We can no longer differentiate between a primary and a secondary source or for that matter between an anonymous one and one that can be identified.

Voices Thursday, July 03, 2014 - 05:30
By Chitra Subramaniam The concept of a public editor for a newspaper or a news organization is sound. We at The News Minute (TNM) read and reviewed New York Times (NYT) public editor Margaret Sullivan’s criticism of the paper’s recent coverage of Iraq between ourselves. The one question that stared us in the face was – why doesn’t this happen in India? And, as a corollary, we ask, what has to happen for this to happen in India?  Sullivan revisits the NYT’s coverage of the period leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the reporting and editorial position. With a decade-long perspective and perhaps as strong signal to journalists that story-telling and reporting may meet but must not mingle, she says the reporting was “lacking in needed skepticism” and was “flawed.” She also pulls up the newspaper for setting itself on a dangerous yet familiar path. Sullivan says far too much attention was given to the hawks, almost all of them unnamed therefore very likely the official position, and not enough to the doves in the administration who may have opposed the armed intervention. The balance was lost, and with it, the credibility of that piece of journalism.  That caught our attention too – familiar danger and the need for informed skepticism. Understanding both is critical to journalism and both cut both ways. Familiar danger speaks to friendly fire – war words – and necessary or needed skepticism is a journalist’s survival mantra. While it is important to cultivate naiveté so that facts not agenda drive the story, it is even more important to keep that naiveté well informed. How does one do it? How does an editor build a team that is naively well-informed and enterprising enough to differentiate between fire and friendly fire?  “I hope that the editors – on both the news and opinion sides – will think hard about whose voices and views will get amplification that comes with being in the Times,” Sullivan writes. The NYT is a very influential newspaper that belongs to one of the world’s most powerful countries. More people may have voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha 2014, but the voice of the American President – in this case President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama - has very different power and weight. For good or for worse, the paper’s voice is taken as gospel and the slide towards casualness as Iraq flares up is squarely addressed by the public editor. Read her piecehere.  Here are some questions we asked ourselves about the role of the public editor in India (The Hindu has one) and how independent that person would be. The issues on the table are: Spotting a story as opposed to sourcing an agenda or confirming a bias The examples are far too many to list and 24/7 television is the chief culprit. It’s a little easy to blame TRPs when one is inherently lazy. We can no longer differentiate between a primary and a secondary source or for that matter between an anonymous one and one that can be identified. That’s because there’s little accountability and that is presumably because there is no time to check and fact-check. The result is plants and counter plants that lead to false debates and even less credible solutions.  Solidarity, not slavery How many times in recent years has the media stood together when one member of the fraternity succeeds in cracking a story or secured a scoop? The first thing we do is criticize the journalist, forget the story and plant some more in the process to prove we are right. Corruption – money and intellectual – has replaced healthy competition between colleagues with the result that we now compete to reach the bottom first.  Fear is not an option for respect It is endemic. All journalists have at some time or another been pulled up by the editor or a senior colleague with the intention of mentoring or training. That’s what newsrooms are supposed to do. We have slipped far into known dangers and concocted convenience. Even our offices look like corporate offices complete with rarefied air and piped music. The editor as tyrant has long ceased to be a joke because it has become serious. A news room has to be honest with itself, create, debate, educate – time to bring the fun back, lead with knowledge, not fear.  Separation of editorial and business interests This does not exist in India – it’s as simple as that. The honest way would be to declare all interests so that the public can decide which one is a conflict and which isn't. Instead, we offer irrelevant information that seems respectful, but in effect, is the opposite. Businesses are heavily into investing in media reminiscent of the old adage – first generation makes money any which way, the second buys respectability by investing in newspapers and the third either blows it all up of buys paintings. Among the few things that money cannot buy is credibility and the poor image that people have of us journalists in India is a good example.  Back to basics Stop whining and start reporting. It is the job of politicians to lie, it is the job of big business to buy and sell influence and it is the job of journalists to be naively informed. Forget the urgent and do what is important and necessary. Buy a dictionary and a style book – this is serious. And finally, don’t assume anything especially that people don’t know or worse, they don’t care. They do, and they come armed with facts. That’s what Sullivan just told one of the world’s most important newspapers. You are never too big to fail or too small to tell.
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