Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > July 19, 2008 > Media : Journalism in the Hallowed Tradition

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 31

Media : Journalism in the Hallowed Tradition

Using objectivity as a functional tool

Tuesday 22 July 2008, by Uttam Sen

The goal of basic science is to observe nature with objectivity. Michael Faraday’s skill and discipline in doing so enabled him to demonstrate that electricity and magnetism were separate and that the former could be generated by moving a magnet towards a ring of metal wire. The “discovery” of electro-magnetism helped technology translate this fact into critical applications like the motor car and the aeroplane. Without Faraday’s labours on detecting the energy and intelligence in the natural order, these applications would not have seen the light of day. Yet the scientist was asked what tangible good his interpretation would do. Faraday’s reliance on truth and objectivity had delivered mankind what he called a “newborn child”, its growth was by implication for technology, that is, the application of science for practical purposes, to determine. As long as electricity and magnetism were conceptually isolated, nobody was necessarily harmed, except that the great benefits the ordinary person was to eventually derive from electro-magnetism were being denied to him. The analogy with journalism is irresistible. The corner-stones of sound journalism were once the same virtues of truth and objectivity. Readers could draw their conclusions. Constructive social and political agendas have been engendered by the dissemination of truthful (or even emotive) information and the interaction of people based on those inputs. Informing the reader impartially and authentically was a public service. Latter-day commercialisation has its own rationale; so does advocacy journalism, barring the fact that opinion formed without deference to the accuracy of content can lead to skewed outcomes for those not in the loop of special interests.

But not if the reader has developed his own judgment and weighs the “facts” with those of others in the public sphere, to gauge the human condition which is less meticulously ordered than that of nature. The seventies and eighties were still times when objectivity and detail could secure good readership and advertisement. Studies are now exploring the multi-dimensional imperatives of journalism, in its own way the acorn that contains the oak of the larger socio-economic and political picture. Economic liberalisation and decentralisation pierced the nexuses of the iron frame that had maintained an exclusive club in the Press world. The greater productivity and resilience of off-set printing encouraged the trend, and facilitated the emergence of fresh clusters and power alignments in the mainstream.

However, the central question remains: whether journalistic integrity, in physical production as much as news coverage, comment and opinion-formation, can be substituted entirely by secondary factors. The new structure of specialised coverage in the West suggests they cannot, and it will take some second-guessing to tell whether our own political culture and ingenuity can create a revival of discourse critical for the political choices of the future. The integrity of news collection and publication, like science, would best serve the public good, arguably even the demand-supply principles of the marketplace. It is perhaps another story, though relevant to the present context, that the newspaper as a restricted advertising broadsheet was tried out and discarded in the initial phase of the profession’s evolution. The reader had rejected advertisement without news.

Going back to the points of objectivity and comprehensive coverage, it is not unusual at the crossroads of converging global crises—on food, oil and inflation—for political managers to couch their public rhetoric in the idiom of immediate issues. Thus, for instance, it was essential to sign the Indo-US nuclear deal to meet energy requirements, or conversely, prioritise inflation and food (in) security at the top of the national political and governance agenda. The common man’s fate, the touchstone of democratic outcomes, remains the target for governments to address. Yet people have wondered how communications unravel in the lives of ordinary people. Such apprehension most likely emerges from the relatively secure mental recesses of urban gentry who have not experienced uniquely journalistic glimpses into the worlds of total desolation where reassurance and information, however brittle, are vital to sustenance. Small print journals and publications, and serious, “thinking” journals, often in the vernacular, have reflected the conversations and interfaces of people at the middle class level and below. Not all of them are about despair. A classic instance was the late Nikhil Chakravartty’s account on Calcutta bustees on August 15, 1947, where members of communities riven by violence got together to celebrate their first Independence Day with uninhibited joy. Small publications are entitled to enlightened patronage because they give voice to heterogeneity. They could include academicians, students, members of minority groups, and those who wish to make a point, perhaps from within the echelons of the establishment or majoritarian formations.

The overlying networks of informal power and patronage which keep the ordinary person in protective clover are well-known and often carry with them the weight of their own belief and value systems. The conditions of an avowedly democratic polity do not rule out an extension of their knowledge bases. One does not have to be exceptionally literate to recognise the need for acquiring access to subsidised foodgrain through the public distribution system; however, it can be very beneficial for disadvantaged people to learn that while they sometimes spurn the perceived government favour, better-off citizens dodge the rules to collect their quotas (this has been reported). Middle class people cash in on fair price shops for fruits and vegetables that resourceful organisations, sometimes off-shoots of political parties, make available to them. There are countless other avenues of support that make the ordinary person tick, particularly during crises. The ingenuity of such nexuses is tested by macro developments, for example, a food crisis spawned by over-consumption and rising prices.

A highly persuasive argument doing the rounds is that the secular, that is, long-range, decline in the terms of agricultural trade, compared with manufacturing, is leading to the neglect of the sector itself. Decline in productivity related to the rising costs of external inputs has created shortages. The scenario is particularly stark in the developing world vulnerable to malnutrition and hunger, namely, Africa and Bangladesh. India will almost certainly ensure these voices are heard through discourse and negotiation in civilised global councils and bear upon them the need for policies that invest in agriculture for the numerous linkages it possesses with the vast numbers of the global population dependent on it. Similarly, unlike in the developed world, which has used official policy (including taxes) to curb oil consumption, the course of action in India has been held to be unconscionably generous, leaning heavily on crude oil imports to fuel domestic as well as industrial consumption. The will and consensus necessary for conservation and belt-tightening can emerge best from an informed society. Developing stories will present a renewed case for sedulous journalism which can do itself proud by sticking to basic principles. The need for a correct perspective would make sound coverage a challenging proposition for the media in general.

A discerning observer has reiterated his belief that India is a country of paradoxes where people are not thrown off-stride by inconsistencies. The big establishment media will continue to see the world largely through the prism of the global marketplace without necessarily overlooking the common man. At the same time, conditions peculiar to India would predicate a more equitable co-existence with the secondary lines of communication. Experience suggests that taming the zeal for total entrepreneurial takeover of the more liberal persuasions is necessary for dealing with a fairly intricate human predicament.

This is not to rue the fact that feistiness can be productive in the proverbially dialectical sense. A major corporate actor writing in the columns of a big paper wanted to make a virtue of the global food shortage (earlier suggested in an editorial of the same paper). India could fill the breach by motivating its farmers to raise agricultural production. What of the middleman cornering profits, damage and seepage of reserves from godowns, the disparagement of agrarian livelihood systems and the farmer’s resultant penury? The writer chose to go a bit further down the road, but on a different tack. The hard work of countries like India and China responsible for fuelling global growth was being dissipated by the speculative funds of the wealthy. Such funds had to be monitored for “imported inflation” to be kept at bay. This would gain willing acceptance from the other end of the spectrum!

If the contending schools of thought were to respond to each other, they could pave the way for a synthesis. The situation has occurred in the past, befittingly at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) forum. The nature of brewing polarisation within the country has not been too different from that of divergence at the global level. Respect for pluralism and openness, a spontaneous manifestation of the rule of law to the extent that it is observed, have been instrumental in translating variety into an advantage. This does not sound trite any longer. On the other hand, mismanagement is being demonstrated in the country’s immediate north-western neighbourhood (where the collapse of this legacy finds expression in one form or another, the latest being the explosion outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul). The hallowed tradition that still finds an echo in certain sections of the media and public sphere could also stumble upon resonance with the skeptical, not just to stand and serve but to virtually provide deliverance.

I have begun with an analogy of the scientific method, namely, the pursuit of objectivity and truth, to define journalism as we know it. The background argument is that journalism’s role is instrumental in shaping informed discourse based on which people make their choices. Certain developments in Indian journalism have mirrored the wider political process, but have not changed the value and utility of the profession’s guiding principles. Small print journalism and serious journals have a critical role to play in reflecting the choices of those not directly represented in the bigger national Press, but whose participation is necessary to get the complete picture. Macro crises like the food and oil shortages and inflation are too big for the smaller socio-political nexuses to handle. The wider discourse, in a sense between the smaller and wider configurations reflected in the communications set-up and opinion across the political spectrum, is fortuitously showing signs of convergence. The unfolding of this dialectical process has again been possible because of the foundational principles not only of science and journalism but the rule of law on which our democratic polity is based.

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