Re-imagining journalism-2

In this 400th column, I continue our collective efforts to re-imagine journalism. This also marks the 40th anniversary of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO). The organisation, which was born in the U.S. in 1980, deliberately choose the acronym ONO to mark the difficult relationship between an ombudsman and the newsroom. According to the official history of ONO, “It was said at the time that ‘Oh No!’ was the most common thing an ombudsman would hear from nervous or annoyed reporters whenever the ombudsman was seen on the newsroom floor, as their appearance often heralded a difficult discussion about poor decisions or outright mistakes. So the chance to call the organization itself ‘Oh No!’ was simply too good to pass up.”

Reflections on journalism

There have been many reflections on journalism over the last three centuries. From Benjamin Franklin’s declaration on journalistic ethics (found in his autobiography published in 1791) and Mahatma Gandhi’s reflection on running Indian Opinion (1904-1915) to the findings of various commissions, there is a rich oeuvre of literature about what makes journalism a public good. India had two press commissions — the First Press Commission (1952-54) and the Second Press Commission (1978-1982) — to define the contours of the Indian press.


The first commission to come up with a comprehensive report was called the Hutchins Commission (the Commission on Freedom of the Press). In 1943, Henry R. Luce, the publisher of Time Inc., and Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, came up with the idea of forming a panel to reflect on the state of the U.S. press. The commission had a generous grant of $2,00,000 from Luce, and 13 American and four international advisers. It examined the role of journalism during the financial crisis following the Great Depression and World War II. As Chair of the commission, Hutchins told his fellow members that their purpose was to answer three questions: “What society do we want? What do we have? How can the press... be used to get what we want?” These questions remain valid. The commission’s key recommendations were that newspapers should redefine themselves as “common carriers of public discussion” by providing “a truthful, comprehensive account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning, a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism, a means of projecting the opinions and attitudes of the groups in the society to one another, and a way of reaching every member of the society by the currents of information, thought, and feeling which the press supplies.”

It is heartening to receive a number of responses from readers, though a couple of them were merely clever jibes at the vocation itself. Academics define the news media as knowledge machines which make a distinct product: accounts. The role of these machines includes having editorial judgment in selecting and rejecting materials. As Professor Pablo J. Boczkowski said: “From a multitude of potentially newsworthy events happening in the world, these machines produce reports of the facts that count and explanations of why they count.”

Space for debate

When Internet 2.0 happened, there was a wide belief that this would enable readers to voice their opinions in the comments section leading to better dialogue and debate. Unfortunately, the comments section, instead of becoming a site for democratic mediation of ideas, soon descended to a gladiatorial arena drawing more blood than ideas. Many publications opted to shut down the comments section fully. Some like The Hindu have opted for a moderated comments section, which means deploying more human resources in these hard times. The unbridled space, and the choice to be anonymous, offered by platform companies like Facebook and Twitter amplifies hate, bigotry and misogyny. Debate has given way for shrill acrimonious exchanges that often end up as personal abuse. Digital disruption often blurs some of the crucial distinctions — for instance, how a local newspaper covers an international development as opposed to a global player such as Reuters or The Associated Press. For instance, a report in The Hindu, “The spectre of U.S. sanctions” (July 12), dealt with the adversarial impact on India of the U.S. Congress’s move to implementthe Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. A community requires not just hyper-local news but also needs to know about decisions taken by foreign leaders that have a profound impact on its livelihood.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 4:18:22 AM |

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