How Fair Is The Media?



 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 damage. Some of the desperately ambitious, and  those ideologically rooted in a particular conviction, have taken a dangerously wrong turn, all in the allurement of more web traffic. 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.

Good journalism requires attentive listening to diverse sources, dogged examination of data and other records, 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 care about it. It does not necessarily guarantee publishers a return in eye-popping   audience numbers.

We must not forget the commonsense lesson that objectivity has been the hallmark of al quality journalism.  Facts are journalism’s foundation; the pursuit of them, without fear   or favor, is its main objective. Exaggerating facts, presenting just one side of the argument or sensationalizing stories is ugly and detestable journalism   As CP Scott, the founder editor of The Guardian has emphasized: “Comment is free but facts are sacred”.

There are a number of ways that a journalist can hold people and organizations 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 organizations 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. Sometimes, simply pursuing a story, because personal interests could be at stake, amounts to taking a position.

In journalism, like in law, facts can be presented to support 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.

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, energized 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.

Liberalization   has ushered in so many news channels and newspapers that it has become a tough challenge for newsmen to differentiate themselves from the flock. While lauding investigative journalism and judicial activism, the Supreme Court had cautioned about the possible abuses that could creep in. Activism can have its dangers. Poorly calibrated, it can make bad problems worse.

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 newspaperin 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  primary 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 were      written 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?’

Moin Qazi is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for more than three decades .He can be reached at [email protected]


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