The news media in many democracies, and certainly in the largest, are in the midst of a credibility crisis. The question of news media credibility is asked more in times of polarisation in the public discourse than when there is convergence of public opinion. Across the political spectrum the credentials of one or the other news media organisation are being questioned. If one organisation is supposed to be in the pay of a political dispensation, the other is supposed to be in the pocket of another party. To ask the news media to be credible requires us to ask the question: what makes belief in the media possible?
An answer is often proffered: independence. The connection between news media’s independence and credibility is deemed causal. But the independence that is being advertised by these media outlets is not obvious. The negative and positive1 freedoms being protected and sought – freedom from and freedom to –remain inchoate because there are problems in outlining them and it is easier to proclaim than to state what constitutes independence. Not surprisingly, when media credibility is being questioned, there is a contagion of news media outlets advertising their independence. Therefore the task is to go back to the fundamental relation between reader-listener-viewer and the news media, and ask what makes the party of the first part believe in the party of the second.
Posing this relationship in the language of legal drafting is to foreground its contractual nature. It is unheard for readers-listeners-viewers to move consumer courts over the quality of the news product they have been sold, though those would be apposite fora to seek redress if they think the product does not match the quality assurances that have accompanied the sale. But were this to happen, we are sure the good lawyer for the defence would tell the plaintiff that there are no clearly outlined quality assurances and the legal battle would be protracted and fruitless. But were the terrain to be ethical and normative rather than legal, we can at least outline the necessary terms of this contract.
The bare minimum is that no lies or made-up events or information is sold as news. The general outrage over fake news turns on this article of faith. News organisations are not supposed to share events or information that they are not sure is true. In fact, fake news is arguably an oxymoron. If it isn’t true, it isn’t news. And the truth that the journalist seeks is verifiable information. While the levels of evidence are certainly not that of the law courts with their obligatory reliance on laws of evidence, it is certainly supposed to be more than what most conversations allow for. It cannot be gossip and it cannot be rumour, and it cannot be information that has the ring of truth but without the touchstone of verification. To use a Hindi idiom to one’s purpose, the peacock that dances in the jungle without any witnesses has not danced for the next day’s news. The job of the journalist is to make the birds and bees and boughs sing of the peacock’s dance, and if they don’t, it isn’t news.
Another necessary minimum would be that the information that is sold as news has not been paid for directly – the general populace has made peace with the indirect underwriting via advertisement – by anyone except the reader-listener-viewer. The feeling of being cheated with the phenomenon of paid news is because it breaks this compact. Like fake news, paid news is an oxymoron. If it is paid, the information is not news. It is an advertisement. And paid news is fake news because it is advertising masquerading as news. Something pretending to be genuine – fake – being sold as the genuine article. Some publications have started to label either some part of their offering, and in some cases the entire offering, as promotions or advertising thus warding against the charge of peddling paid information that looks like news. But on the web there is an obvious breakdown of this compact with a practice that has a colonial ring to its name – native content or native advertising. This is advertising that has gone native. Instead of appearing foreign, and hence easily distinguishable, in the context of its placement, the content looks and feels like the native, and blends in. With editorial camouflage the advertisement now resembles the native – the news. In some cases it stops short of the full camouflage by obscurely putting down that this information has been paid for and in others there is nothing to distinguish except for a discerning eye looking out for cues that such content carries – after all it is an advertisement.
When these two necessary conditions are violated, then our ability to believe the news media is hampered. But since the measures are objective, transgressions can be discovered, not always easily, and sanctions or pardons can be dispensed. But these are necessary conditions, not sufficient ones.
One of the sufficient conditions demanded in this relationship can only be understood by teasing out the meaning of the word credibility. Journalism, at least in the sense that we know it, is a product of an enlightenment tradition where evidence and truth are prized. But its credibility even as it draws from the promise of well-evidenced and verified storytelling is an act of faith and belief. Credibility, after-all, comes from credibilis – something that is worthy of belief. Verification and truth are necessary but not sufficient for belief. These objective conditions do not exhaust the notion of credibility. There remains some other work to be done by the party providing news.
And for that we need to linger with credibility a little longer and see where it takes us – to credere – to believe, to creed – a community of believers, and further on to kred – the proto-Indo-European that leads to hrid and hridaya. There is a bit of the heart in the act of believing, in being credible. It is for this reason that those who belong to the same creed – community of believers, whether in a book, text or an ism – find it easier to call particular news media outlets more credible than others. These media outlets direct themselves to what some may call particular publics, but which can be more accurately called creeds. The party or organisational press is the exemplar of this type. Publications that often get passionate followers and antagonists also belong to this type. There is indeed a space, and even a political need, for these publications. Democratic politics requires that different political parties or ideologies argue their positions, foreground some events and processes over others, and provide an alternate vision with the hope that this resonates with the people and draws supporters to them. But their credibility lies primarily in the eyes of the believers, of the creed.
In a democracy there is always a group who are not believers. They do not adhere to any one creed, and certainly not the same for all times and not the same in all contexts. This is the average reader-viewer-listener who seeks in the news media sama-drishti and sama-vritti. Drishti draws our attention to how we look at the world outside, and vritti calls attention to the attitude that we possess about the world. Journalism requires both the impartial vision and an inherent fairness towards the people, events and processes that are reported. Drishti and vritti are both important at the same time because though reporting is an inductive process, the reporter does not travel tabula rasa. There is an intellectual framework that anticipates and guides the reporting process. And without sama-vritti, it is easy to confirm views, ignore uncomfortable information and turn a blind eye to stories that do not serve the a priori framework with which the reporting process begins. The call for balance and fairness tries to capture this.
To be credible is therefore not just passing some metrical test of error, falsehood, accuracy and verifiable truth. It is to have and convey sama-drishti and sama-vritti. In the hurly burly of daily journalism, it means practising these journalistic virtues vis-à-vis sources and stories; in disposition and demeanour; in personal life and professional settings. It is from the slippages in adhering to these norms that the crisis of credibility emerges. It is not something that can, therefore, be fixed by adhering to just professional rules about news gathering or reporting. That is the bare minimum. It requires self-critique and self-rectification. Not just institutionally, but also individually. The news media and the journalists need to work hard to make the reader-listener-viewer believe them. There is no reason why it should be a given in this relationship. It is a condition that needs to be fulfilled, and it needs to be fulfilled every day with every news story.
Let us end by offering a few ways in which a journalist or news organisation can convey this attitude. One would be the replacement of glib certitude by a stance of doubt in the news reporting process. Since news, especially in 24-hour news cycles, is almost always a work-in-progress with information being released – a first draft put out for consumption, and then subsequent revisions making their way depending on the medium – admitting incompleteness or opening up the process of reporting to the recipient and recognising the possibility of error should become the norm. Usually one sees certainty and vehemence.
Two, journalists should eschew their ex cathedra statements on social platforms since it shows only too clearly their vrittis and since the urge is to have followers and likes, the vritti is not sama, but ati, an excess. Journalists would be well advised to convey news rather than become purveyors of their views recalling a less acknowledged truth that Timothy Garton Ash has drawn attention to: facts are subversive, not views. What we see on social media from journalists follow from a tincture of delusion and hubris.
Three, ending the organising of summits or award functions, which often require journalists to curry favour with news sources and subjects, thus making sama-drishti impossible. The editorial director who has to ensure the presence of a minister as a speaker or a chief guest also has to grant the personage, at a bare minimum, adequate slack leading up to the event. The industry leader who is cajoled to serve as a jury member cannot be the subject of investigative journalism. And lower down the line, more egregiously, are cases of journalists being forced to ensure the presence of their important contacts and then being commandeered to serve as ushers. These powwows cannot be without an implicit give and take, which changes the dynamic of reporter-source relationships.
Finally, in the case of reporting, it requires that the reporter grant space not just to multiplicity of views but also adhere scrupulously to a coherent and complete narration of facts with necessary caveats in place. And the desk has to learn to distinguish themselves from their functional twins in advertising – the copywriters — who take a weak product and dress it up as an alluring must-buy. Above all, sama-dirshti and sama-vritti demands that the behaviour of the journalist ensures that the reader-listener-viewer recognises the journalist as one of them and not one of those who are the subjects and objects of their enquiry and reportage.
1 As per Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty
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