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.