Note: This article is the extract of one of the research papers on ‘End of Journalism’recently presented by the author at her University.
Journalism entered the twenty – first century caught into a paradox of its own making. We have more news and influential journalism, across an unprecedented range of media than any time since the birth of free press in the eighteenth century. Yet journalism is also under unprecedented attack, from politicians, philosophers, the general public, religious groups and even journalists themselves.
The primary stage of the paradox in journalism is the ascent in journalism influence, which is easily explained by watching India’s news channels during prime time and how they falsify facts and concoct stories instantly. However,Journalism’s underlying cause is the growth in the cultural, political and economic value of information, facilitated by the emergence of new, cheap electronic technologies to distribute and display news and the industry of commentary which today surrounds news. News which was once difficult and expensive to obtain, today surrounds us like the air we breathe. Much of it literally ambient: displayed on computers, public billboards, trains, aircraft and mobile phones where once the news had to be sought out in expensive and scarce news sheets, today it is ubiquitous and largely free at the point of consumption.
Today journalism no longer involves in satisfying news hunger such as a twice daily diet of a morning and evening TV bulletin: news comes in snack form, to be grazed, and every level of quality; even to be programmed to order, to arrive pre-sorted via your personal digital assistant. Where it was rare once to reach from one end of the country to the other, now it is global and instantaneous and interactive.
There are but problems with this new culture of news, because it is so much of it, we find it difficult to sort the good from bad. The fact that it is obtained mostly without direct payment may mean we value it less. As a generation grows up unaccustomed to the idea that news costs money, the economics of resource – intensive journalism, like in-depth investigations, are undermined.
In the world of instant journalism, reputations are destroyed and privacies trivially invaded in the time it takes to switch TV channels. Junk food may be convenient and taste Okay at the first bite, but its popularity raises longer term questions of public health. So too with Junk Journalism. Today’s television Journalists shoot pictures in desert war-zones and beam them via satellite for transmission around the world. These stories get more prominence if the shots are visually exciting: violence is desirable, death a bonus. Better still if the journalist is younger, glamorous and famous. Less melodramatic, but more important stories, about education, health, diplomacy and community relations, get less coverage. Meanwhile, financial journalists are hard-wired to market information system to deliver instant appraisal which moves price, raising temptations of personal financial gain and underlying longer run, more significant economic and business issues. The circumstances of modern news thus test the journalist’s judgment and honesty, not in fundamentally new ways, but more routinely and at a greater speed than ever before. If a journalist is secretly the tool of some invisible public relations machine or vested commercial interest, it is public whose interest is betrayed.
In politics, democracy itself is at stake in this world of high-speed, always – on news. Political reporters pronounce sudden verdicts upon the politicians they often outshine in fame and, as a result, parliaments everywhere feel reduced to side-attractions in the great non-stop media show.
These are many symptoms of the difficulties now piling up around this pervasive journalism. We know, from opinion surveys, that journalists are less trusted and less esteemed than used to be the case. In terms of trust, journalists rank alongside the politicians they have helped drag down, but behind business executives and civil servants and way behind the most respected professionals such as doctors, teachers, and scientists.
These days’ news radicals on television are waging war against Pakistan by calling it a ‘terrorist state’ in India and are in full swing to corrupt everything that you can corrupt, but, equally, letting journalism to ossify, or be economically undermined, and politics and public life will also suffer. According to Dr. Carl Jensen, founder of Project Censored, which has been tracking press issues in the US for 45 years says “‘The press has the power to stimulate people to clean up the environment, prevent nuclear proliferation, force crooked politicians out of office, reduce poverty, provide quality health care for all people and even to save the lives of millions of people as it did in Ethiopia in 1984. But instead, we are using it to promote sex, violence, and sensationalism and to line the pockets of already wealthy media moguls.”
There are concerned journalists who fight back, advocating a return to basic professional standards of accurate and balanced reporting and campaigning against what it sees as an over-commercial news media. The new media owners say the concerned journalists, are deflecting journalism from its sacred mission to inform citizens without fear and favour, pandering instead to the appetites of shareholders for quarter-on –quarter profits growth. We are facing the possibility that independent news will be replaced by self – interested commercialism posing as news.
Many journalists will admit to sharing the anxieties of the concerned journalists of the world across. They can see that greater concentration of corporate ownership of the news media is cutting newsroom budget and undermining the journalistic integrity, giving advertisers and sponsors unwarranted influence over news agendas. Journalists also worry about the risks that news media technologies are turning them into “robot-hacks”, prefiguring, according to experts. There is concern about the polarisation of the news media with, at the one end, badly paid and sometimes inadequately trained young people in smaller newspapers, radio stations, magazines, and online news services and, at the other, a handful of celebrity journalists who present television shows or write famous newspaper columns and earn show business salaries.
Journalism is not an easy business. 56 Journalists were killed in 2004 in the course of doing their jobs. A large number of other media workers, such as researchers and translators, who have lost their lives while performing their duties in war zones.
But it doesn’t require a war for journalists to die. According to the committee to Protect Journalists, most of the thirty-seven killed in 2001 were murdered in ‘reprisal of their reporting on sensitive topics, including official crime and corruption’ in countries like Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Yugoslavia. During the same, unexceptional year, the CPJ recorded 118 cases in which India has 16 killings on record confirmation from 1995-2004.
Lastly, advocates of Journalism are right to remind us that journalism is both a business and much more than a business. As the writer on media issues, Christopher Dornan has said: ‘Who could have imagined that the media would come to usurp political authority, buffering the policy process and decision-makers in the chaotic turbulence of perception?’ Journalism was supposed to provide reliable records of the real. Now, it seems, a stew of journalism, entertainment and infotainment establish what is taken to be real – not as the Chomskyites insist, according to some master plan for the manipulation of the masses, but in absurd, direction-less and irrational gyrations. What Huxley and Orwell feared was the dominance of collective order over the individual. What we have arrived at is something close to the end of governance as it was once defined. When the media run the show, then the jabber and the images of the airwaves take precedence over what the images were originally meant to depict, no one is in charge.’ In Orwell’s Room 101, Dornan adds, the authoritarian tormentor creates ‘the world in which the very concept of trust has been exterminated’.But trust can be as readily lost in a mist of infotainment as in the snows of a Stalinist terror.
So, if there is the debate going on in India over Kashmir and Pakistan’s status on terrorism, do not pay heed towards them, these are political stances which keep on changing and confusing citizens, both nations have no freedom of speech and press.
Sheeba Lone is currently enrolled in the graduate programme in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also involved in generating community-based livelihood initiatives in Kashmir.