Collapse of moral standards in media

Journalistic independence, intelligence, investigative ability and probity are integral to the greatness of the press. There are newspapers even today, which are no mere mechanical messengers but are dailies with a message, which makes the reader more informed, illumined and thoughtful.

It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers, without understanding the ‘hidden agenda’ of the message and the myths that surround it. Fawning servants, obedient aides, and the symbols of success surround the powerful in this country where those who reach the mountaintop are so pampered and so insulated by the trappings of power that they can easily forget that they are servants, not masters, of the nation. If power belongs to the people and the press is a trustee, resistance to exotic pressure is a new challenge to the Indian media.

Pet dogs

Jack Anderson, wary of the collapse of moral standards in the media observes in ‘Hidden Agenda’ that journalists become the lap dogs of government instead of watchdogs over them. They wag their tails and seek approval instead of growling at the abuses of power.

The media makes instant heroes and villains. It can be brutal, callous and utterly casual in doing so. Sensationalism sells. Serious issues can be trivialised in crisp but meaningless sound bytes and photo opportunities or in the manner of their display and editing.

From being a marketplace of ideas, newspapers came to be marketed more than edited — commodification of news, sensation, trivia, gossip, the tabloidisation of broadsheets. Often there has been less depth, inadequate follow-up and a certain arrogance of power manifest in disdain for correction.

The media in a poor country like India must be the voice and face of the voiceless and faceless millions. But today it is warped just to be the face of the upwardly mobile, urban middle class.

The media seldom exposes journalistic corruption except when the delictum is so flagrant that there can be no conceivable defence. Members of a guild protect their own. What about the gifts in cash and kind reporters on the business pages are liable to receive for lauding a particular scrip or company? What about the wining and dining journalists accept, so much so that even a charitable initiative goes without coverage if it goes without cocktails?

The editorial elite have been living off the fat of the land. This sort of culture produces its own branch of experts who know little about journalism. In the old days editors avoided parties given to launch consumer products like plague. Now virtually everybody is usually seen at such bashes.  Journalistic ethics, like the law, have to evolve in tune with the times, not merely become elastic. Journalists should be pointing a finger at the mirror.

Indian media is adopting a market-driven approach in the coverage of news and it is elitist in outlook. The problems of the poor, the exploited, and those in rural areas hardly find a place in the media. It is high time Indian newspapers and journalists returned to their moorings and maintained their high standards. Why? Because they influence what people think of and the way they think. If the focus is wrong, direction is lost.

Newspapers by plurality of editions, should not indulge in fragmentation and localisation of news, missing the national perspective which alone keeps alive the unity and integrity of the country. They, with their long history of glory in the field of nationalist struggle and thereafter for the freedom of the press, have a soul to preserve and a struggle to wage, so that they are no longer opium but tonic.

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