Saturday, September 1, 2012

A New Media

For some time, I’ve wanted to explore the long-term prospects for journalism in India. This has been brought on by several simultaneous events.  

For one, I’ve rarely had a conversation with another journalist that doesn’t delve into our mutual disappointment and disillusionment over how the news is covered. Bias towards certain groups or political parties is a part of this. Larger still is our disappointment at how important and sensitive issues are treated. Whether it’s showing the 26/11 attacks live or even asking a widow about her dead husband, the press has misfired more often than not. 

The second reason I wanted to get into this was the advent of new/ social media. I don’t see this as a threat as much as a wake-up call to re-invent journalism. 

Finally, I think journalism is hugely important to democracy. It helps inform the national discourse when it is done fairly and intelligently and is committed to presenting the truth. Without it the national discourse has broken down into echo chambers. In my view, recent efforts to craft “alternative narratives” are a symptom of such echo chambers.

What we really need is a clean break for neutral ground. We need an intelligent, fierce, fair-minded and comprehensive conversation on issues that matter most. It is from this perspective that I want to start the dialogue. 

Finally, I want to say this. What appears below is based on personal experiences and opinion. It does not and is not intended to reflect on all journalists. If you understand what this means, I welcome your comments. 

There was a time when the news media was great at breaking news. We used to have a role in ‘covering’ press conferences. Oh, and we used to do some sizzling op-eds. To be fair, parts of the media are still great at all this stuff. But we’re no longer the only ones doing this. 

Cameras connected to cellphones connected to the internet are breaking news faster than any media house can. Live-streaming has cut out the middleman at press conferences. And blogs, Facebook and Twitter have become indispensible in disseminating views and opinions quickly and widely. 

The old news media’s first-mover advantage is over. Ironically, we have become less relevant even as more people have become interested in current affairs. Some of the wounds are self-inflicted. Others are due to economic and technological changes. Whatever the cause, we will not survive unless we change. 

For those who aren’t in the news business, some background is necessary. Since early 2008, in line with the wider economy, revenues for the media have collapsed. Without advertising, every private media house has been forced into mass layoffs. Besides being terrible for journalists who lost their jobs, the events of 2008-2010 had a dramatic effect on the functioning of newsrooms as well. They are understaffed and over-worked even as the news has increased in pace and complexity. 

Dozens of experienced (and more expensive) staff have been laid off in exchange for inexperienced but cheaper hands. The effect on the quality of news is telling. Younger journalists are capable but it would be unfair to expect Woordward & Bernstein-level stuff from them. 

A TV news anchor now goes on air with one eye on agency feeds, another on the rundown and a magical third eye on updates breaking on Twitter. All the while, one ear is tuned to the producer, another to the studio assistant, the mind is stringing together sentences and the tongue is struggling to keep up. Oh, and he or she has to appear calm at all times. This is by far the hardest job I’ve had to do and it is not getting easier.

Reporters are under constant pressure from editors to break news faster than rivals who were mere inches away at the same briefing. I’ve seen cameramen get chewed out for being a minute behind the competition – even though the fault lay with a malfunctioning camera port. 

Journalists now have to work harder for longer, with fewer resources than before, to produce more news that is greater in complexity. The point of telling you all this is not to make excuses for the news media’s failings. It is to give an appreciation of the kind of pressures under which the news is gathered and produced today. In this environment mistakes will happen. Sadly, many of these mistakes are viewed as conspiracies. I’m coming to this next. 

This is a serious matter; and a tricky subject. Take for example, the criticism of the English media from the Right. Their main targets are some of the liberal-leaning media houses. Interestingly, many journalists whom these same folks regard as “India’s best journalists” are aligned with the BJP! This doesn’t mean either set of journalists is bad. It only means that biases exist. But are biases bad? No, not if they are disclosed. Yes, I believe political biases should be disclosed just as business reporters state their investments. It is the respectful thing to do. 

But the news media’s credibility isn’t only affected by political leanings. TV anchors yell and ‘debates’ often degenerate into barely-controlled rants (sometimes by the anchor himself). It gets worse. Magazine covers sensationalise the news to sell more copies. Plain-vanilla reports offer sketchy details of a major policy announcement. Younger, untrained reporters neglect basic questions because they lack guidance from an overworked editor. Inaccurate data or ‘facts’ sneak in because professional fact-checkers are unaffordable. 

All of these undermine a new product’s credibility just as much as a reporter’s alleged slant.  

Modern technology has replaced the journalist as a disseminator of some kinds of information. Personally, social media –Twitter in particular– helps me stay on top of news genres I’m interested in. And I don’t have to leaf past stories about what Prince Harry did or didn’t wear in a Las Vegas hotel room. 

Similarly, how many get their news only from nightly TV shows? How many get their news only from the newspaper or a weekly magazine? These old media products are losing relevance in a world where information and, more importantly, sources don’t wait for prime time or the paper boy. 

Some smart sources have cut out the news media entirely. Narendra Modi’s Google+ hangout is a great example. He had a message to deliver and he did so effectively, fielding questions tailored to his strengths.
The future of journalism (and journalists) rests on how relevant and credible we can be. We must learn new habits, unlearn others and re-learn a few more. And we need to do all this in the face of tight budgets and resources. 

Modi’s fans unsurprisingly praised his online hangout but neutral audiences were disappointed. Questions about his kurtas made me cringe just as much as the time I heard a senior editor ask Manmohan Singh about who he wanted to win the 2011 Cricket World Cup. 

Unlike Google+ users, journalists routinely get front-row access to authority. So, the person interested in Modi’s style statements is forgiven more easily than the editor who wanted Dr Singh’s opinion on the World Cup.

Sometimes we use this access very well. It was a sight to behold as Subodh Kant Sahai squirmed while facing questions about his alleged nepotism during coal block allocations. Other times we use our access terribly. Shobha De should not be appearing on a prime time show about a terror attack in Mumbai. In short, we need to go beyond the soundbite. We need to ask serious people serious questions. When time allows, it is a good idea to get audiences to participate in such questioning.  

Another focus should be long-form investigations and features. Think 60 Minutes or Pro-Publica. The news media is the only entity with the capacity for well-researched, thoroughly fact-checked and well-produced reportage. We need more of it. And we need to take it across platforms, so it can be accessed by as wide an audience as possible. 

Somewhat related is the news media’s capacity to cover all sides of a story. What’s the economic impact of FDI in retail? What is the political motivation behind it? How will it change social behaviours? How will it help or hinder farmers differently from consumers; or small business owners from big box store owners? The news media’s advantage is not that it can answer such questions but that it can find answers to them thanks to its access to authority figures. More importantly, unlike single-subject experts who write blogs, the news media can then place these diverse answers in one place giving audiences the chance to examine an event in its full context. 

Also related to access to authority is the media’s ability to break credible news quickly. I deliberately place ‘credible’ and ‘news’ before ‘quickly’. If the information doesn’t come from a ‘credible’ source it should not run. A constable who claims he knows what Kasab said in his confession is not a credible source unless it can be confirmed that he was in the room. 

If a piece of information isn’t ‘news’, it should not run, let alone run as 'breaking news'. Amitabh Bachchan getting a cold falls in this category. Team India's departure to the World Cup is news for many but hardly the sort that deserves a 'breaking news' tag. 

‘Quickly’ is essential when you’re competing. But it is the last filter. I’d much rather get it right and stay credible in the long-run than get it first but have audiences doubt future reports. So many times I’ve seen desk editors ignore information from their own reporters on the ground in favour of news from a rival channel that cannot be confirmed but sounds more sensational. 

Another way to stay relevant is to provide neutral spaces for debate. Echo chambers are driving away people who want to hear original, well-argued opinions. Get two opponents and give them time and freedom to engage. The moderator should only keep the discussion focused or prevent it from degenerating into cyclical arguments. That said, neutrality doesn’t mean allowing nonsense to pass for debate. For example, folks who call climate change a “liberal conspiracy” should be treated with the same disdain as those who call the moon landing a hoax. 

News media must start investing in multi-platform, multimedia, interactive stories. Data is hugely important in the public discourse, but if presented badly it can also be terribly boring. Stories need to be well-produced so they are more watchable and readable. This requires some re-tooling and re-training. I’m comfortable with print and video. But my inability to code can hold me back in the future. So I’m taking classes to remedy this. You can place a graph in a newspaper but it would be a total waste of the web’s potential if the same graphs went online without animation or a voice-over to enhance its ‘watchability’.

And that brings me to Social media. Yes, some journalists are skeptical of it. The very attributes that give social media an advantage over news media – speed of dissemination and reach – also create serious problems. The recent SMS and social media-driven rumours that led to ethnic and religious tensions and clashes across India are one example. It has been argued that one of the reasons these rumours were believed is because people didn’t trust reports from the news media. That only reinforces my argument about the importance of the media to stay relevant and credible in a democracy. 

But social media has its upsides too. For example, news websites can code tools that sift through the torrent of tweets following a terror attack and isolate those nearest to the locations based on embedded GPS data. On average, these would have greater relevance over tweets from another country about the same incident.

Also, several journalists (I’m part of this group) have used people we encountered on Twitter as sources in stories. It has allowed us to discover and provide a platform to voices outside of the Delhi chatterati circuit. Introducing diverse and authoritative voices is important for a large, heterogenous democracy like India. More of our tribe should do this.

I don’t want to drag this on for too long. I’ll end here. The news media can be a powerful force for good if it gets its fundamentals right and if it learns a few new tricks. It will also need to renounce old habits that worked 10 or even five years ago. Else, it is condemning itself to irrelevance and skepticism.