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Electoral outcomes don’t alter the purpose of journalism


Journalists should regain their sense of pride to pose probing questions and to speak truth to power

This newspaper’s editorial, “For a rediscovery of India” (May 24, 2019), was not only about Narendra Modi’s return to power but also about the fundamentals of journalism. The editorial pointed out the most important retreat we are witnessing in the body polity: “In recess, if not in irreversible decline, is the idea of India that had grown from the freedom movement, and had prevailed for most part of the history of the Republic.”

There is a disturbing retreat in the information and media sphere too. For instance, the World Press Freedom Index for 2019 compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has documented “how hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear”. It points to a steady decline in the number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, even as authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media. The Index also downgrades India by two ranks — from 138 to140 — because “critics of Hindu nationalism were branded as ‘anti-Indian’ in online harassment campaigns and six journalists were murdered in 2018”.

Some of the basics

On the question of governance, the editorial was unequivocal in expecting the Prime Minister to walk the talk of “sabka saath, sabka vikas (with all, development for all)”. It hoped that “Mr. Modi’s second term will be more inclusive than the first, which was marred by arrogant pride and hateful prejudice”. Before attempting to address the crucial question of what we, as citizens, expect from the media in general, and The Hindu in particular during Mr. Modi’s second term, I would like to list out some of the fundamentals of journalism. Media scholars identify two major functions for the news media: the credible-informational and the critical-analytical-investigative. And there is an often conflicting demand between what is in public interest and what the public is interested in. Hence, it is important for not only journalists but also citizens to know the purpose of journalism.

For years, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, the authors of the defining textbook, The Elements of Journalism, have been exploring the purpose of journalism. For them, the purpose is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ. The principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people. They write: “News is that part of communication that keeps us informed of the changing events, issues, and characters in the world outside... The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

The political climate is not hostile to the idea of the credible-informational function of the news media. But, there is a chilling intimidating environment when it comes to the second function — of being critical-analytical-investigative. From SLAPPs, (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), to draconian criminal defamation laws and denial of crucial access, multiple devices are deployed to blunt efforts to hold those in power accountable. Let us not forget that India has the ignominy of figuring in the Global Impunity Index, which is computed by the Committee to Protect Journalists every year, over the last decade.

What would be welcome

As Prime Minister during his first term, Mr. Modi may have developed a direct communication channel with the people through his social media handles and his periodic broadcast, “Mann Ki Baat”, and this is obviously yielding political dividends. But, as the head of the largest democracy in the world, there is a need to constantly interact with the larger news media and not some select players alone. An open press conference in which unscripted questions are encouraged would be a welcome departure. There is a need to reverse tendencies to undermine the salient features of the Right to Information Act. Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Ron Chernow summarised, in one sentence, the prevailing media environment during a White House Correspondents Association dinner last month: “We now have to fight hard for basic truths that we once took for granted.”

Journalists should not be apologetic but instead regain their sense of pride to pose probing questions, to demand accountability, to seek answers, and to speak truth to power. Because that is not only the purpose of journalism but also the reason for journalism to survive as a discipline.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 2:43:16 AM |

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