Media organizations cover crises and upheavals of all kinds for us, but don’t quite reflect on the existential threat to the core values of journalism. At a time when the image and credibility of journalism in the eyes of common people has been adversely affected, many honest journalists are coming to doubt themselves.
They feel choked in a climate where the essence of their profession has been lost with commercial interests dictating the news values. They can no longer claim to be part of a noble clan, particularly with unscrupulous elements masquerading as journalists and bringing bad name to their occupation. They wanted to engage in ‘journalism of courage’. Instead, they have to submit meekly to the ‘pulls and pressures’ of all kinds.
Youngsters, who are new to the newsroom, are equally disheartened. They had opted for a career in journalism for a reason- their passion to serve public interest. When they realize the vested interests of powerful few prevailing over the larger public interest, the passion wanes into pessimism.
Some people may thrive in this polluted news atmosphere, but the honest and committed professionals must rise to the occasion and reclaim the space for public-interest journalism.
The crisis is not unique to our part of the world. American journalists have been facing the same troubling questions. In their book ‘The Elements of Journalism’, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel recall the rainy Saturday in June 1997when 25 journalists gathered at the Harvard Faculty Club. These included top-notch newspaper editors, influential television and radio executives, senior journalism educatorsandprominent authors.
“They were there because they thought something wasseriously wrong with their profession. They barely recognized what they considered journalism in much of the work of their colleagues. Instead of serving a larger public interest, they feared, their profession was damaging it.The public, in turn, increasingly distrusted journalists, even hated them. And it would only get worse,” writes the duo.
Kovach and Rosenstiel even cited some disturbing figures to this effect like- ‘by 1999, just 21% of Americans thought the press cared about people’. Themembers of the group which was named as Committee of Concerned Journalists voiced their concern.
One editor said, “In the newsroom we no longer talk aboutjournalism.” Another editor chipped in, “We are consumed with businesspressure and the bottom line.” Journalists’ bonuses were increasingly tied to the company’s profit margins, not the quality of theirwork.
The scenario sounds quite familiar apart from the fact that the local flock doesn’t seem to feel the same pressing need for introspection.
From the discussion, Kovach and Rosenstiel drew some pertinent questions: “If journalism—the system by which we get our news—was being subsumed, what would replace it? Advertising? Entertainment? E-commerce? Propaganda?Some new hybrid of all these? And what would the consequence be?”
These questions stare us in the eye even now, perhaps even more squarely. The answers matter not just for journalists but for the public too.
After all, as the writers point out: “Journalism providesindependent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free… journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture. This is what happens when governments control the news, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”
Back to the meeting, the groupdidn’t just discuss, they went on to address the issues. They agreed on the need to recover true journalism before it disappears. The group decided on a plan: engage journalists and the public in a careful examination of what journalism was supposed to be.
Result: one of the most comprehensive studies in media industry undertaken by journalists themselves, combining interviews, surveys, content studies and public forums. The lessons learnt were documented in the form of the book ‘The Elements of Journalism’ by Kovach and Rosenstiel.
The journalist duo asserts that unless we can reclaim the theory of a free press, journalists risk allowing their profession to disappear. “In thatsense, the crisis of our journalismis a crisis of conviction.”
We can trace some of the professional dilemmas of journalism to media ownership. As the news increasingly is produced by companies outside journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel conclude, “We are facing the possibility that independent news will be replaced by self-interested commercialism posing as news. If that occurs, we will lose the press as an independent institution, free to monitor the other powerful forces and institutions in society.”
Whether anindependent press survives the onslaught of economic and political interests depends on how well journalists can articulate what an independent press means.
Its fate depends on the clarity and conviction of the media practitioners to uphold the core values and principles of journalism.