Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Challenges of Journalism (chapter from my book)

The recent News of the World scandal left me dejected. The rot in media has reached epidemic proportions. 

Amongst all the institutions in a democracy, media has the most powerful role. It is not a pillar of democracy without reason. It is an active observer of the world. It is, to a degree, omnipresent. Therefore, it often acts as eyes and ears of the law enforcement setup. Media is not impartial. It is partial to the public interest and public interest alone. But the foremost role of media is in its ability to view the world through the changing social lens. It has the power and knowledge to debate the changing values and, to a certain degree, influence the course of the society. It is unfortunate that media has failed us.

The revival of journalism must start with examination of its shortcomings. The very definition of journalist is no longer clear.

Who is a journalist?
Journalist clearly does not refer to employees of media institutions. It would be unfortunate to call celebrity experts as journalists. (The term celebrity expert refers to those people who specialise in affairs and the private life of celebrities. It does not refer to experts who are celebrities.) Neither should sports reporters be called journalists. In today’s context, some of the real journalists are simply bloggers. It was never more important to define journalists than today. Journalist should be defined as agent who furthers the principles of the democratic system we discussed earlier. Only journalists should be allowed the privileges embedded in the democratic setup. Thus, in my view, News of the World should not get journalistic priviledges. It should be treated differently. 

Social connectedness of journalists
The degree of separation between journalists and any individual should be as low as possible. It should be closer to one. Unfortunately, the journalists of today are no longer connected to individuals and their issues. That is why we need celebrities to further genuine causes like planting trees etc. It is imperative that journalists go closer to the individuals and communities.

Focus on speed
The other factor ailing journalism is the focus on speed. That takes away any opportunity for in-depth analysis. Top newspapers are shifting to a two-step approach, journalists usually report the facts on the ground and the section editor thereafter goes through with in-depth analysis.
This model is well developed in financial media. There, providers like Bloomberg, Reuters provide data at varying frequency while the teams of analysts from various brokerages analyze the data and provide the expert perspective.
While I understand the motivation behind this setup, I think it is inadequate. Journalists, in certain cases, operate more like detectives and there is nothing to replace real evidence. Even financial analysts regularly meet with companies and validate the information they receive from data sources.
Further, journalists are more than detectives. They have to sniff out stories where there is no report of a crime. This requires, what experts call, “nose for the job”. The depth of journalism, at least in such analytical stories, suffers to a great extent.

Journalists need an aggregator of facts
In the context of current problems, media should at least function as an aggregator of facts and data. Here we refer to media as separate from journalism. The journalists, even if external to such organisations, may be able to mine the data and evolve their analysis. These facts, once established, should be available in public domain. It should be possible to augment and improve them through subsequent fact-finding missions by other media employees.
Journalists, in such a scenario, are moving away from traditional media hierarchy. We need to create recognition for this new breed of journalists.

Problem of continuity
Journalism requires longer follow-ups, particularly for important issues like WTO negotiations, carbon emissions, financial crisis etc. As the events continue to unfold the scope, severity and depth of investigation and understanding changes. Journalists today, are not able to follow through with their stories. In a way, it is easy to follow the scandals of top sportsman or politicians. However, the important debates, related to US healthcare, foreign policies etc, are very difficult to follow.
Popular bloggers, with their subject focus, are able to do a better job at following stories with arguments as commentary. The quality of discussion is enriched. It is probably the reason why top journalists now have their own blogs.

It is critical to design a system where journalists are able to work for the democratic system and further its goal. The system should start by redefining what journalism is supposed to be at its core. Such a system may be actually evolving as a network of bloggers, but it needs to be nurtured and expanded. Further, the current model of subsidising journalists with revenues from corporates or entertainment will not be enough to sustain this key pillar of democracy.

From my book Subverting Capitalism and Democracy - chapter titled Challenges of Journalism

My book "Subverting Capitalism & Democracy" is available on Amazon and Kindle.