Bring back good journalism

The media has to reflect on its ways and methods of reporting if it has to reclaim its respected place in society.

By Author T Muralidharan   |   Published: 24th Mar 2017   1:20 am


One of the main roles of the Fourth Estate – the media – is to decipher and report on the public views. The recent Uttar Pradesh election prompted a senior Delhi-based journalist to acknowledge the total and complete failure of print and TV journalists to see and report the popular vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party in UP. This, of course, happened on a much smaller scale compared with the US, where leading media houses like The New York Times predicted that Donald Trump will lose.

Media’s credibility is already low. The business community sees it as ‘paid or motivated news’. The urban middle-class considers the media, especially electronic, as ‘entertainment news’. Politicians are the only people who connected with the media regularly because of their belief that it knew the pulse of the common person better than them. However, even this constituency is losing faith in the media.

Why did this happen? Let me start with the first question. Did the media not see the ground reality or it saw but did not report? It is my belief that the latter is not true in this case. When the media is unable to report what they see, there are broadly two reasons:

1. Media owners and even journalists have their own agenda and political affiliations. This is a fact. The statement of Press Council of India Chairman Justice Sinha confirms it. But this is not the main reason in the case of UP because even those media supporting the BJP did not see the landslide win.

2. Media reporting ‘paid news’ is a cause for concern. Yes, there has been a tendency for politicians to buy patronage – sometimes from individual reporters or from news organisations. But even this cannot be the reason. Samajwadi Party, the local party in power, had the advantage, but then all the political parties tried this route and hence the coverage was neutralised across the media spectrum.

Hence, the belief that the media did not see reality. Why did this happen? There are many reasons — some obvious and some not-so-obvious. Let us examine them one by one.

Detached from Public
Prime Minister Narender Modi has articulated this view to Delhi-based journalists. But this cannot be true of all journalists because a large number of local journalists or stringers live in rural communities and are very much in touch with the people there. But are they listening and able to decipher from what they hear from the ground? This is where the problem lies.

Weak in Data
Most journalists, especially vernacular, are not comfortable with statistics and hence get swayed by anecdotal evidence. Moreover, they are focused on ‘quotes/bites’ and on the human interest angle of the story. Statistics is seen as a distraction to the smooth narrative.
Why does this happen? First, many journalists, except business reporters, are graduates in humanities and are not from the maths/statistics stream. Second, most believe that the average viewer is bored by data.

Limited View
Modern and western style of journalism expects journalists to be decisive and conclusive in their communication. A TV journalist has to make the story simple enough for the audience to understand. This means that the journalist decides the angle to the story based on limited evidence and develops the story and presents the evidence that supports this angle.

‘Seeing a part and making up the whole’, as in the classic ‘Elephant and the blind men’ story, is the new reality. Let me cite an example – in an election report, the TV journalist asks a select set of questions to a select set of people and when this is aired, it appears to be the whole truth. The selection of the people and questions have already distorted the story. Thereafter, the reporter omits the obvious disclaimer ‘this is the feeling of these limited people I spoke with and hence does not represent the full view.’

During the UP pre-election reports, even seasoned journalists fell into this trap of sharing their chats with roadside chaiwalla and village elders as evidence.

Why over What
Reporting is about presenting the facts without a bias. But in today’s instant information era, the difference between news reporting and news analysis has been lost. Reporting is about ‘what is happening’ while analysis is about ‘why is it happening’. But every journalist believes that the ‘why’ must be answered to understand the ‘what’. This is the big fallacy and should be the other way around.

Even after the UP election, every expert commentator fell into the trap of explaining ‘why the BJP got a landslide victory’ ‘when the honest answer should be ‘I don’t know’. A lot of quantitative research is required to answer the ‘why’ and there is no time or resource available to do research so soon. So, the smarter ones have to develop the ‘why’ on the fly when suddenly asked to explain something on TV and thereafter they have to stick to that view.
The voter decides to vote for a person not on the basis of detailed logic but based on a gut feeling of what is good for her and hence cannot explain ‘why’. Therefore, the journalist’s rationale of the ‘why’ is made up only for discussions.

Missing Change
Journalists are respected because they have experience and a good memory. They will tell you what happened 20 years ago with precision. They also use parts of the past to predict the future. This means that they will totally miss the disruptions and inflexion points. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 UP election are inflexion points but the journalists were still stuck in the ‘caste and religion’ theories of the past.

Disconnect with Poor
These are the biggest set of voters. But unfortunately, they are not on social media and don’t talk much. Seasoned journalists talk to elders and women folk because they are easily accessible. But the real reporting is when they understand the poor.

In short, journalists have to reflect on their way and methods of reporting if they have to reclaim their place in society.

(The author is chairman of TMI group and an independent journalist)