Not too long ago, this was the typical news cycle: an event occurred, the reporters covered it, returned to their offices, wrote it and that report went through three layers before it got printed. The next morning, over a cup of tea, it was read and digested. Till then, most people were ignorant of whatever had happened.
Today, information travels in real time, via the social media, followed by news websites, then TV channels and only much, much later does it make it to the newspapers. By then, millions of people not only know what has happened but have also been offered interpretations, analyses and partisan commentary.
Not only the speed of dissemination but also the nature of news has changed. Fifteen or so years ago, the report presented to the reader had been edited, fact-checked and toned down in keeping with the ‘newspaper voice’ — sober, detached, objective and balanced. Today, whatever information reaches the consumer is little more than raw data and unfiltered. It can often be shrill in tone and biased in presentation. It virtually tells the reader and viewer what to make of it. When 24/7 channels first entered India, the newspapers had to find ways to compete with them in breaking news; today channels have to not only compete with each other, but also with the social media. The rules of the game have completely changed.
Understanding this change is key to making sense of why information that would not have passed muster with any editor in the past and would remain out of the newspaper’s pages is now presented to the public with hardly any corroboration, fact checking or balance and objectivity.
Take the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign. When the fasts started last year, TV channels began beaming them live. An organised civil society movement for an anti-corruption bill that the political class was resisting was definitely news. It was a cause that touched the ordinary citizen and the fact that hundreds of ordinary people came out on the streets showed that it had struck a chord. The news channels, conscious of their core viewership, saw an opportunity and posted their OB Vans at Jantar Mantar and other venues.
The IAC today is a different beast. It has split and is on the verge of becoming a political party. It has shown its partisan leanings, its lack of rigour in its so-called investigations and it is hurling accusations against all and sundry with no evidence to support them. Yet, every wild charge made by Arvind Kejriwal is covered live, with a great sense of anticipation. The pundits are wheeled out to provide commentary and the accused are forced to defend themselves. There is no dearth of people walking into newspaper offices waving documents alleging wrongdoing by someone or the other. Most of them are given a hearing and then sent off, with promises of checking out the information. They don’t get instant coverage — why should Kejriwal?
For one thing the media has become more credulous. The old systems and filters have now virtually faded away. The important thing is to get the information out, cross-checking and other old-fashioned things like balance and fairness be damned. More important, if A doesn’t cover it, there are B, C and D to put it out and there is always the social media ready to jump in. Nor is it sufficient to break the news; it has to be done in a way that keeps the consumer engaged. The headlines now read like a wrestling match — Kejriwal lashes out, BJP slams the Congress, etc. At least on TV, a panel discussion will offer a variety of perspectives to make sense of the news; on Twitter, the verdict has already been pronounced. Now even ‘Breaking News’ is old hat, since most people already have the information.
What is the way out of this? What should mainstream media practitioners, who are uncomfortable with some of the devices they have to use to keep their readers/viewers engaged, do so that they do not dilute their journalistic standards? There is a sense of discomfort within the journalistic community about how Kejriwal and company (and others too) have manipulated the media to get coverage for their cause. Why did the media, normally so sceptical, happily offer airtime and precious column space to a group of shrieking activists and discard time-honoured principles of journalism? Future historians will wonder about it.
The only way to get out of this is to return to old-fashioned professional values. The social media is not going to go away, but what it offers is not news but raw, unprocessed information. It can at best be one more input for the reader and viewer. A tweet may inform us about an event the moment it happens, but it is up to TV channels and then newspapers, with the vast resources available to them, to make sense of that information, provide context and put it in perspective so that the consumer gets a more rounded and nuanced picture.
The 24/7 news cycle calls for speed, but not at the cost of accuracy and all those things that journalism is all about, such as objectivity and fairness. There is a danger that news will also come to be seen as entertainment, and then it will become difficult to go back to basics and regain credibility.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story
The views expressed by the author are personal