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Updated: June 7, 2013 13:01 IST

Call for newspapers to focus not on profits, but democracy

G. Ananthakrishnan
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Leading the discussion, Nick Davies, senior reporter of The Guardian, and the author of the book Flat Earth News, said all journalism was an attempt to uncover the truth. Photo:Mohammed Yousuf
The Hindu Leading the discussion, Nick Davies, senior reporter of The Guardian, and the author of the book Flat Earth News, said all journalism was an attempt to uncover the truth. Photo:Mohammed Yousuf

All journalism is about truth-telling, and there is a real threat to professional practice today from commercial interests. Newspapers should, therefore, devote themselves to strengthening democracy and think less about profits. Any quest for profits can only be guided by the need to fund good journalism.

This was the predominant sentiment expressed by journalists at a discussion on the question, “Is investigative journalism giving up on newspapers,” at the 16th World Editors Forum of WAN-IFRA here on Thursday.

More space

Content analysis studies conducted in the U.K. by the University of Cardiff for a book project showed that on average each journalist was now required to fill three times more space in newspapers compared to a quarter century ago, which in effect meant that the time available to them to do deep work had been reduced to a third. Another recent study showed that only 12 per cent of stories in major newspapers in the U.K. were subjected to serious checking of facts.

In India, investigative journalism involved taking on the moneyed and influential sections. This was particularly difficult in a social milieu in which the middle class was living in a comfort zone, under the illusion that there was all-round prosperity.

Serious and non-serious

Leading the discussion, Nick Davies, senior reporter of The Guardian, and the author of the book Flat Earth News, said all journalism was an attempt to uncover the truth. However, the media in general pursued stories that had nothing to do with serious issues, such as war, conflict and human suffering. They instead chose sensational celebrity issues, which amounted to nothing more than “garbage.” Attempts in some countries to fund investigative journalism through charitable foundations and NGOs might yield some benefit, but could not replace the resources of newspapers.

Suggesting a way forward, Shoma Chaudhury, executive editor of Tehelka, said that if anything could bring about a resurgence of genuine journalism, it was the people’s will. The people had to come forward to support such an effort. She said the media were not investigating the misery caused by laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

Aroon Purie, Editor-in-Chief, India Today group, said publishers should display a passion for investigative journalism, and be prepared to protect journalists. The Right to Information Act was a powerful tool that was used by the media well.

Multiple channels

Urging newspapers to “stop thinking about business and start thinking about the role they should play,” Arne Jensen, secretary-general, Association of Norwegian Editors, said there was great scope for people to participate in democratic debate today, thanks to multiple communication channels.

Professor George Brock, head of the department of journalism at the City University in London said courses at his university were focussed on serious, old-fashioned, long-form journalism.

In a session on “Ethics: Is digital news changing journalistic standards and values,” Howard Finberg, director, Interactive Learning and News University, Poynter Institute, U.S., said by its very nature, ethics had to be ingrained in a professional. “You have ethics and standards, or you don’t. The platform is not important.” For about two decades, the media in the U.S. had suffered erosion of credibility. Two-thirds of respondents in one survey said they thought stories that they read, heard or watched were frequently inaccurate.

Supporting the view that newspapers in print and online were finally accountable to their audiences, Stephen Pritchard, president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen (ONO) and the Readers’ Editor of The Observer, called for a code of ethics to be formulated by individual media organisations. He demanded the appointment of ombudsmen to independently adjudicate the complaints from readers. Such practices raised the credibility of news forums.

Other panellists who spoke of the need for high levels of transparency and ethics included Yavuz Baydar, Readers’ Editor, and Ombudsman, Sabah, Turkey and Philippe Karsenty, founder, Media-Ratings, France.

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