Reporting on negatives is a sign of optimism

The most compelling reason for devoting substantial space for media literacy in this column is not to defend journalism but to defend the wellspring of journalism.

The atmosphere in which journalists can do their work is getting vitiated by the minute. Governmental decrees, overt and covert gag orders, efforts to undermine sustainable revenue models, rumour mills, and the pitting of social media rants against news are some of the methods that have been unleashed to bring down trust in mainstream media. It would be suicidal if we did not address these issues as many citizens absorb elements of these sly criticisms and internalise them.

A vague binary

I get at least one letter a week questioning journalistic work ethics. These letters come in different forms. Sometimes readers tend to use an ideological lens. In other instances, they tend to invoke the vaguest binary of optimism and pessimism. This week, Gopal Bipin, a reader who did not mention his place of residence, asked the paper to refrain from carrying excessive negative news on COVID-19, which has been acknowledged as one of the biggest health and economic challenges that humanity is facing in a century.

He wrote: “The Hindu has become intolerably negative in its reporting these days with an overdose of criticism and pessimism at a time when the world needs positivity and hope. Its coverage of COVID-19 simply borders on relentless hype and hyperbole, unwittingly creating panic and fear psychosis in the minds of its readers. Do not think that this kind of fear mongering has no impact, even on patients recovering from COVID-19. Wise counsel needs to prevail among the reporters of The Hindu. I know of so many people who have discontinued subscription of The Hindu purely on this account... Lives have been ruined from job losses, businesses have gone bankrupt... It is time to think beyond COVID-19. The Hindu should stop its intellectual one-upmanship and return to balanced news reporting. It should not forget that it is not a scientific journal...”

While one can understand the angst of a citizen living under the shadow of a pandemic that has not just threatened lives but also the livelihood of millions, it is important to remember the fundamental role of a newspaper. It has to constantly fulfil three ‘i’s: inform, interpret and illuminate. One of the tasks that journalists do is to confront the distortions from the top to restore the space for a dispassionate look at events, policies and the people shaping our livelihoods.

The need for muckrakers

Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, in his speech on April 14, 1906, pejoratively called journalists and critics “muckrakers”. According to historians, this particular reference was taken from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan wrote: “the Man with the Muck Rake... who could look no way but downward.” Journalists were quick to convert the pejorative term to a respectable one that denotes social concern and courageous exposition.

Journalists for over a century have known that reporting on negative developments, scrutinising ineffective governmental measures, and holding those in power to account are signs of optimism, not pessimism.

John Keane, co-founder of the Sydney Democracy Network and Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney, said that every generation needs its share of muckrakers. His argument is that muckrakers put their finger on a perennial problem for which democracy is a solution: the power of elites always thrives on secrecy, silence and invisibility. He wrote: “Gathering behind closed doors and deciding things in peace and private quiet is their speciality. Little wonder then that in media-saturated societies, to put things paradoxically, muckrakers ensure that unexpected ‘leaks’ and revelations become predictably commonplace.”

As a journalist for nearly four decades, I have been witness to countless instances where journalistic exposés have led to timely course corrections. I am convinced that if journalists were pessimists, that would show in their journalism. It is often called ‘fluff’ or ‘public relations journalism’ and tends to become an apology for the ruling elites. On the other hand, if journalists are optimists, they will aggressively point out failures and hope for course corrections.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 3:20:23 AM |

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