Monday, February 22, 2016

It’s a seething cauldron of emotion, the media must tread with caution

Incidents of the past few weeks have been rather disconcerting to say the least. Whether we are publishers or editors or journalists or technical managers working in newspaper presses, this is a matter that confronts us all.

The nation seems to be seized by a sudden pang of conscience. Words such as ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’ are being used in many of the conversations we hear. It all started off in institutes of learning, in universities, with students in the thick of things. The institutions read like a Who’s Who if a list were to be made – the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, IIT-Madras, Hyderabad Central University, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). With the storylines being similar, agitations have spread to other institutes and centres of learning. The cauldron started to simmer in January when Rohit Vemula, an Ambedkar Students Association leader at the Hyderabad Central University killed himself, leaving a suicide note that touched many hearts. Then things came to a head in the second week of February when JNU Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on sedition charges. In all the cases, the response from either the administration or the government has not been adequate to deal with what at times threatens to be a conflagration that could well devour everything in its wake if left unchecked.

What has been even more disconcerting is the role being played by the media in this whole thing. As it is, with feelings running high, the responsibility of the media in such cases is to be extremely cautious while reporting the events as they unfold, to ensure that everything is double-checked and that only facts are reported. However, the reporting by some journalists, especially by those working for television channels, has done little to instill confidence in readers/ viewers and to restore the faith of people in the media. It was sad day for journalism in India when it emerged that the video showing Kanhaiya Kumar raising incendiary slogans was allegedly a doctored one. The Hindu reported that four such videos were in circulation. The question many people are asking is how is it that when Kumar had not raised any anti-national or anti-India slogan, the videos doing the rounds of news channels showed something different. So, was an audio track superimposed on the video?


To make matters worse, there were accusations and counter-accusations between senior journalists, the one between the head of a prominent news channel and the co-founder of a prominent online news portal standing out. Of course, readers and viewers are fairly intelligent to judge for themselves. But the fact that there seems to be so much of dislike and animosity between members of the media fraternity is really sad and does not bode well for a healthy and robust media and for a healthy and robust democracy. And most of it really fuelled by competition, the race for readership, eyeballs and TRPs (television rating points), or whatever. In the midst of all the cacophony, where might seems to be always right, what the media is witnessing is further erosion of its credibility. It is I suppose also a reflection of the times we live in and symptomatic of a wider malaise that has crept in our society. If journalists can be beaten and threatened as we have seen happen at the Patiala House court complex after the Kanhaiya Kumar episode, we cannot stop wondering whether we are a tolerant country after all and whether the freedom of the press is in peril. For sure, we need far more sane voices within media than we have at the moment, to quieten the voices of incitement. It’s still a rather dark world. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Let’s be objective and let facts speak for themselves

Journalists may leave newspapers or magazines for varied reasons. Usually, the reasons trotted out are not being able to cope with work pressure or gaining a better opportunity, status-wise and salary-wise. One young journalist I bumped into a while ago said he was wanting to quit because the management of the newspaper he was working for, had come under a cloud. I told him if he was happy with his work and as long as the newspaper had a sizeable readership there was really no reason for him to contemplate quitting. But, of course, public perception plays a major role in many of the things we do, even if it has to do with a job. Even as a reader, for instance, being seen with a particular newspaper matters at times.

In journalism classes, everybody talks about following good editorial practices, adhering to ethics, the qualities a reporter should have, etc. There is not much focus on the ownership of a newspaper and how a newspaper needs to be run well commercially for it to be a successful product. ‘Commercially’ doesn’t just mean the economics of running something, it also means adopting the latest technology (printing presses and sundry), even sourcing the right newsprint so that the ink looks good on paper. Many of the newspapers in India are family-owned, there are very few that are run by trusts. Corporate ownership of the media is a relatively new development. Whatever be the form of ownership, it is clear that somebody has to own a newspaper. Even a corporate entity is backed by a human mind. So, owners are entitled to have opinions and a newspaper’s policy is normally charted out by the owner (s). Editors and journalists are expected to follow the policy and if for some reason they disagree or are unhappy following such policy, they have the freedom to leave.

Generally, the owner does not interfere in the day-to-day running of a newspaper and the editor is given a free hand. There have of course been numerous instances of pressure being brought to bear on editors to change course or editors being fired because they did not follow the policy laid down by the newspaper or ran an article or a series of articles to considerably upset the political dispensation. However, what a senior journalist told me a few days ago caught me by some surprise. According to her, an editor today can tweet about his preference for a political party and some senior journalists and columnists are setting themselves up as spokespersons and defenders of the ruling party or others. So, what about objectivity and ethics? What is disturbing is that it could set a dangerous precedent.


The fact is, many of our reporters and sub-editors, including those who work for top newspapers, do not know the rules enough and certainly not how to handle sensitive issues. They do not even refer to the style sheet. In the mad scramble for news and bytes, ‘checking’, ‘condensing’ and ‘clarifying’ have taken a back seat for some years now. How many young reporters today thoroughly know the subject they are covering, or even make an honest attempt to understand it? The record of our news media on accuracy even at the most basic level of journalism – reporting on a routine event – is not very inspiring. A lot of all that is manageable, but a mainstream news publisher repeatedly driving only a highly subjective point of view and trying to influence the opinion of readers or viewers by not presenting the other side of the story can be disastrous for journalism and all that it stands for. Let us steady the ship before it is too late.