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Journalism's Achilles Heel

A self-imposed need to hurtle from one sensational story to another puts journalists at the mercy of spin doctors and lobbyists

Published: Nov 24, 2010 05:22:03 PM IST
Updated: Dec 13, 2010 06:07:03 PM IST

It’s hard not to have a day go by without receiving a text message or an email from friends asking why the mainstream media has been so cagey about discussing the Niira Radia tapes that were put in the public domain last week.

The revelations are indeed shocking. However, I believe the current witch hunt aimed at a couple of star journalists takes the attention away from the deeper issues that afflict our newsrooms. We now need to debate some of these issues openly rather than run petty, personalised battles on Twitter and various blogs.

So what are some of these issues? At one level, the tapes expose something I’ve suspected for a long time: the level of dependence journalists have developed for a regular supply of “stories” from public relations firms and corporate lobbyists. Not so long ago, inside newsrooms, we'd describe these stories as "plants". Today, these stories sometimes go under the garb of "breaking news." The question to ask is: why are newsrooms indeed under so much pressure to let down their guard?

The simplistic answer is that covering contemporary issues in business and policy has indeed become a lot more complex. Any good journalist covering the Reliance gas court case would know just how hard it had become to sift the facts from the slanted and often one-sided views put out by spin doctors from both sides. In that cross-fire, it wasn’t easy to keep your focus on independent, unbiased reporting. Especially when with an explosion of news channels and print publications in the past five years, there is pressure on every publication to outdo the other to "break" stories.

There’s another good reason why any smart corporate lobbyist is able to run circles around journalists. As is evident from the tapes, they now have former bureaucrats and other senior corporate professionals on their payrolls. These folks prepare detailed background papers and notes that lazy journalists tend to lap up. Detailed briefings to select set of journalists have also become common.

It’s pretty clear that while spin doctors have indeed become a lot smarter in polishing the tools of their craft, newsrooms have simply not kept pace in dealing with this increasing sophistication. Most newsrooms have not invested in training people. Even an elementary skill of reading a company balance sheet is often missing. Young reporters, fresh out of journalism school, are thrown into the deep end and asked to ferret out “breaking” stories. I keep hearing complaints that there is very little supervision and guidance and increasing pressure to churn out stories every day. Old style newsroom editors who helped groom an entire generation of journalists have become a rare breed. Is it any surprise, therefore, that these young journalists fall prey to spin doctors?

Add to that, access is becoming an important lever in this cat-and-mouse game. If you’re an independent-minded journalist willing to talk to all sides and do a balanced story, you’ll increasingly run into companies who block out such professionals and only entertain requests from publications that are more amenable to their point of view. In these tapes, there are several references to the word "leverage." Threatening media publications with an advertising boycott has become a common tactic. And I’ve known quite a few editors who would rather dilute a sharp, investigative story, instead of offending corporate interests.

The sad truth is that most newspaper newsrooms simply don’t have the patience to deal with a journalist who refuses to be cowed down by such strong-arm tactics. If you aren’t filing—and filing enough—your job could well be at stake. These days, a lot many newsrooms have clearly laid down productivity targets, like filing four bylined stories a week. And reward systems are predominantly tied to quantity, rather than quality of work. The result: I’ve seen young journalists moving around like headless chickens trying to find scrapes of information that can then be cobbled together as news. Add to that a marked preference for wire-service reporting over old style newspapering with its splashy, attention-grabbing headlines is also turning the profession into a dull, routine job. It isn’t quite the survival of the fittest. And I’ve met several young reporters who are waiting for the first opportunity to get out of the profession.

Isn’t it time for the media industry to turn its attention inwards and question its own practices and correct its infirmities, my friends ask? I'd say this is long overdue. And some spirited industry-wide debate may not be a bad idea as well.

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  • Anon

    Feels like working with you again...Wanna come out of this tread mill..

    on Sep 24, 2011
  • Lubna

    Hi IG - the problem perhaps lies in the fact that PR agencies are using their authority irresponsibly. In short, even if you have written something against Company X and the PR agency is also the agency for Company Y, not only will you be unjustly denied access to other news of Company X but also that of Company Y. If only the media houses joined hands and ensured that their journalists were not pressurized, would things change. But then, this doesn't seem possible.

    on Dec 5, 2010
    • Sz

      I agree with you but still. Check out about the 'propaganda' business of the Nazis and do a little reading of Japanese media. Its interesting. What would you do if you were a PR person? Think about it.

      on Jan 30, 2011
  • Sharmistha Gupta

    I agree... I think they are trying to sensationalize this whole issue mainly because it involves the " BARKHA DUTT". Putting her in the spot is definitely breaking news.Honestly, I am feeling bad for her. I liked the part where you mentioned about today's young reporters running around like headless chickens.... so very true! Great write up... Indrajit! Way to go!

    on Dec 4, 2010
  • Archie

    Thanks for trying to explain the problem IG. But then there's one crucial link missing here. The reporter is as good as the publication, more often than not. And the publication is as good as the owner in almost all cases. There are no Ramnath Goenkas around to support Arun Shourie's. And when the publication looks at itself as a `company' that sells `content', it opens promotes to higher posts managers instead of editors. So, yathaa raja, thathaa prajaa. The need is for a stronger press council and more publicly controlled media houses instead of family-owned bania shops.

    on Nov 28, 2010
  • Swapnil Diwan

    Mr Gupta has hit where it hurts the most. Most of the people are just glossing over what has been in public domain for past one year. These tapes were there for so long but not a single authoritative piece by any publication on the entire issue. Commoners are left to listen to tapes without knowing the authenticity. Everybody passing on the buck and damaging reputation of individuals, institution and interpersonal faith. Its a free for all kind of situation and knee jerk reaction instead of judging the issue from qualitative angle

    on Nov 26, 2010
  • S Sharma

    Decent take. But too many generalisations. I don't understand the near-fixation with 'young journalists'. They might be just symptomatic of the problems that media faces....but the rot lies somewhere else. Editorial calls and decisions are much beyond the reach of fresher journalists. Sanghvi and Dutt are not freshers. If they are indulging in all this, then one can infer that the problem has been persisting since quite a while now. Too general....would have been good had it been a little specific about the ills and misgivings of the industry.

    on Nov 26, 2010
  • Jagruk

    This is lame, man. hiding behind "there is a deeper issue" just means that you are not ready/brave enough to tackle the issue at hand.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Gaurav

    I'm glad that you covered this but the silence of mainstream electronic media on this is deafening! Even the so called "journalism of courage" newspaper-Indian Express which was once steered by the greats like Arun Shourie has fallen to such low levels under Shekhar Gupta that it is silent on this which is, well, not surprising since one of it's editors-M K Venu is also involved in this.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Kalyan

    I for one believe that, when in doubt, follow the money. The root of all that is wrong with the media is money. Some media houses started using money has the single weapon in their arsenal to get "good" journalists. I think journalists should see themselves as change agents, good samaritans or for that matter like a doctor or nurse. If you are looking for big money, look elsewhere and please stay away from journalism. Sadly that day will never come.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Tamanna Mishra

    Hi Indrajit, I understand your point of view. But I must say that we as PR get paid to get the right stories to the right people, and any (I may be wrong here - but there are some no nonsense PR professionals around too!) PR person would respect a journalist telling us loud and clear if a story does not carry enough weightage to be all over the media. We are not always looking for advocacy, our only point is to not let important initiatives get ignored, a lot of which should be out in the media, even it's just a small piece in the puzzle for "India Shining". We do trust the media's better judgement, and while I also have days when I want to fall at the media's feet to get my stories published, when I heard Vir Sanghvi's tapes, I knew for sure that if some day a journalist asks me for verbatim messaging to attack a competition/ defend my client, I will not know what to say, and I may not even stick around in PR for too long. Convenience is not always good and some of us understand that. I really wish the sanctity of journalism was still in tact. I for one always idolized the media, I really did. When I got into PR, I thought this would be a symbiotic relationship - media and PR. But I realise now that both parties are responsible for the lack of quality in modern journalism. Pride and passion and ability and a little bit of hard work everyday is all it takes to get a job well done. And the onus lies on both sides.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • S Shyamala

    Brilliant. Lack of training is exactly the problem faced by upcoming reporters like us. We come in to the profession with aspirations of changing the rotating axis of the earth. But, within a year of joining most of us are yearning to run away to some "corporate job". I've been fighting for over three years now to get out of the "PR mould" (after all, they shape most of the stories) but to no avail. Churning out meaningless and half-baked articles to manage quantity pressures is prostitution of our writing skill.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • G Balachandar

    Brilliant piece Mr Gupta! Simple yet key issues affecting the quality of reporting, and those are the real reasons for plummeting standards in reporting. While there is lack of interest and passion in the profession among the youngsters, it’s also true that there is very little guidance and help is extended to young journalists. There is definitely a growing frustration among young and mid-level journalists over this garb of breaking news and the pressure to file more stories without any focus on the quality of content. A few of my friends have either taken up new career opportunities or contemplating changing their professions. It’s high time we corrected ourselves and recharged with new set of ethical guidelines to tackle the emerging challenges in reporting.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • K.t. Jagannathan

    I guess there are a few factors for this. 1. Competitive journalism 2. Wrong picking of people for the job (of journalists) 3. Lack of pride and passion for the job 4. General decay of moral standards in the society. 5. PRs are the product of liberalization. Upright journalists existed and survived before the advent of PRs. The poor quality of PRs has not really helped the cause of journalism.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Sh Menon

    That was one of the most stupid explanation for not covering audio tapes.... ha ha Come on yaar, dont report it ok but don't think that readers all are fools to accept this explanation.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Feroz

    LOL! A General accusing the adversary of resistance and blaming foot soldiers for throwing away the battle.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Karthik Krishnan

    Hi Indjrajit, It is a hard-hitting verdict on reporters. But most of it is true. After turning a reporter, i realise how important it is to go after the real story and not rely on spin doctors.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • One

    Rubbish. If the need for sensational stories is so great, why are other media outlets covering up this story, when it actually qualifies for coverage? Why aren't other media outlets engaging in the kind of schadenfreude that they usually do when it's not one of their own under the scanner? Journalists aren't doing their jobs. That's the simple fact of it. The people involved in this aren't lowly flunkies who are forced to turn in stories; they're the kind of journalists that pull in the public. If anything, they have the bargaining power when it comes to running a particular story. And that's what makes this even more scary. They've been choosing what to report and what not to all of this time. And many people have trusted them. Nice try though. Not falling for it.

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Narrendiran

    Wish to accept Nina ma's view. Recently a senior business journalist told me this. PR guys fix up appointments with the client for her and simultaneously fix a slot for her colleague. Its basically juniors do not have guidance from senior and on the other hand they dont listen to us even if we take interest and teach.

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Krishna Kumar

    Mr. Indrajith Gupta is doing a pathetic white-wash job for the journalists exposed by Neera Radia tapes.He paints a picture of hapless journalists, clueless in the world of fierce competition, fooled by smart spin doctors, under pressure to perform, none to groom them etc,etc. But the fact is that the journalists involved in this scandal were well-established, well-paid, well-experienced, super stars of the profession, who knew what they were doing, and was under no pressure 'from the top' for doing what they did. Why Mr. Gupta turns a blind eye to the fact that almost all 'star journalists' are associated with one or other particular political party? The media owners in India have ganged together to keep out competition from foreign publications.

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Nina Varghese

    These pressures indeed become heavy in a mainline business newspaper. On one hand there is an editor looking at your productivity; on the other are the PR guys waiting to plug a story, which if you refuse will be `given' to a colleague in the same paper . You end the day, labeled a loser..

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Sameer Khan

    More transparency is required in media. You cannot expect journalists to write truth when all what newspapers and news channels care about is advertisement. Forget taking a stand on the issue, very few senior editors, baring some exceptions, are even willing to comment on the issue even in the informal setting. As India grows, lobbying will become more of a truth like in the West. But then, the tail should not become that powerful that it is able to wag the dog...

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Shuja

    While it is evident is that journalistic standards have dropped to usher in this ever increasing rush for being 'first' and 'fresh' but what is bothersome is that some journos that enjoy the so called leverage of 'access' also use it for power broking. While the corporate lobby may want the journalists to dance but what fibre in them makes the journalists dance? Hence it appears that more than lack of training, competency and infrastructure, I believe its the ethical standards that have been sacrificed for two minutes of prime time glory. Ethics can't be taught. Either one has them or not!! This is a broader societal challenge of our times of 9% growth and trillion dollar economies.

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • The King

    The top two media houses have just published the video tapes without knowing the authenticity. This is nothing,but misrepresentation of conversations. It seems that they just flash it to grab the media attention..

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Madhavank2010

    Common people don'€™t know the facts. Media is just fabricating the news to pay the attention. The tapes I think is all tricks. I see some agenda which is malicious.

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Swaminathan

    1. I dont think it is a witch hunt. 2. Your point about lack training hits the nail on the head. 3. I think you overstate the quantity bit as surely one does not want journalists doing 1 story a month!!

    on Nov 24, 2010