A Media Watchdog in the sub-continent

Book Review
The Hoot Reader: Media Practice in Twenty-first Century India
Edited by: Sevanti Ninan & Subarno Chattarji

Oxford University Press, New Delhi: 2013

A Mirror to the Indian Media
As a watchdog in the democratic and liberal framework, the media’s role has come under immense scrutiny in recent times. The days of independent, objective and ‘journalism for a cause’ are long gone. In the current socio-political context wherein the media’s role in various events is being interrogated, the need for a media watchdog is acutely felt. Indeed ‘watching the watchdog’ is no mean task. The Hoot (www.thehoot.org) was established in 2001 with the aim of holding a mirror to the Indian media industry and over the years it has been carrying out this task with great acumen. The present book is a compilation of a series of articles, commentaries, analyses, pieces of research published over the years on the website. The proliferation and expansion of the Indian media industry especially in the post liberalization period catapulted the media’s role in different domains of the public sphere; however, there was no agency/body to perform the task of ensuring media accountability and transparency. The lacklustre arguments in favour of self-censorship, weak state of media laws in the country and non-adherence to media ethics contributed to the lack of a critical understanding and analysis with regard to the way Indian media operates. The present book is a manifestation of the need for a space where media representations can be questioned, alternative media practices can be discussed and the workings of the mainstream media can be critiqued.
There are several pertinent issues that the book addresses and it comes across as a refreshing take on the state of the media in India. The fact that it is a compilation of a series of deftly written articles makes it more exciting since it offers readers intellectual fodder on a wide range of issues – from locating caste and gender in the media to the debate about media ethics and the relationship between media and community. At this juncture, where many concerns are being raised about the way the Indian media industry is evolving and growing, the book has come out at a right time with deep inner reflections about issues that might not interest the mainstream media. Issues of gender, caste, ethics, conflict, justice, rights, marginalization, inclusiveness, objectivity, professionalism are ones rarely discussed in mainstream media discourse. These issues are complex and intricately embedded in the psyche of the Indian being, however do not find a place in media guided by commercial and business motives. A critical commentary on the nature of media coverage in the country, this reader succeeds in opening up several avenues of unthought-of and unexplored terrain of the Indian media. It is eye-opening not only for the reader but also for media professionals, media scholars, media researchers and others who have a stake in the media industry. It heralds media criticism and provides the much needed platform to bring it to spotlight.
The best part about the text is its reader-friendly approach and its contextualization of issues. Eg: In the section on ‘Caste in Media’ there are several pieces analysing the role of caste in the newsroom, media debates about the Mandal Commission and how the mainstream media tends to stereotype communities by its use of words and images. The reflections provided in some chapters may shatter the myth about the media being an egalitarian and free entity meant to uphold the values of democracy. In the chapter on ‘Gendered Media’, sections comment upon the commodification of women in various media forms relegating them to the domain of the ‘other’. The language employed by various articles in the reader is satirical, critical, amusing and tough all at the same time. No stone is left unturned to mince words about the way media chooses to ignore its duty as the fourth estate. Eg: In the piece on ‘Debating Media Ethics’, a discussion ensues on how appropriate sting operations are, the use of media by power brokers and the conflict of interest the media faces when it has to choose between pleasing people in power positions vs adhering to journalistic duties. The reader makes no attempt to hide uncomfortable truths about the practices of the Indian media industry. These facts are put up in the simplest of manner, engaging the reader into thought-provoking facts. The commentaries in the book have been crafted by media professionals and scholars of immense repute (Shivam Vij, Kalpana Sharma, Jyoti Punwani, Shailaja Bajpai, C.S.H.N Murthy are some of the reputed and recognized contributors) makeing it a more credible and interesting read. From scores of articles on the website, the reader is a balanced representation of those which are concurrent to contemporary realities and those which the average media consumer may easily related to. Eg: Questions of the relations between media and judiciary, the nature of crime reportage, freedom of expression and its consequences, media trial, media activism, public interest, sources used by the media, the cosy relationship between the media and police to name a few. Issues less important to media deliberations such as media and its role in the community, media business and threats to journalistic expression are also given due space and importance. Despite the fact that each article talks about a different issue, an attempt has been made to logically and coherently connect these articles within the backdrop of the socio-political milieu in the country. 
This reader is an honest attempt to sensitize the media consumer and encourage him/her to think beyond the variety of media issues that are a daily fare in the media landscape of India. Issues like new media, alternative media, communalism, terrorism and role of the media are also given due space.

In the wake of increasing power of the media, its enormous impact on audiences and its ability to reach to a large mass of people, this is one kind of effort in awakening the media consumer to the various hues of media practice as well as opening up a larger debate among the community of media professionals and scholars – as to what are the challenges and opportunities in front of the Indian media in present times. This reader reinforces the need for a media literate audience who do not consume media content passively and are socialized in questioning what the media feeds to them. In the backdrop of events where the Indian media has come under heavy criticism for sensationalizing and creating hype and voyeurism around serious issues, a publication of this nature and stature is welcome. Even as it presents a beginning to an understanding of the media and its working, it produces a grim and pessimistic picture of the media craft as practiced in this country. Any form of media criticism will be more welcoming if some of its energies and potentials are channelized towards discussing about and presenting solutions to intricate problems in the media. This reader though not very hopeful of the Indian media scene manages to put through a vibrant and dynamic picture of the same. It is a must read for anybody interested in the Indian media, especially for students and researchers in communication studies – as it will serve as a direction towards the various issues that can be researched and academically commented upon, eventually contributing to the growth of the communication discipline. It is a humble as well as a giant step in understanding the various constituencies dealt with by the Indian media – all laced into one. It is a story waiting to be told to and heard by scores of Indians for whom the media is an integral part of the daily dose of life.

Contents: Caste in Media – Conflict, Communalism, Terrorism – Same Story, Multiple Versions – Dissecting Media Practice – Gendered Media – Debating Media Ethics – Law, Justice, and Media – Media and the Community – New Media – Shacking the Press – The Media Business

About the Editors: Sevanti Ninan is the Founder-Editor of The Hoot, a media critic and a journalist. Subarno Chattarji is Associate Professor, Dept. of English, University of Delhi with widely published writings on the Indian media.

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