Towards a non-toxic news environment

As a prelude to this column, I would like readers to read the lead article by Suhrith Parthasarathy, “The virtual effacement of civil liberty” (December 21), as well as the first-person account in The Hindu’s online edition by the paper’s U.P. correspondent, Omar Rashid, of how he was picked up, threatened and released by the U.P. police. These articles reveal how the space for free expression, free dissemination of information and free thought in India has shrunk.

Most news organisations have moved to a mobile-first editorial policy to cater to readers who access news on hand-held devices. Hence, the disturbing data that 67% of the world’s documented shutdowns took place in India last year amounts to a formal censorship, which is violative of Article 19 of the Constitution. And if journalists are going to be harassed and manhandled in the most populous State of the country because of their religious identity, then the situation we are living in now is certainly worse than what this country faced during the Emergency.

Failure to ensure protection of rights

As a news ombudsman, my concerns are not only about accuracy and fairness in journalism but also the overall environment. It is only in an enabling environment that independent news media can work fearlessly to help citizens make informed choices. Internal lapses in a news organisation are relatively easy to address. A visible mending process within responsible organisations creates a sense of accountability to produce news and opinions in an ethical manner. Publishing corrections and clarifications are an effective way to rectify mistakes.

However, the failure of the executive and the judiciary to ensure constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights is sending shivers down the spine of every reporter. Journalists find this new normal difficult to handle because they pay a price for simply doing their duty. Since the days of the Watergate investigation, journalists have been saying that journalism is not a crime. There are numerous reports titled “Journalism is not a crime” published by different organisations such as UNESCO, Amnesty International, and Reporters without Borders. How I wish those in the executive, the judiciary and the legislature would read these reports!

Changes in a digital world

Readers are an integral part of the news media’s struggle for its independence, autonomy and sustainability. Credible information remains not only the bedrock of a vibrant democracy but also helps it differentiate itself from a mobocracy that is fed by shrill rhetoric. News organisations need to come up with viable strategies to deal with the digital environment. One of the finest news design experts in the world, Mario Garcia, has spelt out what 2020 holds for the news industry. The crucial four points of his reading are: “It’s a mobile-first world for the audience. It’s an opportune time to become more aggressive about monetizing content. It’s time to stop romanticizing the print product — give it its place, but not at the head of the table. It’s not too late to become serious about the impact of audio. Start that podcast now!”

It is evident that journalistic values, principles and best practices should guide the information landscape. We cannot permit trend-driven algorithms to shape the generation and the dissemination of information. Former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz, rightly says that even to fight disinformation and misinformation we need journalism, not secret algorithms. “Watching Silicon Valley exercise news judgment has been like watching Walter Cronkite try to write code in Python,” he writes.

I would like to know what readers think about the changes in the news industry over the first two decades of this century. What are the changes you like? What are the changes you want this newspaper to discard? Craig Newmark, whose charities fund trustworthy journalism and the information ecosystem, drew our attention to the spread of the ‘truth sandwich’ in American journalism. This means that a lie is sandwiched between the truth and a fact-check, as a means to confront disinformation. Do we need such a system in India? Over the next two weeks, I will collate readers’ reflections in order to devise a method to keep our news environment free from toxicity.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:37:23 PM |

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