The myth of objectivity in media
If you believe that media is objective, then you also believe in Santa Claus
If you believe that media is objective, then you also believe in Santa Claus. While some media outlets at least make attempts to be impartial or fair, it is impossible in today’s age to be truly neutral. In a period of high decibel TV debates and social media activism, media trials and judgmental reporting have become the norm. Senior journalists and media observers bemoan the fact that old school reporting has all but disappeared. Subjectivity and manipulation of images and events have completely changed the way news is reported.
Due to intense competition in the media, speed is of essence. It makes and breaks newspapers and channels. News magazines are bleeding to death and their obits are being written. What is crucial is getting the story first, and putting it on air first. The follow up story usually has the detailed reporting, which could carry corrections to the first story. Another trend is that very few journalists keep to the rules of not quoting from off-the-record briefings or of protecting their source. The word ‘denial’ has taken on a whole new meaning. On an average, 10 to 15 stories a day that we put out in our news agency are denials: I didn’t tweet that, I didn’t say that, I have been misquoted, this is a political conspiracy, the tape has been edited, my nephew tweeted it, my phone was in the car, it was consensual, where is the CCTV footage to prove this … you get the picture.
In the good old days media outlets used to be fanatical about their reputation. Getting a story wrong would mean lengthy editorial meetings where the story would be discussed threadbare, the reporter hauled up, and disciplinary action taken. A small apology in a box next day and systems put in place to avoid repeating the erroneous reporting. Can you imagine that today? Yesterday’s mistake is forgotten, a wrong report buried. Biased coverage: move on. Switch the channel, flip the page and roll over to the next tweet. Is this a lack of honesty to one’s profession and a slide in values or is it just the way things are in every sphere of life? Judges and editors accused of sexually harassing interns, doctors performing surgeries when an aspirin would do the job, teachers beating kids to death, the horrors are too many and reporters too few. So one tells the story as one sees it, sometimes without the luxury of scrupulously checking facts.
Another casualty of ‘Breaking News’ journalism is that what appears on camera is news. And that depends on the whims and fancies of editors and marketing teams in TV news and print media. It is a myth that editors are apolitical and media is not a business. To a certain extent there is a commitment to cover what is the truth in a fair manner. But the hard fact is: what sells is what is covered. The Tehelka sexual harassment case therefore got blow-by-blow coverage whereas the Assam rape incident where four men raped a woman, gouged out her eyes and left her to die, barely made it to the news.
Issues are important only as long as they are attached to celebrities. While media will cover gender rights issues, the story does well if there is a soundbite from a Shoba De or Medha Patkar, if the ‘victim’ or perpetrator is either from urban middle class, or a celebrity or a politician. The troubles and travails of common Indians are sadly not news. This makes it terribly frustrating for people who are working to make India a safer place for women, who are working at laws that were amended and made.
Every journalistic rule has been bent in reporting the Tehelka story. All that one learns in journalism schools about media ethics has been subverted. But then Tehelka also bent all rules and norms in the way it went about doing its journalism. Tehelka, in its early days, reminded us what journalism was supposed to be: to check and challenge what was being given to us as facts. Today, Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhury are seeing those rules being applied on them.
What they present as facts is being challenged and challenged rudely, impertinently, in pretty much the same manner as Tehelka used to do. To the young lady who said the camera was being intrusive in filming Tejpal in the aircraft, hell ya! Remember when Tejpal used call girls to film army officers? That was a news story too.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash