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Sunday, 13 December 1998

World of Information - the Importance of Being Credible


(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


The role of the journalist vis-a-vis the manager in newspaper
establishment has provided the backdrop to a number of
controversies. Depending on their persuasion, the protagonists
have posed the issue in terms of either press freedom or the need
to survive as a business. While journalists see any abridgement
of their power to control editorial content as an attack on their
freedom to write as they want to, managers point to the need to
make profits the reason for limiting journalistic discretion. What
both sides tend to forget is that the relationship between the
editorial and the managerial sides of a media team is synergistic
rather than zero-sum.

Television’s Popularity
The term ’media' is being used in this article in the narrower
sense of the print media, and more specifically, newspapers. In
the market sociology prevailing in the sub-continent, television
and the magazines are usually seen as sources of entertainment,
and newspaper as a source of information. This explains the
much higher popularity of television soap operas over news
programmes or the greater readership of a film magazine over
a science one, as also the fact that tabloids have not been able to
make a significant impact among the newspaper-reading public
in India. 

While truth may be an inessential attribute in a package
designed for entertainment, it is critical in one conveying
information, and it is in this context that credibility enters the
equation. A byline is as valuable as the credibility attached to it,
and such credibility can be sustained only if a journalist is given
the freedom to report events as they occur, without any biases
for reasons other than factual accuracy and public interest.
Should a journalist-or, indeed, a newspaper - succumb to the
temptations of ’campaign journalism', readers would quickly be
able to identify the motivated slants, and would then proceed to
discount the information given. Any newspaper that has
consciously taken sides in a political or a business dispute has
soon found its credibility, and consequently its readership,
declining.

Thus, while the focus of managers should be on the financial
bottom line of a company, journalists need to fix their gaze on
something very different. In the case of newspapers with a pan-
Indian circulation, this would be the national interests. In the
case of newspapers sewing less wide markets, it would be the
interests of the region or the segment to which it caters so long
as this does not clash with the overall national perspective. A
journalist qua journalist should therefore look at issues not with
reference to an individual company's balance sheet, but with
reference to much broader societal interests. And one of the tasks
of a newspaper’s management would be to facilitate this process.

The point of this analysis is that the print medium is an
industry where journalistic independence—defined as the absence
of a conscious bias, whether political or otherwise—and a
healthy bottom line go together, and this is because there exists
in the market a mechanism that rewards activities that are of
value to consumers. And there can be little doubt that a vigorous
and unbiased press is of great value to consumers who regard
themselves as members of a cohesive society. Such a press serves
the function of identifying and exposing what may be described
as social maladies, which may be administrative corruption or
communal animosity. It can also be individual or corporate
misdemeanour. Whatever it is, it is the responsibility of the press
to highlight such aberrations. It is no accident, therefore, that a
newspaper which is regarded as unbiased is usually also the
market leader.

The debate that has been conducted intermittently about
journalistic freedom in this country has lacked a clear definition
of exactly what constitutes this 'freedom’. In the view of this
writer, journalistic freedom means the ability to write in a 
manner unfettered except by considerations of accuracy and the
national interest. Should a management preserve this freedom,
it cannot be held guilty of infringing on journalistic liberty
simply because it reserves to itself certain functions such as
monitoring of costs or the guidelines for employment. To stretch
the concept of journalistic freedom to mean a space where no
other function can enter is to ignore the essentially interdependent
nature of the newsgathering process.

Strong Marketing
To adopt a simile, a newspaper may be compared to a centre for
healing. Just as the presence of excellent doctors in such a centre
would be of little use in the absence of proper equipment and
medicines, the presence of a strong journalistic team within a
newspaper establishment would not be itself guarantee success
unless joined to a strong marketing and administrative group.
Even a prima donna cannot perform sans an orchestra. By adopting
an absolutist position, votaries of journalistic independence may
in fact be depriving themselves of an ally. This is because the
preservation of credibility is as essential to the manager as it is
to the journalist.

The reason for this lies in newspaper economics. But for the
subsidy provided by the advertiser, the printed word may have
been out of the financial reach of most consumers. A separate
debate has often sprung up as to whether a newspaper needs to
accommodate the views of an advertiser in its news columns.
The short answer to this is that a quality newspaper needs to take
account of the views of all significant elements and this would
usually include the advertiser as well. However, any attempt at
gilding over the facts - in the sense of avoiding justified criticism -
merely because the institution concerned is a major advertiser
would be counter-productive not just for the newspaper but also
ultimately for the advertiser.

Advertiser's Image
A corporate entity will find itself out of sync with the societal
environment should it adopt a stance that it has no warts. Rather,
by recognising and eliminating such blemishes, it can take steps
to fit better into the environment. As for a newspaper, it has
value to the advertiser only to the extent of its credibility. Should
the newspaper lack credibility, advertising in it would have a
negative rather than a positive effect on the advertiser's image.
By adopting an editorial stance that is uninfluenced by biases, a
newspaper would be building up credibility that would be an
asset to an advertiser.

It is in case when a newspaper is seen not as a profit centre
in itself but as an adjunct to a much larger entity that there exists
the risk of dilution of journalistic independence. Even in India,
there are instances of corporate entities setting up newspapers
with a view to propagating their own views on themselves and
their competitors. Once they begin doing this in earnest, their
readers quickly catch on, and lose trust in such items. Thus,
paradoxically, by implementing a hidden agenda, the very
purpose (of making the public accept a particular viewpoint) is
defeated. On the other hand, institutions that treat the newspapers
run by them as independent businesses will take care to see that
their credibility—and consequently profitability—is not affected
by inaccurate reporting. If it is accepted that the protection of
credibility is central to the success of a newspaper, it follows that
the protection of journalistic freedom is an essential function of
a newspaper’s management.



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