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Gujarat to Gauri: Mainstream Media and Journalistic Ethics

In late 1990s – early 2000s, the new, private news media was green. It gifted the exciting unknown to explore and the opportunity to present stories, and shape the country’s thoughts. Both journalists and audience were expectant with the new phenomenon. But, what transpired was a total let down.

Back in 2002, when this newly discovered private ‘mainstream media’ was voraciously covering the Gujarat riots, many millions in the country were perturbed. The whole of India was concerned about what was transpiring in the state – indeed so. But, what went unstated for a long time was that an equal amount of unexpressed, subterranean anguish with the pattern of coverage was also running deep. Millions felt the reporting was biased but, then, that was a time when the national discourse came to be set only by a select coterie of journalists, who, many felt displayed poor sense of responsibility.

A few years later, before social media assumed the role that it eventually did, someone had suggested to me the necessity of building something that allowed people to express their opinions on mainstream media itself. He was certain, if that happened, journalists would come under fire and scrutiny from general public. During the day, I had discounted the thought, considering the idea too conspiratorial. It was not until later that I realized how keen the observation was and how suffocated must India have been for these long years.

It is heartening that technology progressed drastically and social media went on to play a historic role in not just democratizing information but, also bringing media under that constant scrutiny. Very recently, a well known journalist wrote that Indian journalism is being influenced by the ‘pressure to be popular‘. To me, that is an unfair statement to make. It trivializes a much wider phenomenon that is transpiring. A transition has happened indeed, and still underway.

The incumbent ‘Aman ki Asha‘ journalism has been rattled. For the first time perhaps in recent history, the general population is empowered just about enough to directly confront unethical mischief makers. And so vigorous has been the fight back that we are beginning to see a tone down from even some such incumbents.

Putting it in a single sentence, perhaps for the first time, post-globalisation journalism is being subjected to the journalistic norms of ethics. And that isn’t happening through the Press Council or a theoretical self monitoring mechanism. Leveraging technology, by and large, people have begun holding media accountable. And this is the heat the mainstream incumbents of the industry are feeling. Blaming trolls and fringe groups displays a very superficial understanding. Rather, it is the conduct of the media and press themselves that has tarnished the repute of the profession.

Specific instances are not hard to find. Media’s decade long undeterred obsession with Gujarat riots and the incessant projection of Modi as a mass murderer despite people repeatedly reposing their trust with him; the suspicious propagation of Hindu terror when enough was known to suggest ulterior motivations for the same; Soft corner for Kashmiri separatists while simultaneous indifference to Kashmiri pandits; Radia tapes; and many others.

Latest in the sequence of such events has been the Gauri Lankesh murder which the mainstream media latched onto almost as a lifeline, ostentatiously for the sake of preservation of free expression and dissent. Honestly, too few had heard of Gauri Lankesh. I had not either, until the murder happened. I felt bad about the incident. But, I felt worse when a crime had been twisted to the effect of suggesting ‘stifling of dissent’. This was preposterous and malicious. Worse still was when sections of journalists and intellectuals took it on themselves to actively circulate suggestions on the involvement of an entire ideology.

This is appalling. Not because a journalist was killed. Journalists have been killed in the past – in more gruesome manners, and perhaps even employing state machinery. Jagendra Singh, a Hindi journalist, for example, was killed by setting on fire in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Neither is it appalling because dissent is being stifled, which is actually laughable. If at all, the expression that is being allowed to dissent of all kinds, even vulgar, is perhaps at all time high.

It is appalling because, sections of journalists have blatantly failed to uphold the basic ethics of journalism. Publishing articles and conducting debates that were not only not based on facts but, even virtually deflecting suggestions that pointed to a Naxal angle is strongly indicative of suspect intent. Even days after the murder happened, the media has not been able to produce a single shred of evidence to base their allegations on.

And, it is still more appalling because at a time when two major events of global significance concerning India are underway – the trend reversal of 70 years old Indo-China relations post Doklam and the future India stares at in the context of the Rohingyan immigration onslaught, journalists suspiciously promoted the bogey of ‘stifling of dissent’ as against the possibility of India’s future changing forever.

With the growing pace of production and consumption of news as with any other commodity, it has become increasingly easy for journalists to function with vested interests, in violation of journalistic ethics. By hurling unsubstantiated allegations on an entire ideology that the vast majority of Indians have voted to government, journalists have only proved how they are using their privileged positions as custodians of the national discourse to perpetuate their biases.

Not just is this conduct example of unscrupulous intolerance towards a competing thought stream, rather it is also the unethical employment of resources at the disposal of media/press to influence public perception. License for irresponsible journalism cannot be sought in the guise of free expression.

Social media has done a tremendous service. By giving voice to the people, it has begun imposing checks, even if indirectly on the mainstream. The pressure that journalism today is feeling, is the resounding ask by a billion people to be responsible and honest, nothing more, nothing less. The journalistic fraternity needs to understand are a part of India and together with the billion plus people, they too stand at a cusp from where all indications point to India taking off. The fraternity must decide which side of this historic period they would like to find themselves on.

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Siddhartha Kar
Technologist and Entrepreneur. Keenly interested in India, World History and Current Affairs.

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