Disappearance of follow-up

Readers’ Editor proposes; reader disposes. Or so it seems. When I started this countdown series, the idea was to focus on journalism and its multiple challenges including the erosion of public trust, the elusive business model and a polarised polity. I also wanted to make the readers realise the differences in approach between audience-oriented editors and a news ombudsman.

I have always been concerned about the vulnerability of journalists. In light of the Pegasus spyware scandal, I was looking at the digital surveillance industry. It is a broad and largely opaque network of companies that produce technology to monitor and track individuals. A recent report by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), ‘Spyware: An Unregulated and Escalating Threat to Independent Media’, documented how the privatisation of digital repression is hurting free and independent media. I was also intrigued by the averment of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that the two-member commission of inquiry headed by retired justice Madan Lokur set up by the West Bengal was unconstitutional.

Intrinsic element of good journalism

However, I was forced to pause my study of the spyware’s debilitating impact on journalism following a mail from a contributor-reader, K. Balakesari, former Member of the Railway Board. He raised questions about the report “Industry’s practices are against national interest, says Piyush Goyal” (August 14) in which the Union Minister targeted the Tata group. Mr. Balakesari wrote: “I would have expected that such a strong tirade by a senior Minister in the Union Cabinet against industry in general and particularly against a business house that is held up as a bellwether of corporate rectitude and sound business practices would have merited at least an editorial in The Hindu . I can understand industry wanting to downplay the incident because of various considerations but what prevented the media from taking the issue further in the public domain? Censorship or ‘voluntary’ self-regulation.”

Mr. Balakesari is right; as follow-up is an essential and intrinsic element of good journalism. News manuals say that “follow-ups are needed because one story on its own may not cover all aspects of an event or controversy properly.” Mr. Balakesari said that the silence of industry leaders means that they either endorse what the Minister alleged or they are collectively spineless. His question to news organisations in general, and this newspaper in particular, was how this episode made a disappearing act.

Shifting focus

The lack of follow-up to the Minister’s uncharacteristic observation against a conglomerate was neither the result of censorship nor self-regulation. Off-the-cuff remarks by those in power have become commonplace. The news cycle has become relentless and many significant developments — including the fall of Kabul and the Finance Minister’s announcement of the ₹6 lakh crore national monetisation plan for infrastructure assets — took place in the days following the strange observation of the Commerce and Industry Minister. The media was forced to focus on these emerging issues.

While I can give any number of reasons for the media not following up on Mr. Goyal’s attack on the Tatas, including the factors that forced the Confederation of Indian Industry to pull down the video from its YouTube channel, I value the idea of follow-up. It helps to beat the compulsions imposed by the relentless news cycle and tries to keep the focus on holding those in power accountable.

One of the biggest successes in journalism in recent times is the ‘Spotlight’ investigation by the Boston Globe reporters. The meticulous documentation by the reporters of sexual abuse by Catholic priests won them a Pulitzer Prize. This investigation highlighted the importance of follow-up stories as part of the news agenda and helped to circumvent the tyranny of the news cycle.

The International Journalists’ Network has a section dedicated to follow-ups in its journalism basics section. It argues that the partial decline in follow-up stories is due to slashed newsroom budgets and the warp speed of the Internet age. It says that a structured follow-up mechanism helps a newsroom make the competition follow it. If holding power accountable is the central tenet of journalism, and if newsrooms are not going to be swept by the power of algorithmic decision-making and Big Data, follow-ups are the best journalistic tool.

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2022 4:36:28 am |