DEBATE: Is excellent journalism bad business?

Is excellent journalism bad business?

A provocative question, coming minutes after 24 journalists were applauded receiving the second Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards on Monday evening, was the subject of a debate held after the awards ceremony.

And as a panel of editors and publishers tried to come up with their answers, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was in the audience, leaned across the stage, half-sitting on it, and asked his own question:

“You will all have to ask each other if the media can be a partner in nation-building and can promote value systems,” Kalam said. “The media has to promote economic development and reduce the number of people living below the poverty line. You have to become a media for one billion people.”

That, in essence, was what the debate was about: aspirations versus reality, the tyranny of the TRP versus integrity and ethics in journalism, excellence versus populism. And the consensus after a gripping hour was: there are forces at work that undermine good journalism but these forces aren’t larger than life, these can and need to be harnessed so that a news media organisation today remains committed to public trust and credibility, two of its strongest values. And while “excellent journalism” doesn’t have to mean “ponderous talking-down journalism,” it is more relevant than ever.

Among the panelists were Shobhana Bhartia of the Hindustan Times, N. Ram of The Hindu, Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express, Ravi Dhariwal of Bennett and Coleman, publishers of The Times of India, and Pankaj Pachauri of NDTV India. Barkha Dutt of NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN were the moderators.

The debate picked pace as politicians and other members in the audience joined in. Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani intervened to blame television for the sensationalism that happens in the print media. If TV had to pull down someone, he says, “it chooses a particular angle because it makes him seem like a villain”.

To loud applause, Advani explained how TV was debasing the media discourse, how anchors of some shows were chosen because “they looked like criminals,” an apparent reference to the ratings-driven crime shows that are passed off as news on TV channels.

When Dutt asked Advani if TV hasn’t got anything right, if it hadn’t brought in vitality and energy into the media, Advani said, “Even tabloids do that to newspapers. That doesn’t mean all newspapers should be tabloids.”

N. Ram said that he “agreed” with Advani on his observation and remarked whether the word “popular” used to describe a section of the media was a “code word” for something else.

Taking issue with Kalam on “nation-building,” Ram said:

“How do we define what is in the interest of the nation? While you are for nuclear deal (with the US), I am dead against it…while Advani is for the temple at the Ramjanambhoomi site as a national project, I think it is a divisive project.”

To which Kalam clarified that while these two could be his agenda, what he was talking about was whether the media can and has a role to play in the coverage of the almost 250 million people who live below the poverty line.

Arguing that print doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Bhartia talked of how newspapers often ended up playing up undeserving stories only because they had been on TV all day long. She said the newsroom has to adapt to modern technology, so if a story breaks on SMS, gets posted onto the web and beamed on TV, it’s the newspaper’s job to “digest” that story and publish its essence the next morning.

As panel members sought to find the elusive balance between popular journalism and excellent journalism, they asked themselves if the media had lost its way in the race for better circulation and TRPs.

Ram said the challenge lay in “combining the pursuit of excellence with popular appeal,” and admitted that excellence does not always guarantee market success. He cited the recent takeover attempt of The Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch as an example of “excellent journalism” being forced to be subservient to market forces.

Ravi Dhariwal agreed that his paper was market-driven but underlined that it’s only a “good product” that can be sold. He said the philosophy of his organisation was that the “intelligent reader” be made to feel that he can aspire to a better deal and that “relevance” in journalism was the key word.

When Rajdeep Sardesai asked if smartly packaged, “fast food news” had changed the way we looked at news, Shekhar Gupta said: “There is now an overload of news. That’s where we need journalists to make sense of it and that’s where we need excellent journalists.”

Gupta said the trusted definition of good journalism was what The New York Times says every day: “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” And what is fit to print is an editiorial call that media organizations make.

As the debate veered towards the broadcast media, Barkha Dutt wanted to know if the media had its own class assumptions, if it had different standards for its Hindi-speaking audience and its English audience.

The bhoot-pret obsession of Hindi news channels came in for much criticism—and ridicule. Pankaj Pachauri agreed that some channels resorted to irresponsible journalism and propagated superstitions to boost ratings. “But TRPs,” he said, “can’t buy excellence”.

Economist Meghnad Desai stood to ask the panelists why the media in India wasn’t playing a more aggressive role. “The media has to go after politicians…criticise them and hound them out of public life,” he said.

While talking of how the media often gets its priorities wrong, Sitaram Yechury of the CPM talked of how during Bill Clinton’s visit to India, newspapers talked of his dog and his food on their front pages but pushed the killing of Dalits in Bangalore into their deep, inside pages.

To this, Dhariwal said, “Trivia and titillation can work for a moment. But news is about building a long-term relationship. People now want serious news.”

While seeking to find answers on whether the media adheres to its core values of honesty and integrity, Ram said that in the West, young readers were steadily abandoning the traditional newspaper and newsmagazine, preferring instead to access information on the Internet. “But in India,” he said, “newspapers are in growth mode. We have to avoid making the mistakes the West made”.

With time running out, the panelists agreed that the media cannot afford to ignore credibility and accuracy in its race to boost TRPs and circulation.

Gupta rounded off the debate by saying that in the year 2007, there was a considerable amount of professionalism in the media and “there can be no excuse for (journalists) not following the standards of honesty and integrity.” He said that as in all serious, prosperous and educated markets abroad where there is a demand for excellence in journalism, the future, in India, too, belonged to a media that goes beyond the obvious, explains what happens next and helps the reader make sense of an increasingly complex reality.

The rise of Thomas Friedman as a voice that’s taken seriously across the world, Gupta said, was a testament to the growing hunger for credibility and trust. Advani, too, cited Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree as a book that explained globalisation to him more effectively than any work by a traditional economist.

Text courtesy: The Indian Express

Also see: ‘Media should become partner in nation-buiding’ 

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