Popular ideas must replace populist ideas

We must first hold our television channels accountable

Updated - September 01, 2020 11:53 am IST

Published - August 31, 2020 12:15 am IST

The pandemic is one of the many ills affecting journalism. Indian broadcasting has become ‘narrow casting’ in terms of its social outlook, its adherence to standards, its ethical framework, and its growing inability to identify hate speech. We do not have journalistic language to describe the way some television channels have handled the tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput or the bizarre programme on the “infiltration of Muslims” in the Civil Services on Sudarshan News, which was stayed by the Delhi High Court. Why should I, a news ombudsman for a legacy newspaper, worry about these developments in the world of television?

A downward spiral

The problem is that the downward spiral in the ethical standards of Indian news channels is hurting the reputation of journalism. When we analyse the trust factor in journalism, we need to look at the entire oeuvre of news and current affairs as one entity. I am not the only person who is alarmed by these developments. The Press Council of India has issued a statement advising media to adhere to journalistic norms. It reads: “The media should not narrate the story in a manner so as to induce the general public to believe in the complicity of the person indicted. Publishing information based on gossip about the line of investigation by the official agencies on the crime committed is not desirable. It is not advisable to vigorously report crime related issues on a day-to-day basis and comment on the evidence without ascertaining the factual matrix. Such reporting brings undue pressure in the course of fair investigation and trial.” However, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority has been silent about these ethical breaches that are undermining trust in journalism. It looks as if only the print media and some digital news organisations are practicing journalism, while a majority of broadcasters and their social media allies are amplifying the voices of demagogues.

The 21st International Symposium on Online Journalism held in July, hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism, drew a distinction between journalism that lays emphasis on accountability and trust and the drivel that gets amplified on some broadcast platforms. A session chaired by Kathleen Kingsbury, Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times , looked at some of the threats to independent media. The participants discussed how populist leaders take over independent media, organise troll campaigns to discredit journalists, legally harass publications, publicly trash specific journalists, and orchestrate threats of violence.

Aggressive media capture

Sérgio Dávila, Editorial Director of Folha , Brazil’s largest independent newspaper, spoke of the crisis the newspaper is facing. When one of the reporters of his paper, Patrícia Campos Mello, investigated and reported how Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters used WhatsApp, Brazil’s most popular social network with 100 million users, to spread misinformation about a political opponent, they began a smear campaign against her, using doctored photos with sexual innuendoes.

Peter Erdelyi, editor of the Hungarian news portal 444.hu , talked about aggressive media capture that is happening under the watch of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He said: “Powerful oligarchs aligned with the party have acquired 18 independent newspapers in recent years. The government now controls a network of 476 print, radio and television news outlets.”

Anna Gielewska, vice president of the Reporters Foundation in Poland, said: “Populists are more effective at stirring up fear and anger and manipulating the public. They fill social media with conflicting messages so that the public doesn’t know who to trust in the media.”

The situation in Mexico is no different. Juan E. Pardinas, General Editorial Director of the newspaper Reforma , pointed out that when Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won the presidency by an overwhelming margin in 2018, he neutralised his political opponents. He needed a new enemy and found one in the press. The Mexican government is the biggest source of advertising revenue in the country and the government uses this revenue flow to stifle independent voices.

It is our democratic duty to replace populist ideas with the popular idea of journalism being a public good. To do that we must first hold our television channels accountable.


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