With a presentation style veering towards shrillness and sensationalism, Indian media may have retained its subscribers but is fast losing its credibility with them. Regaining this means making some adjustments in the placement, tone and pitch of news stories.
When told by an artist he had commissioned that there was no war to be covered in Cuba, the late American news publisher, William Randolph Hearst, is said to have quipped, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”. This exchange is possibly an urban myth but there’s no denying that Hearst did influence the US newspaper industry in a big way and is largely credited with spearheading the ‘yellow’ journalism trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the years that followed, however, muckraking in American daily news gave way to a steady objectivity. This shift, surprisingly, was not driven by ethics as much as by economics. According to an interesting perspective offered by the Economist (The Future of News, July 2011), impartiality in reporting was actually designed to broaden a newspaper’s appeal to subscribers and thereby, to its advertisers. Journalists who followed this code of conduct also enjoyed greater job security. “Objectivity’, according to a New York University journalism professor quoted in the article ‘is a grand bargain between all the players [in the field]”.
So, where does objectivity ?it in the modern Indian context?
Yellow journalism may be a strong label for the brand of reporting that we often see in print and broadcast media. However, with the exception of a few channels and publications, coverage is unabashedly sensationalistic. Events and personalities are cast in shades of black and white. Every political scandal, big or small, is tagged with the suf?ix of ‘gate’ and framed as a conspiracy against the general public. These tendencies are stronger on television with its limited window of opportunity to grab the viewer’s attention. In local and regional coverage, the tone is even more harsh and shrill.
This is necessary, at one level, but unfortunate, at another. It’s necessary because the state of our socio-political affairs calls for a certain amount of activism and engagement on the part of the media. It requires a spirited approach, unlike the deadpan and bloodless reporting style seen before the 24-hour news cycle. It demands an appetite for dogged investigation and probing, something that Indian media has ably demonstrated over the years.
However, where this approach fails is in becoming so extreme and one-sided that it loses the audience. Most people these days absorb news reports with a healthy dose of scepticism due to the blaring, shifting headlines and rampant speculation in them.
Of course, if we are to apply a pro?itability ?ilter and view the whole exercise as a drive for subscribers and followers, truly objective reporting (as immortalised in journalism textbooks) may never again be common practice. In an environment where old models are being challenged, newspapers and TV channels are being forced to reinvent themselves in order to survive the landscape shifts. This has caused news to become infotainment, lying somewhere at the intersection of reality TV and scoop journalism. Neutrality and impartiality get pushed to the background in this scenario.
Financial imperatives apart, there is a towering crisis of credibility for India’s news industry and this can only be tackled by having a new form of objectivity replace the old standard. Under this rede?ined form, there will be time slots and column space once again for balanced reporting. Just as there will be for grounded analysis and opinion. The two just won’t be forced together in an embellished mix of fact and judgement.
With the boundaries redrawn, the media will act as a chronicler and interpreter of events rather than as a prosecutor of real or overblown crimes. Along the way, it will maintain complete transparency – in revealing its sources, methods and motivations.
In short, the media can and should take a stand as long as it arrives at its position after ?irst presenting an unvarnished view of the situation and weighing all the facts surrounding it. Under this new standard of objectivity, the neutral voices of a past reporting era are not completely snuffed out. Their pitch is just adjusted to accommodate rational arguments and well-articulated opinion. News will then regain credibility and the trust equation with the audience will be re-established.