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Media in India: Access, Practices, Concerns and Effects

CSDS study on ‘Media Consumption Behavior and its Effects in India’ jointly carried out by KAS and Lokniti, the research program of CSDS. It is the first of its kind conducted in India and based on a nationwide survey encompassing over 7,400 citizens earlier this year.

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There can be no denying that the Media, in its traditional, new and evolving forms, increasingly plays a crucial role in our day to day lives shaping our behaviour, attitudes and preferences. Its presence has become so ubiquitous and its quantity and variety so overwhelming that it could be argued that it has become very difficult for even the most recluse and disconnected person to be left
untouched by its impact in some way or the other. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the media in its various forms today permeates our cultures, societies, politics and our very bodies. Long
gone are the days when conventional media such as radio, newspapers and television constituted our only sources of knowledge and entertainment. The digitization of the physical world, the penetration of the internet, the proliferation of social media platforms
and streaming services, and the greater availability of budget-friendly smartphones and affordable data plans, has meant that the last decade, especially the last four to five years, have seen an explosion in the number of media choices that are available to
consumers to entertain and inform themselves and to interact with others. So diverse and continuously evolving is the array of media options now that even relatively newer terms such as multi-media, new media, alternative media, social media and even digital media fail to adequately capture the present media moment. 

While this rapid and dramatic transformation in the media landscape or ‘mediascape’ is of course a worldwide phenomenon and not restricted to any particular country as such, the sheer size of India’s population and market coupled with its religious and linguistic diversity, have made the story of growth of different forms of media even more remarkable and urgent in the case of India. This story has been both, good and bad, empowering and restrictive, at the same time. 

On the bright side the media in India, be it old or new media, has become an instrument and site of free expression, innovation, sharing of ideas, interconnectedness and an accommodation of diversity through the regionalization of content. The world’s most populous democracy has in fact bucked the global trend of a decline in conventional media sources, since parallel to the rise of online and digital media there has also been an exponential growth in the number of print publications and television channels. The Indian market has thus been able to accommodate the old with
the new.

On the dark side however, even as media quantity increases in India, there is a major crisis of credibility, quality and ethics as the race to grab eyeballs and advertising revenue has resulted in a ‘dumbing down’ of content. Not only that, the media in India has
also become a tool of certain vested interests to spread divisive propaganda, hate and disinformation resulting in a serious blow to the country’s social fabric. Furthermore, the Indian media is an arena that is seeing an enormous amount of corporate and government control as ruling parties and business corporations (in whose hands media ownership is increasingly concentrated) have been accused of working in tandem to subtly and sometimes directly pressure media outlets to produce favorable coverage and set agendas that suit their political and economic interests and
target the political opposition. Not only is this ‘media capture’ resulting in the compromising of content, it is also creating an environment of self-censorship by journalists, media persons and users who fear government retribution for expressing their opinions. Increasing state and corporate surveillance of people’s media-related activities, be they on phone or online, without any strong legal framework to protect their privacy, is another major concern.

Also of concern is the gradual cooption of internet and social media giants who are looking to expand their presence in the burgeoning Indian market and thus need the government’s help. These digital behemoths have been accused of bending to the diktats of the authorities to improve their business prospects (although of late there has been some resistance shown by some platforms) and of using their algorithms to make decisions about what kind of news and information reaches the public.

Thus the media in India and in many other parts of the world, particularly in countries that have authoritarian populist regimes, works today as a double-edged sword producing both favorable and unfavorable consequences – on the one hand it empowers and gives voice to many hitherto marginalized sections, but on the other it also controls and endangers the lives of many others.

It is also important to stress here that the Covid-19 pandemic and
the resultant lockdowns have only accelerated the trend of media ubiquity and surveillance, as people’s dependence on various media platforms and digital applications as sources of information
and entertainment have only increased further in these times of isolation. Covid-19 has also brought to the fore the issue of ‘digital divide’ or the unequal access of internet and information and
communication technologies. 

In the context of this media pervasiveness and its good, bad and
ugly implications for our society and democracy as briefly outlined above, the Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies undertook a comprehensive India-wide study of media consumption behaviour in India, perhaps the first of its kind in the country, to understand people’s day to day media practices and their media-related concerns and attitudes. Since the media in its varied forms can no longer be viewed as a single structure that produces uniform ‘media effects’, we studied both traditional and new practices. Our survey-based studies over the last two decades in fact show that older forms of media, although declining in usage, continue to command a very large share of the
market and thus still wield immense influence.

The study was conducted in 19 States in the month of January 2022 among over 7,400 citizens aged 15 years and above (see Methodology section to know the details). Unlike the many other media consumption surveys/ studies nowadays that are either
conducted only among city-dwellers or only among internet users, this study is based on a nationally representative and all-encompassing survey covering all segments of the society – the rural
as well as the urban citizens, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, men and women, and the non-literate as well as the educated. Moreover, it is not just limited to those who use internet
and smartphones but captures the experiences and perceptions of even those who do not yet have access to them.

This report has seven sections highlighting some of the key findings that emerged from the survey. Section 1 showcases the findings related to access to various media (television, newspapers, mobile phones, broadband internet etc.) by Indian homes. The idea is to offer a reality check on media access (particularly the unevenness of it) at the broad household level right at the outset. Section 2 shares the findings on media consumption and practices at the individual level with a focus on television, newspapers, radio and mobile phones. Section 3 details the trends and patterns related to usage of various social media and messaging platforms by Indians. Section 4 highlights people’s apprehensions related to new media – their concerns regarding fake news and misinformation and their anxiety with respect to invasion of privacy while using the internet and social media, as well as about growing surveillance and tracking of internet and phone activities. Section 5 focuses on people’s
engagement with news. It looks at their primary source for obtaining news and the extent to which they consume of different types of news media such as news channels and newspapers. It also highlights the results of survey questions that attempted to understand people’s news preferences. Section 6 is about people’s trust in the news media and their opinions on news media freedom, news media coverage and news media’s political neutrality.
Finally, Section 7 is on the effects, if any, that media consumption is having on political choices and whether the BJP continues to have the media advantage that it once did.

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