Whither responsible journalism?

The Indian TV screen appears to have taken away the image of the crusading journalist who fearlessly campaigned for a cause and investigated leads to come up with disclosures, which satisfied (i) the journalistic urge of the writer, and (ii) made for good and informed discussion among the readers/viewers of today.

What has emerged instead is eager newbies focused on getting ahead in life (definitely nothing wrong there), happy to rub shoulders with both the ‘important’ and ‘damned’ of the moment. Volume and sensationalism have eclipsed understanding of issues and therefore real content. It follows therefore that anchors often end up missing the substance of any issue, which requires extensive research to be well understood, and in turn often misinforming the public. The discussion is sometimes limited to asking the various participants (with opposing views) to simply respond to statement of other members of the panel, with almost no contribution/insight/direction from the anchor.

Probably somewhere in the process of riding the media explosion, our brand of journalism has forgotten the research support that needs time, commonsense, and a thorough understanding. The objective appears to be conflict rather than informed debate, with a copious helping of sensationalism. A thick skin definitely helps!

While the entire pattern of dissemination of news on round-the-clock channels has necessitated sensationalism to an extent, competition and greed have ensured half-baked and me first news. The latter is particularly visible in anchor-driven shows where spokespersons of political parties—mercifully not all—bare their political biases and their desire for power even if at the expense of misinformed propaganda.

As if some of these politically motivated individuals were not enough, the modern news anchors have jumped into the ‘Great Indian Misinformation’ race, albeit with the least monetary benefits compensated in part by public recognition, which provides them the opportunity to rub shoulders with the influential and the ‘connected’ (the not-so-common man).

Journalism and news gathering at one time had similar noble credentials in society as those ascribed to doctors and the like. However, what we have today is not paper journalism but the instant and masala 24/7 TV journalism. The instant nature of the news—and the mandatory sensationalism to sell it—requires the ‘blink’ as opposed to the ‘think’ type of coverage. While the misinformation may not be deliberate per se, it does arise out of a known incompleteness of knowledge (and possibly understanding), which the concerned journalist could/should do well to acknowledge via a disclaimer. In the process, the journalists lend themselves to becoming agents of misinformation, agents of interested parties, and agents of their own biases. The last aspect would not necessarily be a major issue, but the quality of today’s anchors leaves much to be desired, apart from their ability to sensationalize the most mundane news.

The above may appear to be too harsh and generalized a commentary on the ‘aam’ journalist. However, it is not necessarily directed towards the eager, zealous, and aspiring young journalist trying to make a mark. It is directed at those who have already arrived and present themselves as the fountainheads of knowledge and the saviors and keepers of India’s moral ethics.

It is pathetic to see news anchors of two major channels display their poor and completely inadequate knowledge of the subject under debate. This aspect is brought out best when the ‘guest’ happens to be well clued in to the subject, and reaches all-time highs when the ‘guest’ is a suave and veteran lawyer politician. The senior of the two journalists (recently in news for innovative journalistic techniques) managed to handle the debate marginally better because of brashness and a thick skin, more than anything else. Case in point is the recent telecom scandal, which in many ways triggered this article as well. Kapil Sibal did an outstanding job—rather belatedly—of bringing out the complexity of the issue and providing a firm context to all the allegations. But how many of the viewing public will appreciate and remember the real issues at stake? Not many, given the barrage of conflicting and half-researched information already served to a less-than-discerning public.

So whither responsible journalism? How is a journalist any better than a politician who routinely misinforms the public at large and in particular the population, which forms the pillar of parties other than his own. As said earlier, the little and incomplete information the journalist has is packaged as a complete, well-researched piece that can awe the average guest on the show and an audience with short memories. It requires the occasional politician/thinker with facts and figures at his fingertips, which can upset this ‘packaged’ applecart.

I do not quite know how to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to anchors and talk shows, but there must be a methodology of rating anchors factoring in various aspects of an anchor’s abilities that include knowledge, experience, and unbiasedness particularly in the case of sensitive matters. Similar considerations are due for guests on these shows – it seems rather surprising that some familiar faces tend to pop up more often than others. Finally, a good cross-section of opinion can be made possible by also taking into account certain details of viewers who can vote on their evaluations of these shows. To start with, the studio audience cannot, and should not, remain just a passive consumer of what plays out.

And finally, coming to the rather obvious question, why does all this upset me so much? I find it criminal to see such blatant misinformation spread through TV to large audiences who have no other source of knowing the truth.

Wake Up India !!

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A guest post by Ajit Grewal, who keenly follows broad political issues as portrayed on TV and is keen on impartial and accurate portrayal of issues aimed at informing, and not just attracting, an audience. more about Ajit

About Ajit Grewal

Ajit Grewal brings with him multiple decades of global experience in banking and credit risk management. More recently, he has worked in the area of microfinance in an effort to be part of a socially conscious and noble initiative. His frank unbiasedness, grounded in years of observation, is aimed at provoking thought and providing a fresh perspective on myriad issues.
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  • Sagar Narasimha

    The perspective is interesting and a good a one no doubt, however I would be more concerned with the devolution of the intellectual capability of general public at large. Their gullibility is hard to ignore and this opens a wide door for anyone looking to make the most of the oppurtunity presented. The restauarant will only serve what the consumer enjoys.. , not everyone is a gourmand and neither is everybody willing to pay the price for the ”quality” of the product. To survive however either in the media race or the race in gourmet it becomes very vital to subscribe to the needs of the consumer. God forbid if there is day when people lose the sense of “good food” (which is bound to happen if what the youth of today classifies as “good food” is something to go by..) then we may eventually lose out on the finer cuisines that we now not of, such appears to be the case with Journalism. The news media is catering to what the ‘veiwing public’ wants.. I would love to read your opinion of how this shallow / pseudo intellectual degeneration can be eradicated, what we can actually do about it….by the way.. let me introduce myself, Hi, I am Sagar Narasimha. I came across your blog on linkedin n decided to check it out. I liked what I read. Thanks :)

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