Over the past decade, journalism has become a dirty word and journalists the easiest targets for everything that is wrong in the world. The last year saw the highest number of attacks on journalists in years, as our credibility was slowly replaced by Google searches, sponsored content and WhatsApp. It’s convenient to blame journalists for all that’s wrong, but I argue that it’s you, the consumers of news, that killed journalism. This is how.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
Andrew Sam Pandian. Damodharan. Subhas Rai. Peerzada Ashiq. Masrat Zahra. Gowhar Geelani. Arnab Goswami.
Chances are that you are not sure what this list of names is meant to signify and that you only recognise one name on that list. Well, this is the (woefully incomplete) list of all the journalists that were detained, arrested or booked by the police or in courts in the year 2020.
In April, Andrew Pandian was arrested for reporting on supply chain challenges brought on by Covid-19 and corruption in the Public Distribution System. Damodharan was arrested in Tamil Nadu for capturing footage of medicines being distributed without prescriptions and was subsequently labelled a fake journalist. Subhas Rai was arrested for reporting on villagers near Varanasi who had to resort to eating grass to avoid lockdown-induced hunger. In March, Masrat Zahra was booked in J&K where she is a prominent, outspoken figure against human rights violations for “criminal intention to induce the youth and promote offence against public tranquillity”. Geelani was booked for “glorifying terrorism” for questioning the veracity of the anti-terrorism claims made by the current government. This is merely a minuscule cross-section of the list. In the latest rendition, India slipped two ranks from 140 to 142 on the “Reporters Without Borders” index that ranks 180 countries on the basis on press freedoms due to “pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”. In March 2018, a Cobrapost exposé titled Operation 136 found that a dozen news organisations of repute were accepting payments from “operatives” to push “soft hindutva” stories. There is no state or UT in our country where a journalist wasn’t physically attacked for doing their job last year.
Yet the only time the country went up in true uproar was when it came to Arnab Goswami. Suddenly we were all extremely concerned about press freedoms and willing to stand for journalists. Suddenly a national institution was being attacked and the glory of the fourth pillar needed to be restored. Suddenly injustice could not stand.
In truth we had abandoned our journalists long ago and the popularity of panel-based screaming news shows weighed against the slow and certain demise of local news has been proof of that for years now.
So, who killed journalism?
Well, it was you.
The consumers of journalism killed journalism.
There is a deep misconception about journalism and what it does. Either it is viewed as a glamorous field filled with morally-ambiguous people who travel a lot, smoke and seem to know a lot of people. Or it is viewed as a “soulless” profession where individual reporters are seen as the bastion of corporate lines and political slants. Do news outlets have political biases and sometimes corporate sponsors? Of course. Does that impact how each individual reporter does their job? Not quite.
News is not all about uncovering scams, political/corporate espionage and making shocking revelations, it is about the bedrock. The alphabet of the world around you. It’s how you know what road is closed because of an accident or construction project. It’s how you know who provided the funding to make a hospital. It’s how you know why there is a power outage or where there has been an earthquake. It’s how you know what the parliament or your local municipal council is doing. It’s how you know about ISIS. It’s how you know court judgements. It’s how you are able to understand the budget. It’s how you know the results of elections. It’s how you easily access the millions of sheets of statistics that are uploaded by thousands of agencies every year in a single page.
It’s not glamorous. Glamour is not what most journalists do, only a very small percentage of journalists do that. We do the things that most people would spend hours doing if they had to get all their information straight from the source of the information. We read privacy policies. We read supreme court judgements in their entirety. We read bills and amendments like CAA and GST and break them down into 10 salient features for your clearer (and easier) understanding. We explain what net neutrality is and how it affects you. We pull data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and gather press releases to explain what the ministries and big companies in our country are doing. We are in the business of making information easily accessible and most importantly we are in the business of separating fact from hearsay and bullshit. Too often we view news only by its loudest and most nationally-prevalent factions but news is a lot deeper than that.
Of course, in today’s day and age, with the internet and social media, everyone is a journalist. My degree and years of experience lend the same credibility to me as the WhatsApp account of literally anybody else. We wouldn’t do that with a doctor or lawyer but we are comfortable telling journalists that their core skill (which is, again, gathering and representing facts) is the same as anyone else’s. It’s not, though. Media literacy is at an appalling point in our country (and a lot of the world today) because we aren’t taught how to judge what information is trustworthy but we are taught to denigrate the institutions that are littered with people trained to do exactly that. Journalists don’t just write whatever we feel. There is a process. An incident or discrepancy leads to the coverage which involves citing sources for the information, interviewing people involved in the situation, visiting the location that is at the heart of the situation, providing background data for the situation, representing all of those elements exactly as they are and then following up on the responses to and developments in the story, sometimes for years after anyone else still thinks those stories are relevant.
Opinion pieces are a different thing. This for instance, this is not journalism, it is my commentary on journalism today and should not be viewed as fact. Most news institutions have strict fact-checking practises and even reporting someone’s age as incorrect in a news piece is a serious thing and while fact-checking processes sometimes fail, the most blatant recent example of this being the reportage in the Caliphate podcast by the New York Times, it is a failure of process that needs to be checked by re-establishing professional standards (you know like we did after the money laundering scam in banking in 2014, no one stopped putting their money in banks, yeah?) or a failure of the ethics of an individual in the institution, it cannot be checked by deciding the entire field has the same credibility as your Google search.
Which is not to say journalism is in itself blameless. It is not. I believe the issues of this generation of journalists began with the Radia scandal in 2008 which revealed the unique powers a journalist can acquire over time and how those biases can infiltrate policy when made available to lobbyists. Funnily no one who has ever attacked me for being a journalist has ever made that argument. The problems consolidated with digital media taking over as the most likely source for the dissemination of information which took the news cycle from 24/7 broadcast to a demand for constant new content 24/7. Print ads were a more lucrative model for the press and online ads just do not generate the same revenue and with newspapers going out of business at an alarming rate there was just no way to keep up with the competition online. Additionally journalists are now required to be more social media strategist than reporters and content that does better online is not necessarily the good journalistic content. I mean cats are consumed ten times more as content online than detailed analyses of municipal corporation budgets.
Journalists who worked on stories for weeks and sometimes months to ensure thorough reporting and fact-checking were suddenly required to produce 2-3 blog pieces a day or risk losing their jobs. A majority of what we see today, even on news channels, is not news but people discussing the news. For the online consumer, content is not viewed as “news” or “not news”, it is viewed as “interesting to me” or “not interesting to me” so the news has to masquerade as clickbait and exciting headlines that promise scandal and shock. Even then the majority of local news outlets the world over have struggled financially, with a record number of then either closing or significantly downsizing over the past decade. Shutting down local news while strengthening the loudest national voices as the undisputed faces of journalism is how you enable the structure to disseminate propaganda. Local journalism is what supplies national journalism and without it, there is nothing at the heart of information.
Ultimately there is one thing a fair, free press needs to be independent enough to be able to do its job. To be independent, we need money of our own. Plain and simple. And here is the fact that for me is the definitive argument that the free-press was killed by its users:
No one wants to pay for the news.
Think about it. How many online news organisations do you pay subscription for? How many have you ever sent money to? We feel entitled to the news and any news outlet that asks for money is immediately dubbed immoral online. Or, you know, because most of us cannot justify calling The Economist immoral (and if we actually came to the melee with good arguments, we could), we just ignore it. A fraction of the people who used to buy magazines will pay to access the same content online which to me says that when it comes to journalism people were always only willing to pay for the paper on which the work was printed, not our work itself. There is no other profession that we would treat the same way. A lawyer won’t give you an hour-long meeting to discuss a case they haven’t even taken without being paid first and we are all okay with that. We just expect journalists and news organisations to be able to function without money.
Well, they can’t.
So journalism went a dangerously problematic route when they realised that advertising doesn’t work the same way for news organisations as it does for influencers. We went the route of ‘Native Advertising’ otherwise known as sponsored content. The best example of this is BuzzFeed, they write about products and companies in formats of personal experience and exciting announcements (while accepting payments from these organisations) and while they do attach disclaimers (as do most other organisations who do this), media literacy in our world is at a point where the consumer is barely able to distinguish paid content from the news and by virtue of paid content appearing on a news site, it has automatically become more credible than it would be on the website of the organisation itself. When we were unable to make money through any other means we began to sell our credibility and that’s on us. It’s working, though. We are gaining funding and we are losing credibility.
But who do we hold responsible for this?
Being a journalist is like living in a Facebook comments section nowadays. I’ve told people I am a real-estate agent just to avoid having that discussion where they feel like it is not only okay to blame me as an individual for all that is wrong in my field but also to unload all over me about every frustration they have with the country while simultaneously blaming me for it and refusing to pay anyone in my profession for providing the services they demand. When farmers protest because their livelihood is threatened, we see individuals who need to be protected, but journalists are rarely afforded the same privilege. Journalism is one of the most underpaid professions in the world and even more so in our country. Journalists are paid worse than even teachers which, let me be clear, is disrespectful to both journalists and teachers. My first two years working as a journalist I worked two full-time jobs and one part-time job just to be able to afford living in Delhi. I missed five Diwalis and Christmases in a row because I could get time-and-a-half working on those days and I needed the money.
Most of my friends started with salaries too low to even make rent and many of them still persist at only slightly higher incomes. We expect the same thing from journalists that we do from designers of video games: constant crunch and to work at salaries lower than we deserve for the love of what we do. And it works. Most journalists love being journalists. We feed off the abuse and bear with the constant confrontation because we love what we do. We bear attacks, questions, arrests, unlawful detention, threats, lack of safety, wage insufficiency and endless deadlines because we believe in what we do and its importance.
It only matters to us though. As far as our community goes it is very clear that only if we descend to the lowest common denominator and openly display bias (towards the current government) on national television will any part of the country stand up to defend us (and you don’t get to complain about how the news is all screaming nowadays when that is all anyone is watching long enough to recognise the people who create it). Basically, we’re on our own. The majority of the journalists whose faces are not on billboards and TV screens are the ones who break stories, do research and supply the information that is consumed by most large news outlets, but those journalists are destined to be unread statistics sandwiched between posts about what Diwali gifts to buy and which Bollywood celebrity lost a lot of weight written by people no one is looking out for who haven’t slept in three days.
So the next time you feel like telling a journalist what you read on Whatsapp or how their job is not worth doing, please ask yourself, what the fuck have you done to keep the news alive? That fifth lamp in your drawing room, that’s not doing anything to keep your lights on, but it’s easier to pay for that than the people who work tirelessly in the streets everyday to try and ensure accountability from your leaders and providers, isn’t it?
Well that’s on you then.
You get the news you deserve.