Once upon a time, the pen was mightier than the sword


India ShootingIn the present era of false, fake and paid news, it is important that we go back in time and learn from the journalism of yesterdays. In the good old days when the print media was the main source of information, it was expected to highlight the shortcomings of the mighty and the plight of the wronged that the ordinary could not challenge.

Profession of editors of newspapers and their reporters existed only to solve particular hard problems with deep truths about the world that benefitted the society in general. And all those associated with the newspapers had a professional outlook.

Whenever the editor or any writer put the pen to paper, it was with the sole intention of correcting some wrong somewhere. It was hard to believe that any printed material that was not professionally produced could affect the common man in any way. Only those for whom it was more than just a job qualified to be known as professionals. Educated men who read newspapers had a lot of faith in their authenticity, particularly English language newspapers.

Newspaper clippings were often attached with case documents for fighting legal cases in courts and judges took special note of the published material. Those were also the days when the level of education and status of a family in small towns was decided by the language of the newspaper it subscribed to. Those who got the English newspaper at their homes were looked upto in society and others would go to them to verify examination results of universities or confirm certain important news which had direct impact on their lives. Undivided Punjab particularly depended entirely on a particular newspaper for all the news and views.

Print was a very powerful medium in the good old days and it was used for the benefit of society. In recent times, it has become a far more powerful tool which is misused to suit the will of powerful people. Like all such tools it is a double-edged weapon; it gives information but also gives wrong or distorted information. Economic imperatives of production and distribution of newspapers have overtaken the concern for the problems of society. This is because of two reasons.

First, any media organisation, like any other business entity, cannot survive without making profits and to do that most of its strategic decisions must be guided by marketing considerations. Second, it must tow the policy of the owners (usually big business houses) who must please certain type of people and powers to get enough advertisements and other favours to stay in business. It is well-known that what is published in majority of the newspapers/magazines and what is shown by TV channels is mostly dictated by the marketing considerations of readership and TRP. News of rape and murder find front page headlines and martyrdom of a soldier gets relegated for the same reason.

I had the opportunity to interact with the owners of a vernacular newspaper very well-known in the Hindi heartland when they wanted to enter the Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh markets. They were looking for budding journalist and had sought my help as I was then the Principal of a Chandigarh-based institute imparting training in journalism. Their views were very clear. They wanted to focus on the lower strata of society — rickshaw–pullers, vegetable vendors, small shopkeepers, construction labourers and the like. This was not because of any compelling compassion for them but because that was what was recommended by the marketing strategists.

Today, the brief given to the reporters of newspapers is to ‘generalise, simplify and don’t take too much of space’. Obviously, the common man who reads the newspapers, magazines, etc. gets only the filtered and edited version of any situation.

Different people have different views on what comprises news which should be published and what should not be published in a newspaper. But most people would agree that certain things and events which should happen but don’t and others which should not happen but do happen, become news. If this definition is accepted, then there is bound to be more negative news than positive. And in any case, negative news finds more readership as it attracts the attention of every reader.

Take for example the case of Tiger Woods, Rajat Gupta or RK Pachauri . Many people heard of them only after they were in the news for the wrong reasons, their outstanding contribution totally forgotten. Some newspapers take pride in breaking news about the wrong doings of the high and mighty and everything that is rotten because in the race for readership if they are not the first to report these someone else would be and that will hurt them in more than one way. It is a different issue that in this race of outsmarting each other, many newspapers overstep probity and journalistic ethics.

Many a times the print media reports speculations, projections and even rumours as facts because of many compulsions, obviously not known to the reader. To lend credibility to what is published many newspapers hire or even recruit ‘suitable’ writers for writing the reports. ‘Experts’ are expected to step in at the right time to support what must be seen by the readers as facts.

Newspapers often write or publish what fits in the policy of the management, meaning thereby that the editor can publish anything and no one except the owner(s) of the newspaper can question him as long as it is within the policy of the newspaper. This phenomenon often results in ‘all the news that is fit to print’ becoming ‘all the news that fits’. And if someone does question the correctness of the report, the newspaper can always publish a two-line regret on the 7th page which is sure to go unnoticed but is enough to take care of any legal hassles.

If you still feel you should believe everything written in the newspapers and magazines you read, you shall do it at your own peril. Happy reading!