FROM THE READERS' EDITOR Readers' Editor

No news is bad news

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

Two thousand years ago, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the celebrated Roman philosopher, said: “My joy in learning is partly that it enables me to teach. While we teach, we learn.”

A decade-long interaction with the students of the Asian College of Journalism has sharpened my own understanding of journalistic practices. Their unrelenting enthusiasm to know about the field in which they seek employment gives their questions an exploratory quality. Two questions that I was recently asked are: what is the pressing issue that is missing in newspapers of late and why are reporters oblivious to that particular issue?

When there is an adrenaline flow of breaking news, newsrooms tend to overlook the need to take an in-depth view of our development model. In this treadmill-like process, we cover more business than economy. For instance, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will be presenting in a fortnight his third Budget. In media organisations, business reporters are busy trying to find out from industry leaders what each sector expects in this annual exercise. There are pre-Budget consultations which include deliberations between the Union Finance Ministry and the State Finance Ministers. There are also reports about the requests from many State governments to compensate them for the revenue losses due to the phasing out of the Central Sales Tax (CST) till the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is implemented, along with a demand to increase the borrowing limit.

However, there seems to be a gap in the reporting. We do not get a grip on the state of our economy. Is it doing well? Is there an increase in job creation? Is there a reduction in external borrowing? What were the gains for the economy from the global oil price collapse from above $100 in June 2014 to a 12-year low of $27.10 last month? What is the rationale behind raising the excise duty on oil thrice in January? What would have been the dollar versus rupee exchange rate had oil prices remained at the 2014 level? What is the foreign exchange cushion created by this single windfall?

Media and the global economic crisis

When the U.S. economy went into a tailspin in 2008 triggered by the sub-prime crisis, some economists and media watchers asked why the media failed to predict the impending crisis. Anya Schiffrin, Director of the Media and Communications Programme at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, produced an illuminating book, Bad News, which looked at the mistakes the U.S. press made in the run-up to the crisis and came up with some suggestions for improving business and economic reporting.

Some of the key structural issues in the U.S. media discussed by Prof. Schiffrin would apply to India as well. For instance, she explained how the dependency on sources skews the flow of information. She wrote: “The pace at which the stories unfold means that reporters do not have the time to do broader investigative reporting, or to turn to academics or even former ‘insiders’ for more analytic perspectives. At the same time, these sources dry up because they are afraid that publicising bad news will make things worse. If the sources are available, their focus — even more than usual — is on ‘spin’, trying to shape the coverage of the story as it develops.”

According to her, the danger of depending on sources is twofold: “The risk of being given incorrect information and the risk of becoming depended on access to sources.” She explored the inherent paradox in journalism where journalists depend on sources for access, but any information that is given to them from sources is inherently slanted in some way because usually the person talking to them has an agenda. “Sources speak to journalists because they want to influence coverage and hope the reporter will communicate their point of view,” she argued.

In the same book, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz talked about the emphasis on confidence by the financial community as opposed to standard economic models that have attempted to explain movements in output and employment without any reference to psychological variables such as confidence. He said that the financial press often failed to note that most economists disparage the role of confidence except when it affects short-term markets. He was firm in his belief that “the press acted more like a cheerleader as the bubble grew than like a check, like a warning light, like a critic of a set of fallacious ideas that underpinned the bubble.”

Robert H.Giles, the then Curator of Nieman Foundation for Journalism, and Barry Sussman, Editor of the Nieman Foundation’s Watchdog Project, argue for the need for financial and business reporters too to be a ‘fourth estate’, where the reporter is an agenda-setter, an honest broker, and an unbiased interpreter of events. According to them, it is public service to dig out the details documenting what went wrong and to carefully explain the consequences of the failed theory of efficient markets, both in news stories and editorials. Giles and Sussman also make a distinction between economists employed by commercial interests such as Wall Street and those with credibility who recognise the fallibility of market and its vulnerability due to irrational speculation.

Is it possible to ask a group of economists in India to share their readings of the Indian economy? I hope to see a fine balance between good business reporting and incisive economic reporting so that we can make sense of Mr. Jaitley’s presentation on February 29.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in


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