Monday, December 05, 2016

Why the media needs a crash course in journalism and more

Earlier today, I was drawn to an article on The News Minute website with the headline, ‘Jayalalithaa’s health and why the media needs a crash course in social media verification. The article was by Kalyan Arun, faculty member at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and former journalist at The Indian Express. 

What had riled Arun was the fact that, while reporting on Jayalalithaa’s health, the media had “lapped up... (WhatsApp) forwards of unknown origins and parroted them as gospel truth”, that television channel reporters had announced a holiday being declared for schools and colleges that come within the ambit of Madras University and Anna University, when that was not the case.

Arun uses strong words when he says that “some journalists, sitting in newsrooms of television channels, as well as some of the reporters on the field (outside Apollo Hospitals) seemed to have suspended their common sense in accepting this forward as gospel truth without any verification”. He adds that the reporter of one TV channel even quoted from a WhatsApp forward to ‘confirm’ the news.

Responding to Arun’s article, senior journalist Vincent D’Souza, publisher, Mylapore Times, had this to say: “To NDTV's credit, the anchor did keep telling viewers not to be taken in by WhatsApp messages on Sec144/schools closure, etc. Apollo and other private and state-run organisations can learn a lot on how they must handle their communications in the public space.
And yes, we all need a course on social media and news; but how many media folks / organs want to really learn / unlearn?”

Vincent wonders whether ACJ (social media sourcing and verification is part of the curriculum at the college) and the Press Institute of India could conduct such courses and, if they did, how many journalists would seriously want to learn. Arun feels there is a distinct aversion among the journalist fraternity towards organised skill enhancement. And I agree.

My thing in this has always been: If you wish to follow the fundamentals of good journalism (truth-telling / honesty), then you have to check, double-check and clarify at every stage. That's what we were taught in journalism classes years ago. But the point is how many journalists today would want to go the extra mile when the battle seems largely poised at getting there first, not getting it right?

In the mad scramble for news and bytes, ‘checking’, ‘condensing’ and ‘clarifying’ have taken a back seat. How many young reporters today thoroughly know the subject they are covering, or even make an honest attempt to understand it? How many have the patience for legwork and the desire to put in hard hours of work to get to the bottom of a story, rather than ‘Googling’ up information or using the mobile phone to network and put together a hastily written piece?

Youngsters today have good opportunities to train or apprentice. But is there appreciable improvement in the quality of journalism? There is widespread agreement both within the profession and among the public that media output has been deteriorating in terms of both language and substance. 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. 

Accuracy, fairness and balance have taken a beating. Often the main points made at the event are missing.  Facts are often randomly selected for inclusion, the main points made at an event are missing, facts are rarely presented with the context necessary for a reader to make sense of them, direct quotes attributed to speakers are often not correct and sometimes even attributed to the wrong speaker.

Creating frenzy by appealing to the emotions, not the mind; ignoring reality and any search for uncomfortable truth ... that is the media of today. Sitting at your desk and making a couple of calls for quotes or arriving with a mike for two sentences is anything but good journalism. So long as journalists do not go for the solid substance of a story and seek only quotes or report only excerpts from rabble rousing speeches by confrontationists on major issues, the Indian media will continue to be seen only as tabloidish entertainment.

Postscript (a day after): Some of the Tamil television channels reporting Jayalalithaa's death yesterday much before Apollo Hospitals came up with a statement is yet another example of desperately trying to get there first and not doing it right. The right thing would have been to wait for the hospital's statement or official confirmation before going public, even if credible sources had indeed confirmed the inevitable hours earlier.