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It is Tough to Be a New Age Journalist

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In 1970 a cub reporter was baffled when the editor shot down what would have been his first scoop. The story was about a father having raped his daughter. It was killed because the editor believed that such crimes were committed by sick people. Reporting them would only help spread the sickness. As a general rule newspapers, the only source of news then, avoided using the R word. The victim or victims were either molested or had their modesty outraged.

Cut to December 16, 2012. The brutality of the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi virtually shook the entire world. Spontaneous protests in Delhi and elsewhere forced the government to set up fast track courts for deciding rape cases. It also set up a committee to suggest initiatives for introducing new and strengthening current laws for dealing with sex crimes. The committee was also asked suggest measures for improving women's safety.

Which of the two editorial policies would receive popular backing? The one that avoided reporting such incidents would, perhaps, invite the charge of following a soft policy on reporting gender crimes. Shall we then presume that the newspapers of the 1970s were guilty of supressing news? Hardly any incident of gang rape was reported by newspapers four decades ago. We must grudgingly concede that the editors of the 1970s were right as far as assessing the impact of a news report on different sections of society was concerned.

It can be a never ending debate. So let's move on. Discussing editorial policy today is irrelevant. Newspapers and other means of mass communication are now market-driven, not editor driven. Editors decided editorial policy. Business managers now have a direct say in deciding editorial content.

If we were to discuss the changing profile of journalism in the "then and now context", we shall have to discard the editorial approach of the 1970s. The editors of that era worked within the limitations of technical and geographical boundaries. Both the boundaries have been knocked down by that god-like monster called technology. In the global village the rules of conventional journalism have become redundant. The grammar of what passes for journalism has been completely re-written.

The Arab Spring could not have happened four decades ago. It does not mean that the media played a lead role in bringing about regime changes in the Arab world. The Arab Spring would have happened even if journalism itself had been stuck in the hot metal composing stage. The social media has spawned a new and often reckless breed of self-made journalists. Social media news now spreads faster than a prairie fire. And journalists are forced to play the game of catching up.

Unlike the Arab Spring, which apparently was spontaneous, the Anna Hazare movement against corruption was largely fuelled by the electronic media. The 24/7 live coverage by television news channels created the impression that the campaign against corruption had popular support. However, once the channels found other issues to pounce upon the Anna movement lost steam.

Independent observers believe that the Indian electronic media is grossly abusing the right to free speech and freedom of expression. Every news channel is in competition with the other in providing sensational content merely to improve what is called their TRP ratings. Better TRP ratings translate into increased profits.

The Press Council of India was set up under a central law to monitor violations of the principles of fair reporting by the print media. Recently the Press Council reprimanded some newspapers for having carried paid news during the assembly elections in Gujarat. The electronic media has set up its own self-regulatory body for monitoring complaints. However, since every chancel seems to be interested in improving its TRP the coverage of events or incidents becomes intrusive rather than informative. No channel has ever been penalised for indulging in the brand of journalism which has the potential to plunge the country in a state of anarchy.

To be fair not too long ago it was standard practice for reporters across the globe to make up non-essential elements, we cannot call them facts, to make the story interesting. Khushwant Singh, who at 96 is still writing a column for an Indian newspaper, believes that a good story is part fact, part fiction and part exaggeration. He must have read the handbook for aspiring journalists published in 1894 in which Edwin L. Shuman shared what he called one of the "most valuable secrets of the profession at its present stage of development."

He revealed that it was standard practice for reporters to invent a few details, provided the made-up facts were nonessential to the overall story. Truth in essentials, imagination in nonessentials, is considered a legitimate rule of action in every office," he wrote. "The paramount object is to make an interesting story."

That was then a reporter would have to be out of his or her mind to follow Khushwant Singh's advice or Shuman's guidelines. News is no longer generated for a passive audience. The audience itself is now an active participant in sharing news with the global community. In fact journalists now have to be extra careful in cross checking facts. During the Iraq war two American journalists lost their jobs for they were making up news from the front without moving out of the comfort of their home in the US.

In fact today's media has to constantly reinvent itself to remain relevant. According to Imdigitaljournalism "... Many news companies now actively attempt to integrate multimedia components such as video, links or photos into almost every story. In addition to these new methods of media consumption, the ability to generate and self-publish news is now in the hands of anyone with an internet connection and a few basic tools, creating a new power dynamic between traditional news sources and citizen journalists. Radio news still lives on ... but now focuses less on breaking news and more on analysis and human interest content."