The Four Challenges Of Indian Journalism
#1 of the Indian Journalism Project - Season 1.
A widely-admired editor tells the story of ‘learning on the job’ as a trainee reporter. His ‘teacher’ is an experienced veteran named Jock. In the following scene, Jock is having a conversation with the young reporter about a time-honoured ritual.
“Early in my time as a trainee reporter Jock told us about the ritual for covering Scottish hangings. This involved befriending the murderer’s soon-to-be widow by promising to write a sympathetic account, possibly hinting at a campaign to demand an 11th-hour reprieve. Once he’d extracted the quote and purloined the family photographs the reporter would, on exit, shout at the distraught soon-to-be widow that her husband was an evil bastard who deserved to rot in hell.
‘Why do you do that?’
‘So that the next reporter to turn up wouldn’t get through the door.’
That was what real reporting was about. Get the story, stuff the opposition.”
The young reporter is Alan Rusbridger, who will go on to become the much-celebrated editor-in-chief of The Guardian. He tells this story in his book, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now.
Shocking though it is, Rusbridger’s account rings true. Pick any reporter or editor from any country on earth, and they will be able to recount similar (and likely more harrowing) tales.
Here’s the blurb from a just-published book on Fake News in America:
“Long before the current preoccupation with “fake news,” American newspapers routinely ran stories that were not quite, strictly speaking, true…Early American journalism was characterised by a hodgepodge of straightforward reporting, partisan asides, humbug, tall tales, and embellishment.”
In India too, there are dozens of examples of abysmal standards in reporting and editing. In most cases, this is because our journalists work in an unforgiving workplace with impossible demands. They suffer from low morale, partly because of attacks on their work from various quarters, but also because of poor standards. They lack a sufficient variety of positive role models and mentors.
As one reporter put it, there isn't a clear roadmap to survive and thrive in the profession today…without losing your soul.
So this is the first challenge of Indian journalism: how to get better at doing the basic job of reporting the facts when standards are low and there are precious few incentives to raise the quality of our work.
Call it the problem of … within.
This threat to journalism, from within the profession, is the first challenge we journalists face. ‘Within’ covers everything from the collection, production and distribution of news via print, TV, and digital across language and geography.
A second major challenge to journalism in India comes from outside pressures. These include the vice-like grip of the government over the media, either through the use of carrots or sticks, especially in the case of newspapers and TV networks. Websites, which used to be able to be independent, have come under the cover of new legislation. India’s non-military security forces, the police and the judiciary seem to be in on the act.
Individual reporters have to deal with more. As spaces—in which to do the job of reporting the facts—shrink, we have had to deal with vicious attacks online (it’s 10 times worse if you're a woman reporter) and personal legal challenges (especially for freelancers). The road then leads to self-censorship, and eventually, to thought censorship.
In either case, the process is the punishment. (On the other hand, there are plenty of rewards for joining the establishment and becoming stenographers.)
The threats to India’s press come from two other pressures as well: technology disruption and the resulting breakdown in business models. (The newspaper business, according to one quote by the investor Warren Buffet, “went from monopoly to franchise to competitive to … toast.”)
Together, external challenges to Indian journalism can be described as the pressures of … without.
Between the frameworks of ‘within’ and ‘without’, we can account for many of the challenges that journalists and news organisations face in India. But there are two other frameworks to consider.
Despite (and because of) all the pressure and chaos in the profession, the past few years have also been a time of renegotiation with norms that have been taken for granted. Consider the following sentiments.
The story is no longer the fundamental unit of journalism.
Journalism is too elitist, too white-collar, and not nearly representative enough.
Media organisations in India are casteist and gendered.
Transparency is the new objectivity.
Leave the journalistic method to the side, it’s now time for the scientific method.
Bring the ‘I’ back into reporting and stop pretending the journalist doesn’t impact the story.
Collaboration over competition.
Journalists need to focus on the bottom billion. Instead, they seem to focus only on the top levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
These statements represent just a few of the many raucous debates being fought by reporters, editors, academicians, and citizens today.
The choppy waters of these debates can be described as the challenge of … currents.
No focus on India’s journalism would be complete without a look at this aspect of ‘currents’. And things won’t improve for India’s people in the long run if journalists and media organisations don’t pay attention to the debates being held today.
We are finally left with the last category. Few professions seem to encourage the kind of crystal-ball gazing that journalism does. This is perhaps because of near-constant change. ‘Future of journalism’ is practically a beat these days.
But there are plenty more challenges that are coming round the bend for journalists and media organisations to consider, and it will be prudent to to be prepared. Here are some questions which we don’t know the answer to, such as:
When will English language journalism become irrelevant in India?
Can a democratic society do without journalism as a watchdog profession?
If there are no journalists left, who will do their job?
Can subscriptions and membership replace advertising?
How can we keep the powerful accountable if we are muzzled?
Should journalist turn to fiction to do the job?
(This last question might seem fantastic, but we’ve seen from the example of Soviet Russia that when all else fails, fiction does the job.)
This fourth aspect of trying to understand the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’ can be summarised as the challenge of … undercurrents.
So there we have it: within and without; currents and undercurrents. It’s a large framework (with blurry boundaries) with which to understand the unique challenges of Indian journalism.
In the rest of the series, I’ll be tackling questions from each of these four categories.
The Indian Journalism Project is a 100-day effort starting on World Press Freedom Day (3rd May) and ending on India’s Independence Day (15th August). During this period, expect a mix of essays, workshops and a mentorship program. Do subscribe and share with your journalistic friends!