A journalist's dilemma
Is being neutral an insensitive act?
Dear Mr. Pannerselvan,
The question you have raised is a question I had been troubled about all the time. I am not a journalist, though I write occasionally, on social, economic and political issues. Whenever I read newspapers or listen to the TV anchors I used to ask myself, “do these journalists understand their commitment to the truth in their duty as journalists?” Since I am not a professional journalist I do not know what is the professional duty of a journalists, as distinct from their commitment to truth.
Can there ever be a conflict between one’s professionalism and one’s commitment to truth? I am convinced of one thing, “no matter what you do, you cannot compromise on truth”. Our convictions should be based on upholding truth, justice and love. All these three words can be interchangeable. There can be no justice without truth and love and so on. When one tends to point out what is truth, I feel one should examine the truth by asking, is it a truth only for me or for all or for most people?” Or one can recall the talisman Mahatma Gandhi gave,
"I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, it the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to SWARAJ (i.e. self rule/freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?"
I feel if something is true then it should be true for all observers and stake holders. One would say there are no universal and eternal truths. But the issue is if something is true it should be true for the maximum people.
I do not think any one must abandon his or her professionalism to campaign for values she or he considers morally indisputable. If any value is morally indisputable then one must put all his professionalism to uphold such values. Our professionalism should be at the service of upholding the values which are morally indisputable. I do not believe that being professional can conflict your values which are morally indisputable. I would further add that all professions are at the service of upholding values and moral which are indisputable.
Sometimes, I see that several journalists move with the currents. They change their colour according to the political and economic power. I am not going to waste my time on criticizing them.
Most professions attract people because of their unique role in society. Some people opt for bureaucracy or diplomacy to serve their country through an institutional framework. Some opt for the corporate sector to generate wealth. Some opt for politics to savour power. But how do we understand the desire of hundreds and hundreds of young men and women who choose journalism as their career? The profession does not have the power of politics, it lacks the influence of bureaucracy or diplomacy, and the salary levels can certainly never aspire to match that of the corporate sector. It is the desire to be agents of change that drives people to journalism.
Once they become professional journalists, they are often caught in a bind between the rules of journalism and their own overwhelming desire to advocate an idea. Thomas Kent, who was my fellow board member in the Organisation of News Ombudsmen during his stint as the Standards Editor of the Associated Press and now the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, recently raised a set of questions on behalf of journalists: "What does neutral journalism mean when the issues at stake are fundamental ones of democracy or humanity? When journalists cover matters as stark as these, can they be truly neutral, as if they're indifferent to what will happen? Or must they abandon their professionalism to campaign for values they consider morally indisputable? Is there a halfway house between the two extremes?"
Mr. Kent juxtaposes the two value systems that govern his news organisation. The legal requirement states that his organisation must remain "consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective and comprehensive." On the other hand, the mission of his radio station is to "promote democratic values and institutions, and combat ethnic and religious intolerance." He asks: "Are objective journalism and promoting our values incompatible?" In his short essay for the Ethical Journalism Network, Mr. Kent concludes that it "is possible to be objective in news coverage while still defending basic values." In the present context, where we are facing a range of contentious issues - from closure of meat shops to the debate on concurrent elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies, from Universal Basic Income to the relationship between the executive and judicial appointments - I solicit the views of readers on this crucial question.
Looking back at my own journey as a journalist, I notice a particular trajectory in my writing. It started with the exuberance of an activist and mellowed over a period of time to present facts in an understated fashion to let truth emerge. I was not conscious of this journey. Last week, when writer Ashokamitran passed away, I was asked by one of the reporters to share my 1985 interview with the writer. Rereading a32-year-old interview was a Eureka moment. I realised that literature played a colossal role in shaping my journalistic writing.
At a deeper level, what Ashokamitran said about his creative writing applies to good, effective journalism too. "Don't take anyone for granted" was a recurring theme in all his writings. "No character is picked up or dealt with in a casual manner. Not that there is no fun in the stories, but writing is pretty serious. It is not in the way they are described... I don't subscribe to describing characters... the characters reveal themselves in their responses to the situations in the story or the novel," he said.
The clincher came in the second part of his answer: "Clarity about characters should take readers close to the spirit or the message of the story. No writer worth his salt strives to work out a message deliberately in his work. The work itself is the message. `Message' is a terrible term, and I use it to keep the answer intelligible, and perhaps also to give an illusion that something profound is, indeed, being conveyed."
A testimony to sensitivity
This particular dilemma of a journalist - is being neutral an insensitive act? - is not new. Many young journalists tend to confuse freedom of expression, censorship, and editorial judgment. When asked to permit facts to speak for themselves and when a copy is cleaned for its activist overreach, they wrongly attribute a conservative streak to the Editor. The fact that a particular story has been assigned, investigated and published is testimony to sensitivity.
The Hindu, Monday 27th March 2017