Print media: challenges ahead

Mahmood bin Muhammad

THE PEN is mightier than the sword. Undeniably so, today and for all time. Some great men have also endorsed this view.

Thomas Jefferson said: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Napoleon averred: "Three hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets."

It is an accepted fact that people tend to believe anything that appears in print, whereas the spoken word has only an ephemeral effect and is soon forgotten. The printed word can moderate, inflame or calm down public feeling. At the same time, it can cause irreparable damage. There is evidence of flagrant misuse of freedom by what is called the yellow press which specialises in sensational, vague and often scurrilous reports. Not infrequently, such reports become unconscious stimulators of crime. Besides, there is a woeful lack of follow-up reports to undo the damage caused by inaccurate reporting.

The major aim of the media is three-fold: to report news accurately, fairly and quickly, to educate and to entertain. The media is required to exercise its freedom within the ambit of the national ethos and values, the moral consideration being always kept supreme.

One important trend which the print media has always to contend with is the tendency to compromise on integrity. In this context, what Jack Anderson said on journalists years ago still holds good:

"They become the lap dogs of government instead of the watchdogs over government. They wag their tails and seek approval instead of growling at the abuses of power. The reporters who go along with the powerful, and act as explainers and apologists for those who violate the public trust must be considered accessory to the pillage. Like the politicians and the special seekers, these men sell themselves each day, and the chumminess between the power structure and the Press apparatus apparently robs the reporters of integrity" (The Anderson Papers, Page 6).

The greatest challenge that the Indian print media faces today is from the electronic media. Satellite television has transformed the world into a global village. During the Gulf war, the CNN, the American cable news giant, was discovered as the only weapon of mass destruction which did an effective job in damaging the credibility of the mass media. In fact, the CNN had played a crucial role in clinching the electoral fortunes of top leaders in the world's most powerful state, the United States.

A new trend noticeable in our own print media these days is a certain amount of "trivialisation" in the name of modernisation. Modernisation is welcome so long as it does not become synonymous with westernisation or vulgarisation.

The English media is often accused of rejecting, distorting or misrepresenting news pertaining to the Muslim community. It is alleged that news of a negative nature alone gets published and due coverage is not given to real problems. Indeed, in all matters involving Indian Muslims, the print media is blamed for turning non-issues into issues and for the wide gap existing between fact and perception, causing thereby considerable harm to the cause of secularism in the country.

We are living in an age of globalisation, an age of cyber cafes and multi-nationals, wherein the print media is threatened by unprecedented competition, but the fact remains that, for the ordinary citizen, there can be no substitute for the daily morning newspaper. Some of the leading newspapers are now engaged in devising new ways to meet the new demands of a society in which access of information to the common man has become a statutory right, and no agency, public or private, remains "the closed fraternity" which it once was.

It is important, therefore, that while they continue their endeavours to reach for the stars in terms of quality, they remain firmly rooted in the native soil and retain the flavour of "Indianness." For, "emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree." (Rabindranath Tagore in Fire Flies).

It is also important that a code of ethics is evolved, written or unwritten, on what could or could not be published and to ensure that the power of the press is harnessed for the general good of the community.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia)

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