Ten modern commandments for the Indian media

Last Updated: Sun, May 04, 2014 11:26 hrs

Mass media in India has gone way beyond journalism. It influences elections overtly, boosts or diminishes careers and businesses, and is a direct conduit to politics. It has become a sort of mind real estate over which everyone wants control.

The 2014 General Election is the first where correspondents have been picked off newsrooms to contest. This was hitherto limited to editors, largely semi-retired. Now anyone is fair game. This raises questions over a correspondent’s reportage.

Anything dished out in the Indian media ought to therefore be treated only as an input. Not the last word. We could do with a fresh set of guidelines as a starting point.

The Indian media rarely introspects, which robs it of objectivity and renewal. Here are ten dos and don’ts that could help. They are merely a point of origin. Far more is needed but it is difficult to go wrong when these ten are practiced.

1. Your master is the Indian reader and viewer, and none other.

Owners have acquired extra-human proportions. I have been in newsrooms where owners have bestowed on themselves an editor’s expertise. This kills newsroom integrity and makes journalists highly sensitive to the likes and dislikes of an owner.

An undistinguished owner of a business newspaper once asked that a news item be reprinted exactly the way it was for a second consecutive day. He wanted the last sentence, asking for funds for a political party, to be published because it was edited the first day.

It was the only time in my career that the same report was published in the same place two days running. There are other owners who ask journalists to get ads. There are some others who write or organise ghostwrites of unnecessary editorials. None of this makes sense.

Journalists only need to report on happenings, get to the root of them and work on exclusives. A reader needs no more.

2. You shall not treat Google as god.

Many journalists spend less time now in the field. This is partly because ignorant and insecure bosses want them in office all the time. It is also because journalists use Google for everything. Google is a tool, not a source.

It can only gather information that is already in public space. It cannot tell you anything new. Google works as a resource for updates and to get a sense of what has been done. But many in the newsroom have developed the habit of rewriting stuff from Google.

This corrupts the newsroom. The habit spreads rapidly and ruins processes and probity. It is impossible to monitor every journalist all the time. Social media has now taken on Google-like properties. Many tend to scan social media before meetings for ideas and updates. This is silly and wrong.

People are still the best sources of information. Meeting two people a day, ten a week, helps build a super network. You have to do the miles. There is no other way.

3. You shall not ape others.

The offices of editors are full of consoles beaming what news channels are dishing out. I have seen editors jump and change their stories to match what a competitor is putting out. There is no need or rationale to do so but they feel compelled to copy a rival.

It makes sense if it is a big news break, like 9/11 or 26/11, where you have to inform the public urgently. But what sense does it make to junk a health exclusive for a silly byte of a mediocre politician? This kills instincts and makes zombies of reporters and subeditors.

I was once in a newsroom where youngsters seemed to be in a state of elongated brain freeze. Most ideas were stale or lifted from morning newspapers. This happens when you are not curious about things. Often, reporters and photographers ask peers in other newsrooms for tips and updates.

The only way to grow is to rely on you. Forget what the others do and focus on what works for you. In time you will develop a signature style which is great.

4. You shall disclose your assets and leanings.

Barring trainees, everyone else ought to put out their assets annually on organisation websites. Trainees are not entirely benign; many with hidden political or business leanings enter the system as trainees and take control years later. But we could let them be on matters of income.

All general news media have political leanings. Business publications and channels have political and corporate leanings. Transparency demands that the media disclose its earnings and leanings.

For instance, the Zee group is solidly pro-Narendra Modi as is Dainik Jagran. The Hindu is pro-Left, and so on. It becomes easier for news consumers when they know where a channel or publication is coming from. Not informing the world is a form of dishonesty that distorts journalism.

Media outlets ought to state who they support in an election. This is done in the American media and nobody complains.

5. You shall not fill airtime with ads.

Indian news channels overdose on ads. Anywhere between ten and eighteen minutes of a thirty-minute broadcast are commercials. This is probably the maximum ad time in any country’s media. Things are so bad that the government is considering a cap of twelve minutes of ads every hour.

It isn’t that Indian channels spend more than, say, CNN or Al Jazeera on newsgathering. Yet, CNN has far fewer commercials than Indian channels. This eases the mind and helps focus on developments. A major Indian newspaper owner says he is in the business of advertising, which alters everything the publication does.

Print media is not so bad on the mind although many parents and schools are uneasy with the nature and number of ads in newspapers. It was much easier, for instance, to do school assignments involving wildlife pictures in the past. Now, all you have are models and products.

Ads numb the mind and reduce IQ levels. The children of media owners and editors are affected too.

6. You shall not exaggerate or lie.

The concept of breaking news has become irrelevant in India with every little thing labelled as a news break. People have become numb to the phrase that flashes incessantly across television screens. It dulls and bores; it doesn’t excite.

Breaking news is used to describe big developments that affect citizens and nations. Not anything that happens. How does the engagement of two celebs or a politician driving from one point to another become breaking news?

Real breaking news does not happen more than once a month, if at all. You have to work on exclusives to make it happen.

7.  You shall not glorify your work.

Journalists are not models. They cannot sell. But many Indian news channels have promos featuring editorial staff, each more bizarre than the other. There is unending bragging about awards, none of which have the gravitas or status of a Pulitzer.

Hindi channels can be injurious to intelligence. CNN-IBN and NDTV are embarrassingly vain. Times Now is even worse with its absurd Super Primetime. It consists of people yelling at each other for no reason. It is structured as entertainment and they seem to think it is the greatest show on earth.

The best editors I worked with were Vinod Mehta and Shekhar Gupta. They didn’t glorify a word in their heyday. Mehta now diminishes himself on news shows but Gupta still retains freshness with his interviews.

The best journalists are those who don’t need to peddle their work.

8. You shall undergo training every year.

Indian media does not invest in people. There is virtually no training on job. Journalists are usually generalists; they have no expertise in anything. This makes it difficult when specifics have to be reported on. You can see anchors struggling; they barely manage to read what the teleprompter spits out.

Print journalists are no better. They hide ignorance with too many quotes. There are scores of news reports every day that are no more than he said, she said compilations. It is important to be trained in reporting environment, crime, economy, politics, gender, culture, film criticism and so on.

Subeditors too can go stale rapidly. They need training in language trends, headline styles, fonts, and even design elements like page-making. Printing and broadcast technology evolves but people in newsrooms don’t.

Then, there are veteran correspondents who can’t write a sensible sentence. They have spent decades as journalists repeating what they did initially. Nobody told them they could and should improve. Annual training must, therefore, be mandated in all media organisations.

9. You shall not work round the clock.

It is counterproductive to work every day and expect the brain to stay agile. The body and mind need rest. Breaks are necessary at least one day a week, maybe more. The New York Times gives its correspondents about four weeks to put together specials.

Three weeks to gather information and a week to write. This produces front page stories and Pulitzers. Many editors in India want stories in a day or two, which harms quality. Half-done stories are then packaged at the desk with smart headers and photos, and placed on front page.

Every journalist needs time off. Go as far away from the newsroom as possible, mentally and physically. You return with renewed desire and ambition.

10. You shall not join politics for three years after your last newsroom job.

This is self-explanatory. It is required to restore media integrity. We cannot have sources offering election tickets for stories. The ticket-for-story business is as sordid as the cash-for-query scandal in parliament.

It kills everything about journalism. You might as well stand in the marketplace with tags around your neck. Nothing is sacrosanct if reporters end up in bed with political parties, corporates, celebs or law enforcement officers.

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