Friday, 23 December 2011

More Media Regulation? (Part-III)

Anup Kumar,
Columnist, The Hoot

While there are no special privileges granted to journalists that are different from those enjoyed by ordinary citizens. The right of free speech and freedom of the press come from the same Article 19 (1A) of the Constitution. From a strict constitutionalist perspective every citizen, including those who hold power, is a potential journalist--an ideal that has come to its fruition with blogs and the social media. But it would be also naive to suggest that the news media do not have power, like the government, rather they have immense power to shape public opinion, which is a powerful thing. However, as the power of the news media does not come from exclusive privileges and discretionary provisions, regulating the media would also mean regulating the liberties guaranteed to the citizens by the constitution. 

Importantly, the company laws already regulate the corporations that own the news organizations and journalists come under the purview of criminal laws and civil laws that impose "reasonable restrictions" on the freedom of speech and the press. Moreover, from the perspective of corporate laws and other laws Indian media is already perhaps one of the most regulated among the among the advanced democracies. According to the Freedom of the Press 2011 study, India ranks 79th and is categorized as "partly free". Any further regulation of the media would effectively undermine individual liberties that are so essential to a democracy.

So, what is the solution to the growing media malaise? What we have currently in Indian journalism is that the rules of the market, the TRPs and circulation figures, are influencing journalistic practices and news content disproportionately. However, this is not unique to India, similar problems are faced by market driven news media all over the world. The solution lies in exercising the freedom of the press with care. Journalists must exercise their power to shape and foster public opinion with humility and responsibility. In an otherwise vibrant field of Indian journalism, professional standards that guide the necessary gatekeeping functions and inform editorial oversight of daily routine operations of news organizations are either absent or deficient. Although the Press Council and the News Broadcaster's Association have codes, but they do not seem to have been internalized. What we need is the professionalization that comes with the codification of norms and values of a professional journalistic practice and reinforcement of them by the press clubs, editors and the educational institutions, especially by the schools of journalism. 

For example, we in India perhaps need to go through what happened in America and Europe following the communication chaos of the antebellum years at the turn 20th century. Then, the professional norms and values of journalism evolved out of a similar debate that is now taking place in India. The professionalization of news workers to a large extent weeded out the worst forms of yellow journalism and the sellers of snake oil from the news pages. This period also gave rise to organizations such as Sigma Delta Chi fraternity, also known as the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors who came up with ethical standards for the practice of responsible journalism, which included the fairness doctrine and the norm of objectivity that included acceptance of official explanations at face value unless there was strong evidence to the contrary. 

Thus, I think the solution lies in a better professional education, both in the skills required for what Lippmann described as transmission of fact-based information and the knowledge for what John Dewey described as public journalism that can give citizens resources to engage in a democracy. The improvements in journalistic quality through the elevation in the level of media discourse on contemporary issues can be achieved through a better professional education in knowledge, skills, norms and values of journalism. Self-regulation or government regulation cannot by themselves solve the problem of corrupt journalistic practices and the declining quality of media discourses, both in the organized news media and the growing field of social media. Professionalism founded on clear sets ethical principles must be inculcated in young reporters during their training periods in journalism programmes. Moreover, today we live in a media saturated society in which for all practical purposes democracy itself is mediated, hence we also require educational curriculums in the country to include the core course in ethical media use and criticism..

Finally, this means not only more investment and improvements in journalism and media education in India, but also calls for reforms that emphasize in liberal education that encourages critical thinking skills. Improvements in journalism education must be also supplemented with funding and support for empirical research in news media's performance and media criticism, which is currently very limited in a country like India.

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