Professional journalists and democracy

Four strong pillars of democracy, as it is well known and enshrined in our constitution, are legislature, judiciary, executive and media. Professional journalists have great a responsibility and an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position affect the citizens the most. It may also offer a voice to the voiceless. Being an independent monitor of power means “watching over the powerful few in society on behalf of the many to guard against tyranny (like emergency of mid 1970s) and privacy of common people like eating habits, dressing etc. (2014-15) ....”

10 Oct 2018 | By PrintWeek India

Som Nath Sapru

The watchdog role is often misunderstood, even by journalists, to mean “afflict the comfortable.” While upsetting the applecart may certainly be a result of watchdog journalism, but should be less combative. Rather, it sought to redefine the role of the journalist from a passive news gatherer to more a curious observer who should “search out and discover the news.”

The purpose of the watchdog extends beyond simply making the management and execution of power transparent, to making known and understood the effects of that power. This also includes reporting on successes as well as failures of government, state-sponsored institutions and their policies.

Due to continuous and appreciable rise in literacy rate, which is rising rapidly, from 65% in 2001 to 76% in 2012-13 and is predicted to reach 90% in next five years time, citizens have become more aware of day to day happening in the country. So it is imperative for journalists to seek the truth and report it as truly and fully as possible without being selective.

In recent years, it has been observed that some newspapers and news channels have become selective in their news presentation of day-to-day affairs or editorial columns. A journalist has to act independently, meaning free of any influence from the interested parties and thus minimise harm to anyone by such reporting. A professional journalist has to refrain from exaggerating or distorting the facts on his own or the organisation he is working for.

Because of easy excess to the internet, reach to news and daily happenings, all around the world, has become increasingly efficient, but does it mean that professional journalists became redundant, in many eyes, surplus to requirements.

No, it is not so. The invasion of amateur citizen journalism is not there to stay long but it does create additional information — whereas, the established media dealing with regional languages have many problems, it is heavily dominated by English media, resource-starved for the gathering of the news in a professional way, and in many ways hidebound in its outlook — some of these establishments are making best use of social media. But it is not a replacement, and if the value of professional reporters is not recognised soon society at large will learn the hard way.

For a professional journalist, the cardinal principles he has to follow all through his professional life are an obligation to the truth, and present truth in a reliable, accurate and meaningful context. This journalistic truth is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.

The text a journalist prepares for his audience/ reader should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so that consumers of his text or reportage can make their own assessment of the information. The stories/ reportage a professional journalist prepares should be impartial or neutral is definitely not being followed by some, as it is not a core principle of journalism.

Because the journalist has to make decisions as the situation warrants, like in case of any communal tension being covered the journalist has to be extra careful in his presentation – the professional journalist has to make his own decision to achieve his object of reporting the truth – as the journalistic methods are objective.

When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists were free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal, religious and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of the dispatch. The method is objective, not the journalist.

The cornerstone of professional journalism is independence and reliability – so the journalist should not be vulnerable or intimidated by power or compromise by self-gains. This brings the journalist to be alert to an independence of spirit and an open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity that helps the professional journalist see beyond his or her own political affiliation, economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or ego.

While practising journalism, whether as a professional writer for a news organisation, newspaper, TV channel, personal blog or as an online contributor in the public space, the professional journalist is committed to one’s moral compass and demands a personal sense of ethics and responsibility. In recent times while watching panel discussions during news programs on any news channel – sometimes it looks like as if the anchor, who is normally a professional journalist, is assuming the role of the judiciary or an investigative agent and during the process, one has to suffer lot of negative news which finds headline space.

While reporting happenings one has to be truthful and factual, but sometimes all truth – even the laws of science – are subject to revision, but still one has to operate by them in the meantime because they are necessary and they work. A practical and functional form of truth – it is not the truth in the absolute or philosophical or scientific sense but rather a pursuit of the truths by which one can operate on a day to day basis.

Unbiased journalism does not mean that the journalists should abstain from expressing his/ her personal opinions. However, the reader should be able to tell the difference between the articles stating facts and materials expressing someone's opinion or interpretation of events. However, this principle should not limit the journalist in choosing the style of writing.

While reporting stories on criminal subjects such as communal riots etc., witnesses or victims belonging to a religious, ethnic or other minority can be mentioned only if there are grounds to believe that this could contribute to a better understanding of the described events. This kind of information could result in bias in relation to these minorities and the journalist has to use his/ her judgment — that the story should not aggravate the situation.

Freedom of the press is one of the major guarantees of the freedom of speech as enshrined in our constitution, an obligatory element for ensuring other civil rights and freedoms. The freedom of the press involves the possibility to freely discuss and criticize the activities of both the authorities and public and private institutions. Journalists contribute to the realization of the right to express unpopular opinions or agree with the point of view expressed by the majority. The journalist's responsibility is to defend the freedom of speech, retain independence of his/her political views and convictions. He/she must resist any efforts to distort information or introduce censorship.

In our 70-year-old democracy, the professional journalist should also attempt to fairly represent varied viewpoints and interests in society and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate. Accuracy and truthfulness also require that the public discussion not ignore points of common ground or instances where problems are not just identified but also solved.

The professional journalist has to serve the public interest, journalists must at the same time keep legal hick-ups in his/her mind while writing a story, especially regarding the confidentiality and privacy of the people they interview or write about. For example, most of the journalists often record their interviews on mobiles and other similar devices to ensure accuracy and avoid being blamed that ‘I am misquoted,’ as routinely most of the politicians say.

In this case, journalists must tell their sources they're recording the interview before it begins. Some aspects of a professional journalist's job are not subject to any kind of law but are just as important. Journalists must strive to present as a matter of fact and accurate, well-balanced explanation of the stories they cover. He has an obligation to present all sides of an issue and to conduct extensive research and talk to several sources knowledgeable about the subject being covered. If he presents the only popular opinion, or if he conducts very little research without fully exploring the subject, it won’t be in his reach to give readers and viewers the truthful information they need to understand the implications of the event or issue.

There is a strong belief that journalists control the mass media but the best journalists recognize their role as servants of the people. They are the channels through which information flows and they are the interpreters of events. This recognition, paired with the desire to influence, can produce good campaigning journalists who see themselves as watchdogs for the society, the democratic functioning of the legislature and the nation at large. The journalist has to be ready to champion the cause of the underdog and expose corruption and abuses of office. This is a vital role in any democratic process and should be equally valuable and welcome in countries where a non-democratic government controls the press.

Ongoing transformation in the journalistic profession due to ever-changing technology and fast-changing concepts of reporting the events to the audience/reader what could be the ideal rudiments of journalism is debatable issue — however the must rudiments are: knowing how to write a grammatically correct news story is not difficult, learning the new technologies is also not difficult as long as one has patience and commitment to present a good story. Whatever one has presented or written should be informative and the information should be accurate and verified.

I conclude with a quote from Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya: “...a journalist should have ideals; he must have self-respect and a sense of honour; he must have dignity and a sense of responsibility. He must be a good man and a man of character and must follow the ideals of truth and justice."