Conversations benefit journalism

My last column, ‘‘Neither vainglorious nor venturesome’ (February 18, 2019), generated a debate among journalists about the need to converse with the critics of journalism. Some felt that Jeff Jarvis’s prescription, that it is the sacred duty of journalists to listen to the public they serve, needed some modification. They argued that there is a need to make a distinction between the larger public served by journalism and the small, vocal and blatantly partisan section that has been undermining not only journalism, but also the idea of the public sphere.

Engage or disengage?

Journalists felt that this column, which is designed to be a dialogue between the newspaper and its readers, should strive to inform readers about the challenges faced by them in a polarising environment. I would like to summarise their angst in five points. One, we have a government that has a peculiar Teflon coat — none of its monumental failures stick on it. Two, facts are compared with rhetoric and hyperbole. Three, misogyny has grown and become toxic. Four, the threat to individual journalists’ safety has become real, and attacks against journalists are taking place with impunity. Five, social media is used to discredit journalism and journalists. In this environment, what should be the relationship between journalists and the social media?

A couple of reporters asked whether I, as a readers’ representative in a newspaper, agree with Farhad Manjoo, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, who asked journalists to disengage from the daily rhythms of Twitter, which he described as “the world’s most damaging social network”. They wanted to know whether it is possible to carry on with the dialogue process if one section refuses to follow any rules and prefers instead to spew venom and vitriol and threaten people. Mathew Ingram’s essay, ‘The yin and yang of Twitter and journalism’, explores journalism’s difficult relationship with Twitter in a nuanced manner.

The points raised are real and disturbing. But disengaging is not the answer. As someone who handles complaints for this newspaper, I can vouch for the fact that the majority of the readers are without rancour. They are inquisitive and desire a fruitful engagement with the newspaper. They may not be as garrulous as the trolls. But they are able to distinguish between journalism and propaganda. They are appalled when reporters are attacked for raising pertinent questions and holding those who wield power accountable. They respect investigative journalism and they value truth. Hence, engaging with them is an inevitable task.

Truth and propaganda

The key question is how to distinguish between a truly inquisitive reader and a propagandist who wants to undermine journalism and the public discourse. I believe that journalists who have developed excellent editorial judgment find the difference in the very first sentence of the communication.

Discerning readers, who form the bulwark of those who support journalism, ask journalists questions to scrutinise those in power. They do not pose questions to obfuscate truth or to defend the regime. These readers are able to see that journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth and its first loyalty is to citizens. They do not want propaganda articles or uncritical appeasement pieces. Citizens look for credible information to make an informed choice.

Journalists must realise that informed readers do not confuse objectivity with naïve neutrality. One cannot be neutral when a young girl is stalked and killed, or when marginalised people are further exploited, or when there is an open display of dominance-dependency in an equation. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel rightly pointed out, journalistic responsibility is “to provide citizens with the tools they need to extract knowledge for themselves from the undifferentiated flood or rumour, propaganda, gossip, fact, assertion, and allegation the communications system now produces.” Hence, it is vital to continue the dialogue between journalists and readers, and not be short-circuited by the viciousness of the trolls.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 2:57:56 AM |

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