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Subject to the truth

To expect the media to remain mere chroniclers is like asking a guard dog not to bark if he catches a thief breaking into a house, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Dec 23, 2006 03:01 IST

A single image should have said it all: a blood-red rose placed proudly at Jessica Lall’s grave by her sister, who finally shed the stoicism of seven years and allowed herself to cry. As pride embraced both relief and sadness, how many of us could hold back our own tears?

You’d be surprised by the answer.

Life imprisonment for Jessica’s murderer (a man who felt he was entitled to kill because he was denied a drink, fittingly used his years on parole to open a swanky nightclub) has provided India’s middle-class with a rare sense of empowerment. But if you listen carefully beyond the congratulations, you will hear the sound of a not-so-soft whisper campaign against those who are celebrating.
Some of the criticism is legitimate. Of course, the media need to step outside the class boundaries of urban tragedies. Popular opinion is not always the better opinion and so, newsrooms should be wary of becoming courtrooms. And yes, shrill self-congratulation is never very charming.

But when I ask the nay-sayers whether they believe Manu Sharma would have ever gone to jail had it not been for an aggressive media campaign, many have turned around and said the same thing to me: the media are not meant to take sides, we are supposed to be objective.
So let me annoy them further: objectivity is simply a big media myth.

It may be taught as the first principle of textbook journalism, but it is neither possible nor always desirable.

Of course the purists would never concede that. As newsrooms across the world ferociously debate and redefine objectivity, many editors still cling on to it as tightly as if it were life itself. The Washington Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie, famously revealed that he did not vote, lest his paper be accused of taking sides.

Another professor of journalism, Michael Bugeja, defined objectivity as “seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were”. And yet, a few years ago, America’s Society for Professional Journalists (think of it as our equivalent of the Press Council) dropped ‘objectivity’ from its ethics code.

So, why is it that, though increasingly more and more of us will concede that objectivity is an entirely theoretical construct, we still bristle and go all defensive when someone accuses us of not being balanced?

It’s because people mistakenly use objectivity as a synonym for integrity and honesty. And yet, as the Columbia Journalism Review eloquently argued, it’s the very pursuit of objectivity that can sometimes keep us far away from truth.

Writing in the Review, Brent Cunningham provocatively says objectivity is often an “excuse for lazy reporting”. Analysing why the American media were so slow to take a position on the invasion of Iraq and why the Bush administration was able to get away with trumped-up claims on weapons of mass destruction, Cunningham says the indoctrination of objectivity may have been one of the reasons. He argues that the textbook pursuit of balance increases our tendency to rely on official sources and promotes a banal, he-said- she-said brand of journalism, where the reporter always remains two steps removed from the heart of the story. The bottom line: it makes journalists passive recipients of news and “we fail to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false,” says Cunningham.

Now apply his argument to India, and think about the biggest news events and issues of the last few decades. Would the horrors of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years ever have been unveiled had a few honest editors not documented them? Would the complicity of the state administration in the Gujarat riots ever have been exposed had scores of journalists not taken a clear position on who was responsible for the violence against Muslims? Have politicians not become much more wary of scandal and corruption because of the relentless scrutiny of the media? Would it have been possible to bring home the pathos of the Kargil war or the injustice of human rights violations in Kashmir, were we in the media merely disinterested observers?

Objectivity advocates protest against the increasing emotional quotient in the news. It’s become fashionable to berate television reporters for being too dramatic. But would it really have been possible to bring home the tragedy of poor fisherfolk in tsunami-torn Tamil Nadu to the rest of India without personalising their stories and ensuring that they were perceived as real people and not mere statistics? (Besides, how exactly does one remain clinical about a mass grave of little babies in a village still waiting for relief?)

And, would anyone have known or cared about a 70-year-old man called Chaman Lal Mattoo had a media campaign not rescued his daughter’s murder from the oblivion of dusty courtroom files?

Yes, Priyanka Bhotmange (the young Dalit girl in Maharashtra who was stripped, paraded naked, beaten with bicycle chains and axes, gang- raped and then finally murdered) should be as much of a household name as Jessica Lall. The fact that she isn’t as universally known or remembered is certainly our failure. But remember, to bring her tragedy to the centre-stage of the country’s conscience would also need a campaign. If her story were to be told ‘objectively’ she would be just another murder, and just another forgotten headline.

To expect us to remain mere chroniclers is like asking a guard dog not to bark if he catches a thief breaking into the house. Surely, we betray our professional ethics — and our essential humanity — if we gloss over the truth, or worse still, don’t even get to the heart of the matter, because we are so busy being ‘balanced’.

We cannot remain emotionally removed, yet have an impact. We can’t lead investigations into corruption and scams and yet remain neutral. And we certainly can’t be disengaged and yet speak in a compelling voice.

We just have to stop confusing objectivity with integrity.

And, we have to remember that taking sides is sometimes much more honest than sitting on the fence.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV

First Published: Dec 23, 2006 03:01 IST