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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Teaching Journalism Ethics, One Village at a Time

For centuries, the town of Vishakhapatnam in Southern India, or Vizag as it was known until recently, was a quaint little place on the Bay of Bengal, with a beautiful ocean view and an active port. The old town was comprised of Hindu temples dedicated to the goddess Kali and surrounded by the famous Chintapalli forests and Eastern Ghat Mountains.

Today Vishakhapatnam is a bustling city of two million with a large naval ship yard and a steel plant; it is also home to Andhra University, named after the state of Andhra Pradesh where the city is located. Established in 1926, Andhra University is one of the oldest universities in India, It has 70 departments and five campus colleges and an enrollment of 10,000 students. It is best known for its second vice chancellor, world-renowned philosopher, Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become the president of post-independent India.

Amid the shady coconut groves and old colonial structures of the university stands a modest three story, rain-stained building which houses the department of journalism with three full-time faculty members and about 60 students.

Students in the department come mostly from nearby small towns and villages like Vijaywada, Vijaynagara, Salure, Srikakalum, Narshipatnam, and Rajamundry. The department of journalism is one of the newest departments on campus, started in 1984. Professor Ramakrishna Challa has been teaching journalism here for the past 14 years. He has recently developed a course on journalism ethics which, he says, has become necessary part of the curriculum given the changing nature of global media and its impact on even a place like Vishakhapatnam.

Challa uses examples from his own life, which also gives us a microcosm of the larger changes taking place in media in the Indian subcontinent. He grew up in a tiny, thickly-forested tribal hamlet of Rajupakalu, about 50 kilometers or 25 miles from Vishakhapatnam’s town center. Families in his hamlet survived on subsistence farming, with no electricity, no schools, and no newspapers. Challa studied under a lantern and did not go to school until he was in sixth grade.

“I did not see a newspaper until I was thirteen and then I started reading newspapers regularly to expose myself to different languages,” he says.

Today, Challa says, Rajupakalu has 10 television sets and access to all major satellite channels – including channels in Telegu, the local language of the region, English, and Hindi.   Electricity has arrived, and ten copies of local newspapers are delivered every day. The government has built an elementary school four kilometers from the village, resulting in a dramatic rise in literacy.

“What is most important,” Challa says, is the rise in the kind of literacy where audiences now understand media content, which is “different from when I was growing up where literacy meant people could sign their names.”

In mofussils (small communities) like Rajupakalu, media has become more powerful than schools, government administration, and police. “People now look to media to give them both information and to provide redress to their problems,” says Challa. “People willingly go to media to seek information and to ask them to focus on their problems.”

For example, during a recent outbreak  of H1 N1 flu in India,  people in even small towns like Rajupakalu and Vishakhapatnam regularly sought information about the flu from newspapers and television, rather than depending on word-of-mouth.

Information “from the skies”

Changes in the past 15 years have been dramatic, says Challa, who worked for more than ten years as a journalist with a local newspaper, Deccan Herald, before starting his Ph.D. program at Andhra University.

“When I started my career as a journalist in 1985, there were four newspapers in Vishakhapatnam, both English and Telegu, and now we have four English newspapers, seven Telegu dailies, six local TV channels news, ten television news channels from Hyderabad, the capital of the state, who have reporters in Vishakhapatnam,” says Challa.

In 1985 there were no more than ten journalists working in Vishakhapatnam; in 2009 there are more than 500 print and electronic journalists living and working in the city for various newspapers and news channels, including the major Telegu, English, and Hindi cable news networks.

Like the rest of the economy, Indian media has been transformed by the rapid liberalization and deregulation that began in the early 1990s. While a vibrant and healthy democracy for 60 years, Indian economy had socialist leanings. However, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the Indian government of then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, faced a fiscal crisis and was forced to make policy changes which relaxed restrictions on multinationals.

Some of those companies then expanded and invested in the Indian market. It was the ‘onslaught from the skies’ that radically changed Indian media with the introduction of international satellite-distributed television. International television arrived with CNN’s coverage of the 1991 Gulf War. Between 1991 and 1995, several Indian satellite-based television services, prominently among them Zee TV and Sony TV, were launched.

Consequently, the Indian media economy changed considerably. Foreign channels like CNN and BBC World, and domestic channels like Zee TV, NDTV, and Sun TV, suddenly and explosively increased the demand for cable.

Before 1991, Indian viewers had received only two channels, but by 2008 they were receiving more than 100 channels. Before the policy reforms, Indian audiences had depended solely on a state-owned public broadcasting entity called Doordarshan to provide news; after reforms, Indian audiences could choose among several 24-hour news channels. Today, India is the third largest cable TV viewing nation in the world — after China and the US — with more than 110 million cable and TV households at the end of 2008.

Newspapers on the Rise

Unlike in the West where there has been a drop in newspaper circulation, India has witnessed an explosive growth in the print industry. With a sale of 107 million newspapers daily, India is the biggest newspaper market in the world and accounts for over 60% of world newspaper sales. And the competition among newspapers has drastically changed; major newspaper publishers and media companies have expanded into geographic regions (to competing cities and smaller markets like Vishakhapatnam), initiating price wars and strategically marketing campaigns to specific readerships.

The biggest beneficiaries of the 1990s economic reforms have been the vernacular press and regional language TV channels. In metropolitan cities such as Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai, cable packages can include up to 20 regional language channels, catering to a linguistically vast and diverse audience. Regional and vernacular media continue to garner the largest circulations.

In Vishakapatnam alone, there are three city-run cable news stations — Cable Vision, SDTV, and Media Vision — which cover local politics, events, weather, and human interest stories. Then there are HMTV, ETV, Eanadu TV, Maha TV, NTV, TV-9, TV-1, TV-5, Gemini TV, Teja TV, Zee News Telegu, and Sakshi TV, which all broadcast from Hyderabad, the state’s capital, and have reporters around Andhra Pradesh.

Also available to readers are several newspapers in Telegu: Andhra Jyoti, Vaarta, Andhra Bhoomi, Andhra Prabha, Vishal Andhra, Praja Sakti, and Tehse. The major English newspapers are The Hindu, The New Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle and Bay News, in addition to several smaller weeklies. (Consider trimming this to a “head count” of stations & papers, since the names won’t mean much to most readers.)

Ethics for a new generation of journalists

The expansion and saturation of media has made it imperative for academics to teach journalism in different ways. “At Andhra University we decided to organize a board of studies, comprised of academics and journalists, to help us develop a course in journalism ethics,” notes Challa. “When there were ten journalists in the city, there were no immediate pressures of discussing ethics, but with 500 journalists, ethics has become one of the most important topics of discussion.”

The Journalism department at Andhra University now has more than 200 alumni who are employed in various news channels and newspapers. “They tell us that no professional training of journalists is complete without training them in ethics,” says Challa.

The most pressing issue for educators, Challa explains, is that the rapid growth in media industry has not meant better quality journalism. “There can be a lot of coverage about one topic but it is done in a shoddy manner and stories are routinely sensationalized to the point that it can no longer be considered news.”

Professor Challa gave an example of a recent story by a Telegu news channel. A television reporter followed a man who had left his home in a village at the age of six, boarded a train and travelled to Delhi, India’s capital, 800 miles away. He reappeared 20 years later and asked the local news channel to track his parents. The reporter located his parents and siblings — now residing in an adjacent village – but they refused to be part of the news story.

To many viewers, the reporter has appeared to be harassing the family by following them around on-camera. “At one point [the reporter] asked the father if he would be willing to take a DNA test to prove or disprove his paternity. Such meaningless but bizarre stories have become common,” says Challa.

The department at Andhra University currently has 19 doctoral students and some of them are conducting research in journalism ethics on topics such as credibility, accountability, and independence in local newspapers and sensationalism of news.

“It is difficult to do research on journalism in India,” says Challa, “Unlike in other countries, we don’t have easy availability of archival materials, and while discussions of journalism ethics had always existed in newsrooms, researching and teaching has been a challenge.” In the main university library there are limited collections of books on journalism, no research journals on media and communication, and only two books on journalism ethics.

“Resources are limited,” says Challa enthusiastically. “But we must keep up with the changing times and make teaching journalism ethics a priority.”

SHAKUNTATO RAO is Professor of Communication at State University of New York, Plattsburgh, USA. She was a visiting lecturer at Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas and at La Universidad del Zulia in Maracaibo in November 2008.

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