If only good merited as much excitement as bad, we in media, would perhaps not be needing self-introspection; nor would we be the recipients of brickbats instead of bouquets from our readers/viewers today. Perhaps, we would still be held in high esteem instead of being examined/challenged and questioned before being believed (if at all) by those who we seek to woo!
This article is the attempt of an insider who has served journalism for over 25 years in leading national news organisations and in mid-to-senior level management positions, to scrutinise and understand why media has hit nadir today. Why in times of social media and the age of internet does a journalist believe that his/her self-righteousness on a story will not be called out?
Why are half-truths sold hoping that the audience will lap it all up, despite knowledge that the whole truth would make just as fine a story
To understand better what I am saying, let’s start with the case of 15-year old Jyoti Kumari who purportedly cycled home 1200 kms from Gurgaon, Haryana to Darbhanga, Bihar with her injured father on the bicycle carrier and became a hero overnight. She became the toast of popular imagination soon after local media, then national and finally international media feted her for the unusually brave feat. After all, a feel good story always feels good. And we all lauded the youngsters’ efforts until the Lucknow-based epaper Gaon Connection not only questioned Jyoti’s achievement but also exposed media’s slip shod work.
Gaon Connection’s correspondent Mithlesh Dhar spoke to experts who exposed the carefully built narrative. Turns out that it would have been impossible for the teenager to have cycled that distance in a week’s time. It would have meant cycling 150-160 kms/day – a ‘fact’ that lies not just challenged but demolished. Dhar also points out that the father-daughter duo covered certain distances in trucks too, which the father admitted in an interview on camera.
In this case as in many others, it appears that media persons failed to cross-check facts independently, did not question the original story’s veracity and instead glorified the ‘heroism bit’. The video by BBC (link taken from Scroll.in) where Jyoti is shown pedalling in a remote place was representational, not actual news. But no one questioned it and neither did BBC clarify. Facts were tweaked but so what? The spice in the story is more important than the truth.
And that is not the only issue. Time was when a report in the morning papers was quoted as gospel; when reader allegiances were so strong that only particular newspapers were subscribed to by households and every other competitor denounced. Time now is that nobody believes in media. The consumers paint the good and bad with the same brush – often saying that newspapers, television channels are so commercial that they are selling news; sensationalising it for either circulation/TRPs or even worse peddling fake news; that they report half-truths or half-lies. In the case of good, it must be propaganda, no less. In the age of widely and freely available information across the internet and social media, all of the above charges are correct – in some measure.
Apart from content, the presentation of it also needs scrutiny. An article by Peter Vanderwicken in May-June 1995 issue of Harvard Business Review states that dramatization of regular news was the brainchild of Joseph Pulitzer and I quote:
“The architect of the transformation was not a political leader or a constitutional convention but Joseph Pulitzer, who in 1883 bought the sleepy New York World and in 20 years made it the country’s largest newspaper. Pulitzer accomplished that by bringing drama to news — by turning news articles into stories with a plot, actors in conflict, and colorful details. …. His journalism took events out of their dry, institutional contexts and made them emotional rather than rational, immediate rather than considered, and sensational rather than informative. The press became a stage on which the actions of government were a series of dramas (read lies*).
Pulitzer’s journalism has become a model for the multistage theater of recent decades. The rise of television has increased the demand for drama in news (amply illustrated on Indian news channels every day*).”
This exaggerated reportage is no longer a pull for the readers/viewers. In fact, sensationalism and lies now disgust those who may still be interested in genuine news – minus theatrics and half truths. It has led many to discontinue morning papers and cancel news channel subscriptions. They say they are better off without the shrill noise that passes off as news on prime-time debates. Says Priti Bali, a Delhi-based chef who has turned off “news” completely. “I used to be an avid consumer. Every morning I switched on the television diligently to listen to news. But for some time now I have stopped listening to or watching news channels completely. You don’t know what is true, what is not! They make stories out of anything!” Its laughable.
On their part, journalists today have a hard time defending their actions, news stories and even political leanings. Not that they really try either – feeling smug is a prerogative. As a fraternity they call each other names, expose each other (sometimes justifiably, other times unjustly) and are into self-aggrandizement, mostly. Worse, the good work being done by some is being either ignored or assessed with coloured glasses by those they write for! Persuading the reader/viewer to stay with you and believe in you is a task by itself now.
Consider the content some more. Newspaper pages are full of rapes, murders, frauds, corrupt practices of corrupt individuals, defaulting and collapsing institutions – institutions that were once revered. But “exposing the wrongs” is important, say some from the scribe tribe righteously. Negativity also supposedly appeals more to the audiences is what media houses claim, ‘So, we show what they want.’ Thus, so long as the revenue continues to flow in via subscription, response supplements, medianet and of course, advertising, all is well.
Who cares about truth and feel good? While some concession may be made for negative stories its the good stories that are more inspiring
That is, if they are genuinely feel good not ‘made to feel good’ as in the case of Jyoti Kumari. Would her accomplishment have been any less inspiring if media had portrayed her as human and not superhuman?
But real feel good is another ball game altogether. Take the story of a 12-year old who was reunited with his parents after two months, during which time he stayed in a Delhi park with stray dogs and was taken care of by strangers. Done by Special Correspondent of The Tribune Aditi Tandon, the story (May 27) is a heart-warming account of how the young boy was reunited with his parents after a relative cast him on the roads during lockdown. Then there was the Indian Express story (May 28) on how well Uttar Pradesh has handled the COVID 19 crisis on multiple fronts. The website Ideas for India has a story (May 2) on how the entire country can use the Kerala model to fight COVID 19. Business Line (May 24) carried a story on how India is becoming the second largest supplier of PPE in the world. Wonder why stories like these don’t become breaking news!
And even though negativity leads to stress, anxiety, anger and several other debilitating emotions, it is still preferred. “I do agree however, media often ends up in a lot of negativity and toxicity because it doesn’t always have justice, reforms, solutions in mind/perspective,” states Ashima Kaul, a journalist, policy analyst, social entrepreneur and founder of Yakjah Reconciliation and Development Network in Kashmir, which strives to bridge differences and build relationships between religious and ethnic communities in the Valley through dialogue and development projects.
News craves balance however, and must definitely lean towards the positive. Because positivity uplifts humanity and inspires us to be better human beings. An article published by Positive News based on a research titled ‘Publishing the Positive’ states that ‘positive news can lead to increased acceptance of others, a feeling of community and motivation to contribute to social change.’ Senior Independent Journalist Aasha Khosa who has covered Kashmir for over a decade, endorses the thought: “We should become media of Hope while not missing out on ground realities. Honestly, I have never seen government machinery working so hard and round the clock (in the context of response to COVID 19). Your collectors, sepoys of police everyone is working non-stop. We need to generate hope and positivity.”
A thought seconded by another senior independent journalist Aditi Kapoor, “We often speak about how positive news is no news and how good news also needs to be written about. But, good news is not the same propaganda news. Good news is about what is working for the people. And bad news is about what is not working for the people. Media needs to focus on both.”
Charles Groenhuijsen a journalist of over four decades in an interview with BrightVibes emphasizes the need to cover more of good: “The basic difference I have with a lot of my colleagues is that they tend to amplify the bad stuff in the world. I would go for the opposite. Amplify the good; without forgetting the bad, of course. I mean, we are journalists. You have to give a balanced picture. But it’s so unbalanced now… If you stayed away from the negative focus and stay towards more positive, more constructive way of looking at things, I think journalism could make a better world. The problem is, journalists don’t consider it to be their task to make the world better….”
Lest I be seen as a killjoy where Jyoti’s achievement is concerned, here is a disclaimer. I think the child was not only brave but also extremely committed, courageous and loyal to her family to have taken the extreme step of peddling back home. All I am saying is, those breaking this news should have believed in her and themselves a little more. The truth would have shone just a little more brighter!