Why The Indian Cultural Zeitgeist Is Choosing Independent Journalism Over Big News

Homegrown YouTubers are garnering more followers than mainstream news media.
Homegrown YouTubers are garnering more followers than mainstream news media.L: YouTube (Dhruv Rathee), R: BBC News

The searching beam of a smartphone’s flash has shone across the gulf of information clampdown like a lighthouse to guide weary sailors at night. Whether this be the leaked video of two women being paraded naked in Manipur or the fact that our Prime Minister was the world’s third-most followed leader on Twitter in 2018, social media has illuminated the age of darkness for Indian political engagement and citizen journalism, compelling the legacy media brands to push harder in gaining the public’s trust. In fact, I am worried that people like my octogenarian grandmother believe close to everything they learn about from forwarded messages on WhatsApp. When Reporters Without Borders calculated their World Press Freedom Score this year, we could see the trust on average that Indians retain in their mainstream news outlets and public broadcasters dip to a record 38%, the worst it has ever been.

With content creator Dhruv Rathee crossing more than 12 million followers on YouTube, simply because his videos are highly accessible in style and encourage his viewers to be critical thinkers, India’s current affairs and edutainment space is slowly being inhabited by more such channels like Abhi and Niyu or Unfiltered by Samdish that are setting up shop in the abandoned strip mall that used to be the Fourth Estate.

A pejorative term called ‘Godi media’ invented and widely publicised by ex-NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar raises an accusatory finger at those media organisations that align themselves with the ruling party of the country to appear more politically correct — a sentiment mirrored by those from my father’s generation who insist that the press has sold its soul — calling out sensationalist journalism that eschews objectivity and perpetuates propaganda. However digital born brands like Newslaundry, which are essentially funded by viewer subscriptions and donations are also actively disparaged and at the receiving end of continuous harassment, while similar condemnation is conferred upon other independent news sources like The Wire or Scroll.in for taking a powerful editorial stance that is often countercultural and investigative in nature.

To highlight the trajectory of our news consumption behaviour
To highlight the trajectory of our news consumption behaviourindia.mom-gmr.org

From death threats against prominent (often female) journalists to strategically timed tax evasion raids within media offices, the once feared institution of the press now faces subjugation under the family ownership structure with the latest takeover of NDTV by Gautam Adani, who openly supports the sitting Prime Minister. There is a lingering suspicion among the masses that not only are vested interests a determining factor of what gets written about but also that the media is negligent about important issues, generally impacting indigenous communities or critical of the current regime, trembling at the idea of unintentionally courting sedition or anti-nationalism. When a barely-known YouTube channel called 'The String' published a video on 11 February 2021 blustering about how some of India’s most eminent journalists should “be hanged”, Dhruv Rathee was name dropped in the same breath as Faye D’Souza or Barkha Dutt, who famously defected from corporate media houses and are now running their own digital news channels.

Other than the declining levels of trust and engagement, conventional publications are also having to weather the storm of information explosion and selective news avoidance, branded as ‘draining’ or ‘anxiety-inducing’ for the stories they are running. In comparison, influencers and video essayists are marrying nuanced storytelling with satisfying animations or infographics, generating more subscribers with their explainer videos than established news channels on social media. There might also be another possible factor at play for why we feel validated by these content creators — of having a younger, more relatable face who is breaking down complicated bureaucratic red tape in a language and tone, that is more colloquial and less stentorian — while traditional newsrooms are still exhibiting a disturbing lack of diversity in its reporters and anchors.

A screenshot of the video that was later taken down by YouTube for hate speech.
A screenshot of the video that was later taken down by YouTube for hate speech.article-14.com

According to the 2023 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, more than 72% of Indians consume news on their smartphones, almost half of them reading or watching it through social media apps such as WhatsApp (51%) and YouTube (53%). Moreover with the “Jio effect” triggered in 2016, affordable internet plans brought crores of Indians bars of cellular data for the first time. This is a far cry from the radio segments, dailies and magazines that my grandmother grew up with, tracing the fascinating individualism that has seeped into our consuming behaviour towards information. But somehow, paradoxically, the patterns of how we exchange and recycle data has also become more participative. The modern consumers are feeling empowered and included through posting comments, logging into online news feeds running live for 24 hours a day and filling up user surveys and polls.

Recognising this cultural shift, more journalists like Abhisar Sharma, Sakshi Joshi, Ravish Kumar among others have checked out of mainstream news and the editorial oversight that comes with it. However such political YouTubers from a professional journalism background such as Ajit Anjum, Noopur Patel, Vikas Tiwari, Deepak Sharma, Aman Gupta — who are trying to speak truth to power — are not exempt from the pressure applied on TV News Channels. Under Rule 16 of the Information Technology Rules, the Central government has an “emergency” backup plan to instantly block any content without giving due hearing.

The arrest of Abhishek Mishra in 2016 for his excoriating videos about demonetisation or more recently of Sanjay Rana this year, illustrate how precariously fraught is the notion of accountability, regardless of whether it's expected by a lay person or a journalist in our country.

With the lines between citizen and trained journalism blurring in our country, the risk of misinformation and echo chambers lurking in the shadows cast by the behemoths of Godi media, it is becoming now more crucial to verify and curate where we are obtaining our information from. In the age of deep fakes and paid news, the ability to discern what’s relevant to our lives is suffering from wilting attention spans and scrolling fatigue, desensitising us to the plight of those who are far away from our social circles. We would rather believe what pops up on our feed than take the time out to follow digital breadcrumbs and find the clearing in the forest where facts are untethered from socio-cultural prejudices.

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