What really is a journalist’s job?
And why do we need journalists anyway?
I should admit here that these are questions that have bothered me for years. I’ve always thought of myself as a journalist first and foremost (even in the phases when I wasn’t actively reporting or editing the news). But others haven’t always seen me that way. Just last year for example, I was startled when a friend described me as a ‘digital innovator’.
Ordinarily that would be no reason to write this piece, but these questions are always important. And in the context of our times, they’re also urgent and compelling. Just in the last 24 hours for example, Twitter has been trending with #RIP_IndianMedia, with tweets such as this one:
Now we might be forgiven into thinking journalism is about hounding people with a camera and mic, whether it is a delivery person or a Bollywood star. Or we might think journalism is about moralizing from the studio.
The truth is, there are more than a dozen kinds of journalists to be (and the corollary: more than a dozen reasons to read, listen to, and watch journalism).
To avoid any confusion, when I say journalism ‘kinds’ or ‘types’, I’m not referring either to:
Sports, business, political, science, legal, entertainment or crime journalists (or any other type).
Or investigative, explanatory, solutions, computational journalists (or any other type).
Instead, I look at it from the perspective of the needs that journalism and journalists should seek to fulfill. Specifically, I cite the work of Stephen J. Ward, a media ethicist. Ward argues that journalists ought to strive towards human dignity in four spheres: individual, social, political, and ethical.
15 roles of journalism
1. Provide information and analysis about the world
This is basic, and certain TV networks apart, most news organizations do this pretty well. It is also the least a newsroom can do, and when newsrooms struggle to do this well, it’s a signal not to trust them.
2. Monitor basic levels of dignity
Whether it is farmers’ distress or violations of basic human rights, journalists have a duty to highlight them. Unfortunately, a lot of media organizations have abandoned this rather basic principle. Currently in India, there are farmer agitations. People are being arrested for the flimsiest of reasons. But several news organizations have either ignored the stories or relegated them to the inside pages. Worse, some news organizations have deliberately focused on distractions (such as the ridiculous focus on the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the ensuing witch-hunt of other actors).
Question to ponder: Is the arrest of Umar Khalid under UAPA and his demonization proof that his basic human rights have been violated?
3. Investigate inequality
This is similar to the earlier point, but inequalities are not just a question of rights and dignity, but much more. For example, women may have access to all the human rights and dignity in the world, but they still have to negotiate the hidden codes that govern a patriarchal order.
Journalists in other words, not only have to monitor dignity but also expose hidden inequalities.
4. Report critically on economic associations
The quality of our lives are a result of not just individual rights, but also how we interact as individuals or groups with other groups and individuals.
A journalist then has the duty to report on various aspects of our social lives. This includes asking if society’s use of economic power is fair and just. It is also our job to ensure ‘fair economic competition’.
Questions to ponder: Do business periodicals and business new channels do this? Or do they focus on narratives dictated by various markets and corporate firms?
5. Assess quality of social life
The standup comedian and thinker Hannah Gadsby was only diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum in her 40s. All her life, she struggled in numerous small and big ways, she says in her Netflix special Douglas. But until she was diagnosed, she didn’t have the language to describe it.
It’s not just autism. Practically every major gain in our collective history has come about because we were able to name, identify and recognize what was happening to us.
A journalist’s job, Stephen J. Ward argues, is to report on “all the types of social life, social and technological trends, and social possibilities available for citizens. It should inquire into whether such trends nurture caring relationships, meaningful collective activity, and flourishing communities.”
6. Assist social bridging
This is a biggie. We are so polarized that we urgently need journalists to facilitate conversation and understanding between different communities. Ward writes that journalism “has a duty to act as a bridge between diverse classes, ethnic groups, religions, and cultures within and among countries.”
In India, this would refer to journalists being the bridge among different religions, castes, genders, class, languages, regions, people of various sexual orientation, differently abled, the list goes on.
Question to ponder: Are journalists who make us angry and hateful of other communities being true? Should we continue to listen to them?
7. Assist in media literacy and evaluation of media
Our information landscape has become so complicated that one of the core aspects of the job is to simply help people navigate it. (I was delighted when I read this, because this is precisely what we at BOOM are trying to do with Media Buddhi.)
As Ward writes, “Journalism has a duty to inquire into the impact of journalism, media, and communication technology on the global public sphere and on their society.”
8. Use global comparisons
Countries flourish when they learn from each other, and journalism has a solid tradition of comparing and contrasting from other cultures and geographies. But this is a double-edged sword, because journalists can import both the best and the worst from other places.
9. Critique the basic structure of institutions
We struggle to do this well because a lot of our energy as journalists is taken up with grappling with political leaders who seek to muzzle us. Even when that is not the case, we get distracted by our hunt for a narrative (‘story’), heroes and villains. In the process, our focus on institutions wavers.
By ‘institutions’, I mean the judiciary, the electoral system, the executive, and pretty much anything that shapes our lives. The recent work by the Reporters’ Collective is a good example of journalism that focuses on institutions.
10. Monitor basic liberties
Apart from individual goods, which we tackled above, journalism has a duty to “promote and defend basic liberties around the world and to ask to what extent citizens are able to enjoy the full value of basic liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from discrimination, and other constitutional protections.” (Stephen J. Ward)
In India, a good example of this type of reporting can be found at Article 14.
11. Encourage participation
News organizations are vocal about citizen participation at the electoral level. However, they fail when it comes to encouraging and harnessing citizen power beyond that.
Ward notes, “journalism needs to monitor (and help make possible) citizen participation in public life and their ability to have a meaningfully influence on debate about government decisions.”
In India, Nikhil Pahwa and MediaNama have done this with their leadership on policy-related issues. So has Ritu Kapur with her focus on Citizen Journalism.
12. Report on diversity and representation
This is a major challenge for the Indian media, given that it is not at all representative. (The ‘upper caste’ accounts for more than 80% of all jobs while representing less than a third of India’s castes.) It is not just groups of people but entire geographies that are ignored by the media. Until The News Minute started for example, southern India was by and large ignored.
13. Take the public good perspective
A good question to ask before any journalist reports or publishes a story is, “is my work contributing to the public good?” If done honestly, this exercise reveals so much of journalism to be pointless. The best ones invariably ask themselves this question regularly.
Ward writes, “When covering major public issues or major public events, such as elections, media should focus on how the public good is served or not served by proposal, promises, and actions. They should examine critically any claims by public officials, large private corporations, and any other agency to be acting for the public good.”
14. Highlight those who enhance public good
Ward declares that journalists should “cover individuals and groups who enhance society through courageous and public-minded actions.” Journalists traditionally do this well, but in recent times, they have focused more on those who enhance public bad.
15. Support the exercise of public reason through dialogic media
This is similar to point no. 5 (Assist social bridging). “How citizens speak to each other is almost as important as what they say”, Ward writes. “At the core of the global media system should be deliberative spaces where reasonable citizens can robustly but respectfully exchange views and evaluate proposals.”
Why this framework works
Stephen J. Ward is obviously not the only journalism ethicist around. Journalism ethics is a specialized but well-represented sub-field of media ethics.
The reason I like Ward is that he not only advocates ‘serious’ and ‘systematic’ thinking around journalism ethics, but also ‘radical’ thinking. He argues that we need to “rethink journalism from the ground up”. Crucially, he says this is an evolving task and contains three elements.
One, he believes that journalism ethics ought to be sustained by professional journalists. If it won’t work out in the field, then it won’t work out. Period.
Two, Ward believes journalism ethics have to fit into a ‘post-digital’ age.
And three, that they ought to incorporate global and non-Western perspectives.
Ask fellow journalists what their job is, and they will often say “we speak truth to power” or “we hold power accountable”. In my previous piece, I argued that journalism is by its very nature, anti-establishment. A reader, Vinuth M Madinur, commented:
The challenge to old school journalism ethics comes from the fact that people want to get more "balanced", "real", "unbiased" view of the situation. If journalism is always anti-establishment, is it serving this need of its readers well? Hence it started with folks saying we shouldn't discount good work done by the government/a politician. This opened the flood gates for propaganda, as it becomes hard to distinguish the two.
Vinuth’s comment partly inspired me to write this piece. I believe that his and other questions will find answers within Ward’s framework.
There are very, many ways of speaking truth to power. And only one of them is by directly taking on the government, which is all but impossible to do anywhere in the world (except in the United States and some Western European countries, and even there, it’s not a guarantee.)
I often ask myself which is more important for a journalist: to uphold the truth or to protect democracy when the two imperatives clash? And what about countries which are not democracies or democracies only in name? (India is increasingly becoming the latter.)
My answer to that question is one I’ve stated before: each country’s journalistic mission ought to be recognized as unique based on legal, political, cultural, economic and ethical lenses.
So what sort of journalist can you be?
I finally figured out what sort of journalism I could do effectively. For reasons of temperament, skill and values, I prefer explanatory journalism, which is what I try to do with Media Buddhi. My beat is the information landscape.
It doesn’t matter whether your focus as a journalist is sports or business or politics (or anything else). So long as you focus on one of the fifteen tasks, you’re on solid ground. Also, investigative, explanatory and other journalistic methods are also there to be used, no matter what your focus. They are different tools and very many journalists finish their career running through them all.
But even if you aren’t hitting any of those 15 goals, don’t fret. I spent years hating the work I did as a journalist before I could build the escape velocity to do something else. And even then, it was only possible because I am privileged, a fact that I try not to forget.
Some of the best people I know are journalists who’re doing the jobs their editors tell them to do, and they do them to the best of their ability and for long hours and through sickness and disaster.
When we speak of journalism ethics, things can get pretty abstract. It’s useful to remind ourselves that journalists are people like all of us. In that spirit, I invoke the names of two journalists who embodied the best of journalistic ethics. They tragically died within a day of each other last week.
The first is Jaivanthi Hiriyur, also known as Mitra. She was a journalist but circumstances beyond her control meant she had to give it up. Instead, she built and ran a school for special needs children for decades, and breathed her last at the age of 74. Mitra brought grace, grit, and an original perspective to all matters, qualities that would have shone in a newspaper. She was my aunt.
The second is my friend Jaideep Sen, or Jaddu, who died of lung complications at the age of 41. Jaddu was a rare soul and was both astonishingly gifted and deeply reflective. A few years ago, Jaddu rebuilt his life at The New Indian Express in Chennai, after a courageous and inspiring battle with his own demons. Jaddu will live on in our memories and through his art and writing, but I lament the lost decades of his friendship and leadership. I leave an image of the kind of sketches he would do to add to his journalism. A few rapid strokes and—magic!
The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond by Stephen J. Ward
Global Journalism Ethics by Stephen J. Ward
End illustration by Jaideep Sen
Opening illustration by H R Venkatesh