Finding old values in journalism

The New Indian Express carries an interesting overview of what everyone expects to be a new phase in journalism in Chennai, by Aditya Sinha. The neo-liberal shift in most industries has affected journalism in India and there is a crisis of identity for many newspapers, as they chase advertising and reinvent their editorial approaches. As Mr. Sinha puts it rightly, to survive in such a homogenised environment and to carve an identity for oneself in a sea of fluff is a difficult task.

To his credit, he goes back to the roots of Indian print journalism and tries to imagine a future that is actually rooted in tested — and universally applicable values that were nurtured in the pre-liberalisation era. That value comes from speaking up for the average citizen, resisting the pressure of authority, exposing corruption, communalism and many notorious isms that have flourished like cancer in our cash-rich corridors of power and influence. If indeed a paper is able to adhere to this philosophy, it will earn the goodwill of the reader and ensure its continued good health.

Print journalism is actually in an advantageous position vis-a-vis other media today, if it can retain its fundamental public service ethos. News television has plunged headlong into a ratings war, either looking for the shocking story that can be captured on camera with silly talking heads adding to the noise, or inventing new awards to be conferred on the leading lights of the day who wield influence in politics, business, entertainment and perhaps sport (all of which ensure direct and indirect earnings through carefully crafted advertising deals; these awards care less about science, medicine, public service and other less glamorous pursuits). Print, by contrast, can be sober, cool, very accountable and completely devastating by presenting facts that stare severely at crooks.

What is more, the power of the Internet can take the brilliant journalism that print has always been known for, to audiences far and wide. There studies such as Eyetrack by the Poynter Institute to enhance the visual impact of news websites. The sterling record of print is further enhanced by the vibrant blogosphere, where the good is broadcast to many millions, and the bad is deservedly rubbished. John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the UK Open University and a doyen of journalists at Wolfson College, Cambridge, analyses the evolving media landscape in an article in Wolfson’s most recent issue of its annual magazine.

Investigative journalism, in my view, is what distinguished print journalism everywhere. It continues to keep some journals head and shoulders above the Murdochian trash that is dressed up and pushed by many television channels. A return to investigation is what we need. It would be very arrogant for the press to conclude that Indian audiences have lost the taste for good journalism and that they care more for superficial concerns of the day; or that the rights of the less affluent do not matter to the high consuming middle class. Television has decided to treat everyone as dumb and passive recipients, staging artificial debates and building up self-important anchors rather than adopt a detached perspective towards people and events.

No one will argue against newspapers acquiring a sound financial footing in order to maintain their independence. That will help them pay their staff sufficiently (although journalism is not a profession for wealth-seekers by its very goal) and equally important, spend more on newsgathering. Ideally, building a corpus with contributions from readers and insulating themselves against all pressures, including those from advertisers would be the best way to go.

All of which brings us to the question of the environment in which journalists work today. Technology has evolved to a point when even video communication is instantaneous and in real time. Mobile phones are now powerful tools that don’t merely communicate, but record evidence with sound and images. The World Wide Web presents credible sources, including original documents, for background, data and analysis. The law is genuinely helpful. The Right to Information Act 2005 is perhaps one of the most powerfuls laws ever to be available to the press in India. It is second only to the strong interpretations of press freedoms by the Supreme Court in the context of fundamental rights.

At the moment, many crooks in political parties are using the law to settle personal scores for nothing loftier than the ability to hobble their opponents. The media, which should be using the Act to expose all crooks is strangely silent about it. Not many journalists even know what the law can do and others have less than a foggy idea of how to use it. For them to practice a more vibrant kind of print journalism, the kind that Mr. Sinha envisages for his paper, managements should be devoting themselves to infusing confidence among their journalists and teaching them how to use it.  Those that hesitate to take on authority, and find merit only in the advertising market, have chosen to move to the shade.

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