played at differnt periods in history. That would give a better picture of the changing scenario and also help you understand this change better.