Biases and balance in media

Yesterday (9th February 2014) , The Hindu reported Narendra Modi’s rally in Chennai saying that

 The Gujarat Chief Minister was perhaps at his best before a massive crowd that had thronged the venue at Vandalur, near here.

It is interesting to remember that some months ago, a change was made in the top levels of The Hindu’s structure because there apparently was “manipulation in news” and “no difference ….between news stories and editorial pieces”.Having seen the way balance is news has evolved in some months,  perhaps a new idea of journalism can be considered. An article  some months ago from  Bodhi Commons.

Biases and balance – Reflections on regime change at The Hindu

Most readers by now will be familiar with the news of Siddharth Varadarajan’s ouster1 from The Hindu and the return of the editorial team from a decade ago – N. Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy.

Despite being a media professional and someone with quite a few friends in The Hindu, I shall stay away from the labyrinthine intrigues that seem to have led to this decision and focus on an angle that seems to be cited as a prominent reason for the development – the issue of biases and balance.

Media reports and tweets have indicated that one of the factors that led to the ousting of Varadarjan was the issue of unbalanced coverage. Thus N. Ram has said that “There was editorialisation in the guise of news and manipulation of news coverage,” 2 and “no difference was maintained between news stories and editorial pieces”. N. Ravi, the new editor-in-chief , said “The Hindu has always been anti-Hindutva, but it was always kept out of our news judgement” 3. The Hindu’s official announcement declares there were “recurrent violations and defiance of ‘Living Our Values’, the mandatory Code of Editorial Values applicable to The Hindu4.

The Hindu’s own code of editorial values says “The Company must endeavour to provide in its publications a fair and balanced coverage of competing interests, and to offer the readers diverse, reasonable viewpoints, subject to its editorial judgment”5.

All this is music to the ears of journalism teachers and pedestal journalists, who never tire of extolling the virtues of balance and objectivity. Most professional journalists too believe in some version of the above values.

Allow me to present an alternative view point. If one were to consider news as a political project rather than as an exercise in writing/ a listing of events/ a mere profession, this widely celebrated sense of balance perhaps does more harm than good by merely perpetuating status quo and established interests.

Let’s take the example of the coverage of Narendra Modi, which has been cited as one of the reasons for the removal of Varadarajan. Inside sources indicate that there was criticism of the paper highlighting protests and traffic jams against Modi when he came to Chennai for a lecture. By traditional standards, Modi’s rallies/speeches would tend to be given more coverage and protests would be mentioned on the sidelines. Liberals would suggest equal coverage at the most. But examine the larger context. Any observer of the Indian online space would be aware of the extent to which pro-Modi campaigns have percolated the internet – be it the NaMo anthems or gujaratriots.com 6 (which was later revealed to have been run by the Modi PR machine7.)

If one were to consider news as a political project rather than as an exercise in writing/ a listing of events/ a mere profession, this widely celebrated sense of balance perhaps does more harm than good by merely perpetuating status quo and established interests.

In such a context, what would be the role of a journalist or an organisation which views Modi as problematic ? Will it stick to a ‘balanced’ point of view and thus contribute to or be silent about the impact of this campaign? Or will it showcase voices of dissent and highlight the conflicts inherent in this campaign?

What I suggest is media organisations and individual journalists work with the understanding that the traditional idea of balance most often ends up privileging the voices of the powerful. On a day to day basis, most sources considered ‘authoritative’ are often governmental, institutional or organised groups and NGOs. The bulk of stories come from these sources, which have well-established PR mechanisms. Thus, a lot of routine news – even progressive/anti-establishment – is at the end of the day, special interest news.

And, readers are increasingly aware of this. Compared to a generation ago, few readers, especially younger ones, think of any media outlet as a source of authoritative news. Instead, they do their own curation on topics they are interested in. Perhaps, it’s time journalists, especially those interested in fighting established narratives and PR campaigns, realised this and worked towards creating and cultivating niche audiences. And for that, no better way than to declare your biases, if not outright then, subtly but in a sustained manner. Of course, the first step would be to develop biases – stark, deep-rooted ones that seek to dig out the politics behind what is considered routine news.

One expects howls of outrage at these suggestions; the most common response would be ‘But journalism is about news, not activism’. Make no mistake, it is activist-journalists that I advocate. However, this does not imply sloppy field work, or random commentary in stories or cringe-worthy pieces after parachute-journalistic visits to slums – the bane of what is passed of as activism-journalism or ‘committed’ journalism, especially in India. Rather, structured critique of institutions and establishments undertaken with a celebration of bias, perhaps, is the way ahead.

 It was A.J. Liebling who once said, “Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” To add a corollary, in the absence of activist-journalists, the biases of the owner become the balance in a newspaper.

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