Newspapers and magazines on display at a newsstand Rajkumar/Mint via Getty Images

Tabloid India

Indian media today report news recklessly, and, in the interest of ratings, focus on ephemera that have no impact on the public welfare. But trivializing public discourse and abdicating their responsibility as facilitators and protectors of democracy has cost Indian journalists dearly in terms of public trust.

NEW DELHI – When the Bollywood superstar Sridevi Kapoor drowned last month, at age 54, in a bathtub in a Dubai hotel, coverage of her tragic death once again showcased all that is wrong with Indian media. Sridevi – who, after a 15-year hiatus, had made a spectacularly successful return to the silver screen in two mega-hits in the last six years – led a modest and conventional life with her husband, film producer Boney Kapoor, and their teenage daughters. She did not dress or behave in ways that would serve as tabloid fodder or fuel lurid speculation.

Yet Sridevi’s death became the subject of ghoulish stories, particularly on television, about what might have happened behind the closed door of her bathroom, with one TV anchor even attempting to enact a bathtub drowning. A politician notorious for leaping onto every available conspiracy theory went so far as to suggest foul play.

Welcome to India’s extraordinary media environment, in which the Fourth Estate serves as witness, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. With far too many channels competing 24/7 for the same sets of eyeballs and target rating points (TRPs), television news has long since abandoned any pretense of providing a public service, and instead blatantly privileges sensation over substance. (Indian TV epitomizes the old crack about why television is called a medium: because it is neither rare nor well done.)

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