There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.
— Walter Lippmann
In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity. Good journalists are amongst the most dexterous and skilled people in the world — and also the most respected. We have all benefited from the work of indefatigable journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line for truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate truth.
In recent times, the noble values of this equally noble profession have suffered considerable and irreparable erosion. Some of the desperately ambitious, and those ideologically rooted in a particular conviction, have taken a dangerously wrong turn, all in the allurement of instant fame. This is best summed up by the unwritten mantra of many digital newsrooms: “We might get it wrong, but we’re not wrong for long.”
There is no disputing that, like politics, journalism is the fastest ladder to name, fame and fortune — the last being true in several, but not all cases. The great author Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sitdown at a typewriter and bleed.”
Once, the idea was that even a certain level of error was anathema to any news editor. But it’s pretty clear that’s not the case anymore. Journalists often function as megaphones for political parties, relaying their viewpoint rather than contextualising and analysing them. There is a sharp rise in the influence of partisan voices, spin doctors and surrogates in shaping of public opinion.
The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s influence. The world has changed, however, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered in terms of its reputation. Values are not what matter most, and this is a good time to pause, reflect and talk about them. And to reaffirm what we journalists should stand for. Journalism has a key role to play in shaping public mind and the damage a corrupted media can cause is colossal.
In an age of social media, where stories can go viral in much shorter spaces of time than before, one would think that it would become ever more important from an ethical point of view for stories to be reported accurately.
Over the years, the press has become the most powerful body the world over and is able to form public opinion. But in order to be deserving of freedom, the press must show itself worthy of it. A free press must be a responsible press, its credibility and neutrality beyond the slightest reproach.
Good journalism requires attentive listening to diverse sources, dogged examination and analysis of data and evidence, and close observation of policies and institutions. It takes time and skill, and requires support of editors and other news leaders who live in the community and are aware about it. It does not necessarily guarantee publishers a return in eye-popping audience numbers but certainly leads to an enlightened and well informed society.
The journalist’s task has become much more difficult on account of the wider segmentation of the reader. There is almost an equal division of readers holding allegiance to contrasting values and accordingly yearning for news that affirms their own value systems and judgments. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to turn out opinions and ideas or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way. Indeed we have a totally new algorithm of journalism whereby a species of newsmen love to tailor news to fit the needs of the readers.
We are slowly learning, all of us from the media — from the most powerful columnists to the tiniest bloggers — need to be careful about what we put out into the cloud. Our keyboards have become so powerful now, that our slightest action of irresponsibility can blow the world into a crisis. Can we, members of the media, also not cooperate to stave off negativity from ruling the psychology of our people? Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memory. Several clarifications appear more as tiny prints and are rarely noticed. How many raw, immature, misleading and superficial judgments are expressed every day, confusing the common reader? Many of the readers rely on our opinions for making decisions in their everyday life. In some cases, they may be very critical decisions. Should we not be concerned about our accountability for influencing the decisions of our readers?
We must not forget the commonsense lesson that objectivity has been the hallmark of all quality journalism. Facts are journalism’s foundation; the pursuit of them, without fear or favour, is its main objective. Abraham Lincoln’s advice rings true even today, “Let the people be aware of the facts, and the country will be calm.”
At the same time exaggerating and distorting facts, presenting just one side of the argument or sensationalising stories is ugly and detestable journalism. As CP Scott, the founder editor of The Guardian, emphasized: “Comment is free but facts are sacred.”
There are a number of ways that a journalist can hold people and organisations accountable for their actions without taking a position. To start with, journalists working on a story must be determined to stay objective, throughout the period of research and investigation. To avoid taking a position, both or multiple sides of the story must be presented. If people or organisations are involved in wrongdoings, then their view as well as the views of those facing the repercussions of their actions must be made clear. It is not up to the journalist to help shape the reader’s perspective, especially, while reporting a story or doing a feature, therefore, one should avoid taking a stand.
In journalism, like in law, facts can be presented to support or against to prove or disprove an incident, an action or a decision. Being aware of this, can help journalists understand that facts have to be presented not as one would like them to be read to fit a notion or a brief, but as they have occurred. It calls for an ice like neutrality.
Readers and viewers are now immediately taking comments from their peers, seeing additional points of view on the blogosphere, and even hearing directly from companies and sources that may be the subject of a story. No longer do reader letters take days or weeks to publish — and that was only after they’d been edited down to bite-sized, consumable blip — after a story’s news cycle has already passed.
While it is vital for journalists to keep a healthy distance from the subjects they cover and the source material they call upon, the good news is that we’ve arrived at a point where content is ubiquitous, and the very participation of multiple parties has resulted in a much more dynamic, energised and exciting form of journalism. That means the current generation of news consumers are the beneficiaries of a rich conversation that occurs among sources, the press and the public —which, in the end, churns out sometimes really marvelous content.
The rise of blogs has greatly enlarged and confused the market. The opinion of the blogosphere is having a growing influence over the most serious political, economic, and social processes. Top bloggers include academics, policy-wonks, administrators and commentators whose work would qualify them as public intellectuals by any traditional measure. Bloggers however run the risk of appropriating to themselves the right to comment on everything under the sun, to pontificate on matters with which they may have just a casual relationship. There is no filtering point for blogs, like we have in letters sent to editors and the blogosphere could get cluttered by much superficial and non-serious stuff which would only obscure the more qualitative and well researched contents.
Liberalisation has ushered in so many news channels and newspapers that it has become a tough challenge for newsmen to differentiate themselves from the flock. The real challenge for today’s journalists is that what journalists value and what their audiences value are often frustratingly misaligned. In an environment where trust is no longer the default — where reading your daily newspaper in the morning and watching a news broadcast at night have moved from standard to niche behavior — doing great journalistic work isn’t enough.
In the pursuit of truth and fairness, no price is too high to pay. One should make that extra call, take that extra trip, visit that additional source — then, do it all over again until one is truly convinced that the story is as accurate, as fair and as thorough as humanly possible.
Let us not forget that there was a generation of journalists in whose hands a mystic transference took place with each clack of the typewriter imprinting a journalistic legacy on the next generation. Stamped indelibly on our formative minds when we were training for journalism was the line:“every time a grand editor puts a finger to a typewriter, he sits back to hear the crash of falling governments.”
The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained. The public expects that of us as the least reciprocation of their trust. If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly — because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions — the public will not forgive us.
For this to happen, the media will have to walk that extra mile. As John Pilger advises in his book Hidden Agendas, “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.”
I remember a young journalist who was desperate to make to the big media during the farm crisis in central India, which was marked by an epidemic of farmer suicides. He was always on the hunt for a story that would catapult him to the national league. He coldly hunted stories for a page-one byline. And he landed on one. Within hours of reaching the destination, which happened to be a small village, his story was ready — a villainous moneylender killed by long-suffering villagers. But the young inquisitive journalist had also unearthed a disconcerting fact: the moneylender was a kind-hearted, generous man whose death was being used to intimidate other moneylenders. In case of genuine problems, outstanding loans of penniless families we rewritten off by the moneylender, but the politically well-connected and dangerous moneylenders planned a brutal retribution. The young journalist hates the half-truth he reports, but covets the byline it gets him?