Some thoughts as the I&B ministry mulls media guidelines

Flix Tuesday, February 03, 2015 - 05:30
Chitra Subramaniam| The News Minute| February 3, 2015| 5.41 pm IST Journalism is based on an intangible good called trust. Those who know how to trust and be trusted have a strategic advantage over others. This does not happen overnight, it has to be earned over time accompanied by thought, discipline and humility. Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Arun Jaitley has made a few remarks over the past weeks to the media and bureaucrats about the importance of restraint in reporting and why propaganda is not news. He has also compared news networks in India to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) saying while the latter informs him, the former is a one-sided conversation with news anchors and regular talking heads pontificating on issues day in and day out.  The setting The media does not live and thrive in isolation. It is a reflection of the society it lives in. Newsrooms are mirrors, made in the mould that surrounds them. The BBC reflects the culture where it is nurtured and grows as do all news organisations in the world. Dumbing down in news rooms is an international phenomenon made worse in countries like India where several languages other than English are spoken (compared to the United Kingdom or the United States of America). The social media has come in to question mainstream media reporting without bringing in requisite accountability and discipline. Today, anyone can post stories on the internet but the receiving side of the equation has not necessarily become more responsible. It will take time before a balance emerges. As the I&B ministry works on a blueprint for media guideline/directives on this issue, here are some thoughts. It would be immensely helpful if various government agencies and ministers stop tweeting at cross-purposes. While this may not be intentional, it comes across as ham-handed at best and conspiratorial at worst. In the long run, the importance of the ministry must be examined as it is a relic of an era gone by.  Reporting on wars and terrorism This is perhaps the most contentious of issues that any government has confronted. It must be discussed threadbare and rules that emerge must be water-tight. As a people, we are not law abiding and cannot tell the discipline between discipline and dictation. Generally people who fear disciplines are also the ones who have no work habits.  Secondly, when does the right to report become secondary to national security as well as the security of journalists? Bravado is not journalism - it is stupidity and vanity masquerading as reportage. In such situations where to be first at any cost puts in danger not just the military/counter terrorism operation underway, it also exposes critical information to the enemies. As wars move into cities and townships, the challenge multiplies.  Embedded journalists are generally fed information and stories are legion where journalists repeat each other. Both the Gulf Wars (Iraq) blew gaping holes into media-government relationships when the story of weapons of mass destruction crashed into a heap of nonsense. Even when the world saw reporters in jeans filming the detection of such weapons by people dressed in what looked like space suits complete with gloves and masks, no questions were asked. Such is the power and danger of collective stupidity.  Journalists will always want to know more and governments will always want to reveal less in such situations, especially if it concerns civilian warfare or counter-terrorism. Encounters and extra-judicial killings fall in this category and for the moment I have no answer because my faith in the country’s institutions is currently low. My faith in Indian journalism is not and I suffer cynics badly. Politicians and bureaucrats have got used to planting stories in the media to serve their ends and large sections of the media have played along.  Newsrooms For Make in India to be truly meaningful, it has first to make for Indians. I use this example to highlight the fact that newsrooms cannot tell stories that have not been put through normal rigour and journalistic practices. There is nothing called old fashioned and new-fangled journalism. Returning to active journalism after a gap and having lived and worked in several democracies (and other sectors) I notice how blatantly stories are spun, planted and killed. Few understand the importance of two independent sources per fact because what is factual is in question. Slander, defamation, lies and blatant plants and agenda-driven leaks rule the roost in a climate where primary and secondary sources are mixed.  This is not a new finding but – what is new is how blatant and open it has now become accompanied with enticements and bribes. I am sure this happens in newsrooms around the world perhaps with one critical difference – if an editor is found out, s/he is rarely recycled and held in high regard. In this connection, I share a recent piece in Quartz about how The Economist selected its first woman editor. It shows the process and the cailbre of the newsroom. The journalists were asked in an internal email to pick the person they preferred. The mail did not leak – something unimaginable in other countries, especially in India. I was weaned on the magazine and while I do not agree with their political views their method of work remains impeccable. These are two different issues – method of work, rigour, fact checks have nothing to do with editorial positions. If the last influences the first three, you are looking at an agenda. Read the story of The Economist here, required not only for journalists but for all who are in decision-making positions.  The reporter Finally, it comes down to the person in charge – the editor. No good law can change a corrupt editor and no bad law can turn an honest editor a crook. Here it is critical for the public to know who the shareholders are. That in itself is not a sufficient condition for good journalism, but it informs the public about where the media company is coming from. If an editor revels in access journalism as the first point of contact, accountability journalism will eventually suffer and shabby reporting will grow. This is not about morality versus ethics as they are too are different issues. Morality is a personal compass and ethics is a work place requirement. An editor can bring up the rear in both or lead by example across the spectrum.  Corruption in newsrooms can be intellectual, ethical and financial. In a situation where organisations are family owned and reporters are also share-holders, a reporter who is not in this category is always at a disadvantage. I have made this point on several occasions, it bears repetition. Summary dismissals, flimsy and false accusations and mass firings are common. Increasingly, businesspeople with large fortunes have turned to financing media houses which in principle cover for and with the corporation. This has led to journalists turning to the marketing and public relations industry en masse as employment opportunities and career progress diminish in journalism.  Domain knowledge It matters, because a lack of domain knowledge shows up like a fly in the ointment. It shows up when reporters and editors cannot tell sense from nonsense, fact from a construction. Trade, public health, relations with other countries, institutional mechanisms are big-ticket items on India’s agenda now. It is nonsensical to impart expertise on these issues without having a firm grounding about how these issues are addressed domestically. You will never know if someone is breaking a law unless you have the required knowledge of the law in your country. I have seen journalists who cannot read a profit and loss statement reporting on a company’s earnings, I have seen journalists with no grounding in epidemiology reporting on mortality, morbidity and intricate panoply of health statistics. In an ideal newsroom science, economics, legislation and litigation should be adequately understood.  Finally I do not share the widely-held view that news networks are responsible for the degradation in media standards in India. If that is the case then politicians, bureaucrats, the corporate world, academia, civil society groups and talking heads – all of whom plant stories and deny them the next day - are equally to blame. As a journalist, I would suggest that let others do their work and let us do ours, clearing a space we can all own and respect.  Tweet Follow @thenewsminute
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