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Columns

Narratives of black and white: The journey back to the basics of journalism

Sreedevi Purayannur
Image credit : Illustrative Image

Shashi Tharoor recently posted that there are no grey areas in Indian politics. The same seems to hold true of the media in India as well. Tharoor’s analysis struck a chord when he argued that Indian politics, and in association Indian media, thrive on narratives that paint issues and people in black and white, when the need of the hour was careful deliberation on pros and cons. Deliberation is one of the foundations of democracy, and the media has an important role to play in ensuring that this deliberation happens on a public platform. Deliberation in this context means the process by which the pros and cons of an issue is carefully considered before a decision is made.

These days, when I browse through various newspaper articles, this objective discussion is what I miss. When I want an objective report card for the Modi government–and I am sure that,in this, I stand with thousands of Indians – I am bombarded with media content that either enthusiastically proclaims that India is shining or with equal fervor predicts that it is doomed beyond hope. Conspicuous in their absence are the rational debates on issues, policies and governance like the ones we saw about FDI in print media many years ago.

When I want to know how safe India is for women, newspaper articles and television shows portray a picture that is absolutely terrifying. Either every other man you meet is potentially a creep, or there is a woman waiting to shame an innocent man for personal reasons. On the other hand, if you step into the online world, it would look like all the good Samaritans are having a conference in the virtual world if the click-­bait headlines are anything to go by.

In all these cases, the saddest part is that the news media seem to jump on the sensationalist bandwagon without checking facts first. The JasleenKaur-SarabjeetSingh eve-teasing instance in Delhi is an important case in point. All media reports took Kaur and her statements at face value, and were later proved wrong when it emerged that Kaur had made up the story to suit her own purposes.

Where is the newshound who patiently and persistently sniffs out accurate information? What happened to the unwritten rules that pertain to the reputationof peopleinvolved in an issue? To put these questions in perspective, when media scholars of international repute like Robert Picard and others interviewed journalists in the West on what quality in journalism means to them, they found that words like accuracy and fairness were used very often to describequality.

It may sound naïve and idealistic, but to me, the current rhetoric of the Indian media today is very disturbing. To meaningfully contribute to our diverse society, and of course the largest democracy, the media need to go back to its basics. Anyone with a preliminary knowledge of journalism will know that sacred dictum of putting facts before opinions and letting the audience make the judgment for themselves. Nothing in the world can be as black and white as they may appear in the first instance, and only through crosschecking, verification and critical analysis that different shades of grey can be brought to light. For example, a recent New York Times article about the workplace culture of Amazon went viral in the United States and other parts of the world. The expose had interviewed more than a 100 employees and former employees to paint a picture of the Amazon workplace that was unflattering, to say the least. It had its predictable comebacks from Amazon and a few other employees and former employees, which prompted a New York Times ombudsman to take a critical look at its own piece. The merits and demerits of the original article were objectively discussed in the ombudsman’s analysis. Such an attempt leaves the reader with information regarding various aspects of an issue without the newspaper itself calling for any judgment in the issue.

Sensationalism might rake in money and the much-­wanted TRPs–much has already been said about the way the television channels and newspapers covered the Sheena Bora case in this context but in the long run, it might not serve any purpose other than financial gain. And while the importance of profits is not to be scoffed at, it cannot be at the expense of bringing reliable accounts of current affairs to its audiences. The need of the hour is to go beyond quick-­fix reporting that looks at an issue on a surface level and into nuanced journalism that accepts that there are no easy answers to any of the problems gripping our country today, and yet aids deliberation by in-­depth coverage. The rewards of such an approach may not be immediate, but it is definitely worth pursuing. Such an approach may very well help evolve our democracy into,as Tharoor pointed out, a more meaningful process of respectful acceptance and compromise among differing interests to bring about best outcomes for the nation.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own

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