August 28, 2013

Here's what lack of journalism training does

An article on media watchdog website The Hoot raises some pertinent questions about the Indian press. It says: "There are guidelines (see here) governing coverage of sexual offences, war, communal riots or conflict. Are journalists not aware of these guidelines? Do they get any kind of training or orientation when they do go out into the field? Don't they have editorial gatekeepers who vet copy?"

Here's what I think the answer to her questions is. No, many journalists—if not most—are not aware of these guidelines. About training, highly unlikely that the organisation they are working with trains them. I'm three-and-a-half years old in the newspaper industry and have friends in all the major newspapers. Nowhere will you find any formal training to sensitise the recruits. I'll respond to the third question (editorial gatekeepers) later and elaborate on the training part first.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of journalists:
1. Those with a specialised course in journalism, like the ones IIJNM and ACJ offer;
2. Graduates of mass communication courses; and
3. Other professionals-turned-journalists. With no training either in journalism or mass communication.

I'm an alumnus of Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media and, therefore, know that it teaches students about media ethics and the legal aspect of journalism. That media should not give away any identifying detail of a victim of sexual assault—and legal nitty-gritty of other things like libel, plagiarism, copyright etc—were taught to us every week in the first class of the first day of the week. I presume Asian College of Journalism too imparts this knowledge.

But what about mass communication colleges? I don't know if they tell their students about the boundaries of a journalist and dos and don'ts of the trade. I don't know, so I won't make any sweeping statement. But going by the appalling ignorance of such colleges' graduates I've worked with, I presume that not much attention, if any, is given to media ethics and the profession's nuances, which are vital to not-incorrect journalism.

Ill-equipped recruits
Many students of BA in mass communication land jobs as trainee reporters or trainee sub-editors. Journalism is just not the focus of their course, but a mere part of it. Just like public relations, advertising, literature and/or some other subjects. Most often, they land the job because of their decent knowledge of English. And most often, that's the be all and end all of they know. And it reflects in their performance.

Such 'journalists' don't even know the rules, which is why they nonchalantly violate them. Journalists ought to treat information with a healthy scepticism, instead of blindly believing a 'source'. They need to understand that news is not what the PR agent is nagging them to publish, but what someone is trying to hide. Good news is not found in the AC halls of star hotels hosting press conferences of corporates, whose PR agencies welcome you with folders, some gift, a notepad and a pen. Good news is found by sifting through volumes of tiring, boring government records. It is found in the hostility of a babu, reluctance of a politician and rage of the oppressed. Good news is found in hard work, definitely not in hotel press conferences.

But much of the stuff you read in today's newspapers is a stenographer's report of what happened.  On the occasion of XYZ, Tom said blah blah blah. Dick added yappa yappa yappa and Harry seconded him. This brand of 'journalism', which is the bread and butter of most 'journalists', is most prevalent. Events, press conferences. Period. Even a high-schooler can do this.

Routine embarrassments

And if you think journalists are required to ask the right questions, I want to tell you about this press meet I had covered more than four years ago. (Covering them is an unavoidable part of a reporter's life.) Infosys chief NR Narayana Murthy was a speaker at the event. After it got over and he sought to leave, mediapersons (print and TV) approached him for a byte. I don't recall the questions, but I remember I was horrified upon listening to the downright dumb and pointless questions of media 'professionals'. I was still in my J-school and that assignment was my first brush with the stupidity of 'journalists'.

NRN found their questions so funny that he broke into a laughter when questions as different as chalk is from cheese were randomly being thrown at him. Laughing, he told the mediapersons, "You people are very intelligent! I want to make even my daughter a journalist."

That was my first brush with the inane, mundane, 'brain drain' 'journalists'. Then I got a job in a newspaper and realised that it is such people who are in the majority in the print media (can't say about broadcast, as have no experience there). These disinterested fellows cause embarrassment to the profession. The good news is that there have always been sincere, intelligent and sharp journalists, albeit in minority.

People with the right training/knowledge are few in the industry, I think. This brings me to the third question the article raises: "Don't they have editorial gatekeepers who vet copy?" Of course, sub-editors are there to vet the stories. Alas, many don't even know their job is to vet the copy instead of just turning it into English from inglis. Their college did not tell them. The company—presuming that they are supposed to know so they know—does not tell them. Isn't a chain as strong as its weakest link? This is why media draw so much flak. ("Medium" is singular. "Media" is plural. It's incorrect to say: "Media draws...")

If Press Council of India chairperson Justice (retd) Markandey Katju castigates journalists, he has a reason.