Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

It has been an emotionally draining week. I lost two of my brightest students — Ashish Yechury and Shaoli Rudra — to COVID-19. Vivek Bendre, a very valuable colleague whose photographer’s eye captured both the glories and the pitfalls of post-liberalised India without a voyeuristic gaze, also lost his battle against COVID-19. There are reports from across the country about the lack of availability of oxygen in hospitals. When countless patients are literally gasping for air, why am I spending my time talking about trust in the media?

Undermining democracy

Last week, I flagged off one of the conundrums before journalists — the difference between what they perceive as legitimate work and the perception of a section of readers. A really powerful section uses seemingly benign language to silence the spirit of inquiry and notions of accountability. This narrative undermines the wellspring of democracy. For instance, they ask media to refrain from reporting anything that is negative. I get mails from this section often asking me what prevents journalism from concentrating on positive developments.

We are living at a time when there seems to be a convergence of interest between different institutions to undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights. Constitutional lawyer, Gautam Bhatia, who looks at the legal framework from a philosophical outlook, wrote a blog about the tenure of the recently retired Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, titled “Evasion, Hypocrisy, and Duplicity: The Legacy of Chief Justice Bobde”. Paraphrasing Francis Bacon’s wish that judges must be ‘lions under the throne’, Mr. Bhatia explained the new low we have reached today: “Think of a mouse under the throne, who sometimes squeaks, and sometimes ventures out to bite the toes of anyone coming before the ruler... a judiciary on its way to becoming a mouse under the throne is a sad sight indeed.” I am not venturing to comment on the acts of omission and commission of the Election Commission of India over the last decade, as it has been documented elsewhere.

When the rules of modern journalism evolved from the days of Benjamin Franklin, journalists took his wise words seriously: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. If the idea of journalism is to function as an integral estate of democracy, and if its mandate is to empower citizens, then it not just needs to provide credible information but also needs to enjoy the trust of the population. Citizens should direct questions towards influential voices such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale who said that by using the present COVID-19 emergency, “destructive and anti-Bharat forces” could create an atmosphere of negativity and distrust. Mr. Hosabale must realise that endorsement is neither journalism nor is it in public interest. Isn’t it obvious that we are in the midst of a terrible second wave because we failed to prepare? History will not be kind to the judiciary and to a section of the media for their complacency that led to perpetuating this misery.

While political scientists expect the judiciary to be “lions under the throne”, they expect a much more modest role from responsible news media: to be a watchdog. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared May 3 as the World Press Freedom Day when the Windhoek Declaration on “promoting an independent and pluralistic African press” was unanimously adopted at Windhoek, Namibia, on May 3, 1991. It is rather disturbing that journalists need to reiterate the principles once again after 30 years.

On April 22, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released its latest report that confirmed the divergence in the world view between those who are in the news business and those who consume news. It revealed that editorial standards and journalistic practices may be less important for trust in news than audience impressions about brand reputations and the look and feel of how information is presented. The study urges news organisations to realise that it may not be enough for brands to establish trust merely on the basis of their journalism or the transparency of their methods. When a majority of the citizens, as the study points out, are either unaware or uninterested in what makes one news source distinct from their many competitors, foregrounding media literacy is the only way to establish trust.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 1:44:59 PM |

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