Journalists must reclaim the public sphere from falsehood
For journalism, winning back trust is much more important now than sorting out its business models that are being undermined by digital disruptions. Journalists have an immense responsibility: they must reclaim the public sphere from deliberate falsehood, the disinformation avalanche, and algorithm-driven hate content. The word polarisation means different things to different readers, but it fails to capture the cleaving of our social fabric, the erosion of empathy and the power of information silos in denying space for dialogue and in amplifying prejudices.
What Jim Acosta did
Let’s look at a recent example. The tumultuous interaction between the CNN’s Chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, and the U.S. presidential staff during a recent press conference has been subjected to multiple interpretations. For the critics of President Donald Trump, the suspension of Mr. Acosta’s White House press credentials was a sign of vengeance and intolerance. The President and his senior staff portrayed the episode as yet another illustration of how Mr. Trump is a victim of unfair journalistic practices. The solidarity expressed by the U.S. media with Mr. Acosta in legally challenging the White House decision was seen by some in India as the difference between the American media, which defends its rights despite having a hostile regime, and the Indian media, which has failed not only to hold our leaders accountable by asking tough questions, but also to stand by those who have.
The issue is not only about governments across the world becoming heavy-handed in their dealing with critical voices; it is also about the ideal approach that journalism should adhere to in these troubled times. Journalists, like other citizens, are human beings. They are emotional and hold political views. I do not underestimate any of the difficulties that journalists face today while trying to do their job credibly. But I also see how journalism is moving away from its traditional standards that helped build trust in the first place. Anger is not an emotion that exists only in the Twitter space; it has also seeped into newsrooms and press conferences.
Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute argue that Mr. Acosta’s conduct showed that he wanted not so much to not ask questions as make a statement. They wrote: “In doing so, the CNN White House reporter gave President Donald Trump room to critique Acosta’s professionalism. In this time of difficult relations between the press and the White House, reporters who operate above reproach, while still challenging the power of the office, will build credibility.” They did a fine analysis of the press conference and found that Mr. Acosta was on track till he moved to making statements instead of posing questions to the President.
What he could have done
Mr. Tompkins and Ms. McBride believe that the moment a journalistic query turned into a statement, it provided an exit route to the President, who has a troubled relationship with the press. First, Mr. Acosta framed his question in a manner that could have elicited an easy ‘no’ for an answer: “Do you think that you demonise immigrants?” Mr. Tompkins and Ms. McBride are right when they suggest that a better question might have been: “How do you respond to the criticism that you are demonising certain types of immigrants, namely poor immigrants?” The wise counsel from the Poynter faculty applies to reporters everywhere: “Ask tough questions, avoid making statements or arguing during a press event and report the news, don’t become the news.”
It is crucial to build and retain trust in journalism by using the tried and tested formula of newsgathering, adhering to the separation of news and views, and recognising the line that divides advocacy and reporting. This responsibility extends to the desk too. On November 14, this newspaper carried a report, “Yechury rejects idea of projecting Rahul as PM candidate now”. This was not a faithful reflection of the reporter’s copy. The headline was later modified for the Web edition as “Yechury rejects idea of projecting anyone as PM candidate now” to give a fair picture.
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