JOURNALISM IN 2021
Every so often, you get lucky enough to hear from some truly talented folks. Visvak is one such person. He’s worked for The Hindu, for NewsLaundry,Buzzfeed, an external editor for the Economic and Political Weekly, a Chevening Fellow, and the founder of the excellent India Ink. And counting, given his freelance work now. We were lucky enough to have him on to talk about habits to cultivate as consumers of the news, to become better producers of it.
The first thing to understand is that there is no unbiased. As consumers, our duty is to recognize the biases of a publication and account for it.
Business models of the media and the market.
One way to recognize these biases lies in recognizing the business models of the media and the market. Media businesses are struggling to generate revenue, unless they have direct ad contracts which come with their due terms and conditions.
There are four broad classifications of media companies prevalent in India, each with its unique source of bias.
- Legacy Media Companies
They are not all bad, but don’t look for a spine.
These are all self contained media businesses owned by families and/or individuals. They have a fair bit of good journalism among their ranks, despite the infamy, until big ticket issues come by.
These publications are locked in an endless dance with governments. If they fall out of favor with them, they stand to lose access- and access is important for stories, the big names for their big events, the government ads.
- Corporate media houses
Almost like legacy groups, but with profits at the heart of it.
These are part of huge, diversified conglomerates. In addition to the concerns of the legacy media companies in terms of pleasing their advertisers, they also try to promote their parents’ companies interests. Journalists in such companies are walking on eggshells, to avoid bad mouthing the parent company.
- Politically owned media
Avoid it. Period.
These are mere propaganda tools for the political parties that own these publications. The little value that can be leached out of them is information on the rival political parties.
- Independent media houses
Best shot, tragically underfunded.
These media houses do the relatively better job, since the ownership has no stake in other industries. They are running a single publication, and all their resources are devoted to it. It is thus easier for them to enforce ethical and editorial standards,
The problem they have to battle is funding. Most of them are surviving on grants. Sooner rather than later, these grants will run out. They are hedging bets on donations and subscribers, but time will tell how that plays out.
- Other independent media
There are individual reports who run youtube channels and twitter handles. This might be sustainable for someone with a large audience base. How it plays out for upcoming, small journalists remains to be seen.
- Foreign Media
There are three types within this
These journalists, are based out of India, fly in for one story, and leave. There is not much depth to be found in their reporting, and the story is as good as the fixer- the small local journalists who open the doors, translate, fix meetings and interviews for a feeble fee.
- Foreign correspondents
These are temporarily based in India, and have a better understanding of the local context, but are always addressing the audience in the country of the media company. It leads to stories that are not constrained by the politics or reservations that a journalist based in India would have.
- Journalist based in India, reporting for an international audience
It is the best compromise foreign media can make.
Being consumers of the news
Apart from the biases that come from business models and ownership models, there’s a bunch of stuff we should consider as consumers of media.
Since no media is truly unbiased, consumers of news must be critical of every story and report. Step one is asking for the source of everything.
- Question the publication itself. What is the history, what are credentials of this publication?
- Next, you go a bit beyond the publication. What or who are the cited sources of the publication or reporter? For instance, a politician is the last person who should be cited in a report on corruption. They are bound to be polarized on the subjector. On the other hand, an auditor or comptroller is a better source, for they have arrived at their conclusion through a logical process. Yes, the data could have been messed with, but they are still far more credible than a politician.
- Strong reactions
Another red flag is reports that seem to incite an instant, strong emotional reaction. Headlines are often crafted to incite such a strong reaction. If you find yourself in a heightened state of emotions (whether it be good, bad or ugly), it would be prudent to dig a bit deeper.
- Fake news
There are studies that show that misinformation spreads like wildfire. Why? More often than not, the truth is not exciting. It’s easier to sell a lie.
Fact checking is how one gets to the truth- at least some of it. Here’s a very quick how-to:
- Check for spelling mistakes, grammatical errors etc. Many of those who write fake news reports aren’t exceptionally proficient in their language.
- Check the source.
- Bad website branding is also a giveaway. The lack of things like an ‘about’ page, mastheads, by-lines, they’re all indicative of little to no credibility.
- Google the story you’re looking at. If there is no other credible publication reporting on the same issue, it is likely that it is untrue.
- Trace the story back to the first report by time and date, and determine its credibility.
- Do a reverse image search for fact checking visual fake news.
- Read fact checking websites like AltNews, that even get into the details of how they fact checked to prove credibility.
- The harder to spot flaws in legitimate sources
Even an “official” source alone is not enough. For example, if a report only elaborates on the police’s version of things in case of a violent incident, it is not a good, holistic report. A good doctor is only a good source for the medical aspects of a pandemic, but a good epidemiologist is a good source for how it spreads.
Always look for multiple sources. Read multiple reports on the matter and be critical of each of them.
Many of us find our way to news reports via platforms such as Twitter, Google News, etc. Do not let these platforms curate the news for you.
Their algorithm decides what you see on your feed. It is in their advantage to put the most clickbait-y stuff right at the top, regardless of credibility. You can exercise some control, in terms of blocking publications or reporters. It is often more useful to identify individuals who do good journalism in your opinion, and follow their work instead.
The last two cents- unless it’s for something that is breaking live, avoid TV news. And if and when you can, pick at least one publication you like and become a paid subscriber. If you want the media to have freedom, you have to remember a rather important principle of economics- there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
A bit of career advice
In spite of the crazy information explosion over the past few years, people are still rather ignorant. This paradox isn’t as confusing as it seems at first glance, because we have a limited bandwidth to consume information.
- There is thus a lot of value for scholars, academicians, journalists etc, who act as filters and curate the news- they consume, and distill the news for you.
- Then there are those, who translate the specialist knowledge of a domain that makes little to no sense to the masses. They make it easier for the people to understand.
Instead of forcing novelty, make knowledge more accessible. It enriches public conversation and morality, and strengthens one’s own understanding.
A sad reality (Based on (Visvak’s) anecdotal evidence)
It has never been easy to be a journalist. There is a supply demand mismatch between those who want to be journalists and the number of jobs available for them, and this in itself becomes a filter for who manages to land a decent job. For those who make it, it is often due to a bit of privilege, networks, language skills and a bit of street smartness- this involves the ability to do unpaid internships, renowned institutes, caste and class backgrounds, all of it.
The first few years as a journalist are the most exciting. Since journalism comes with a moral compulsion, young journalists often go all out with their tasks. Working ungodly hours, not taking a break, devoting every bit of energy to their work, all in the hopes of establishing themselves as dependable journalists. All of this comes at the cost of health issues, burnouts, and personal relationships. Journalists are expected to treat terrible situations like just another Tuesday, and not expect a better Wednesday. The pay does not compensate for the mental and physical toil, regardless of the media house you work for. All of this leads to burn out relatively earlier in life.
Inspote of this harsh truth, the fact is that we will always need good, enthusiastic journalists. Everyone with any power is fighting to have the power to decide what is the news, to sell their narrative as the “truth”. Journalists exist to shed light on the truth, from every side.
The best advice for aspiring journalists is this- give them every facet of reality, and let them enter the field with their eyes wide open.
Gandhar: Is there political pressure involved, when publication allows just anyone to write an op-ed?
100%. It’s not direct very often, but there is an indirect pressure. They need to please those in authority, in order to get access to inside information and interviews and ad contracts, etc
Ashish Kulkarni: As a young journalist (18-21), how do you channel the anger that one has at that age?
I (Visvak) think everyone has to answer it for themselves. Personally, I believe that social media activism does serve a purpose. Yes, it is often strewn with filth and propaganda, but I believe it is my duty to wade through the filth and speak about things that matter. The tide will turn only if we do the little we can.
Ashish Kulkarni: How do we guard against our personal biases, especially while consuming news?
It’s tricky. Over time, we develop them, even if we start with being critical. I think it’s okay to develop these biases, to a certain limit. First, if these are based on critical analysis, developed over time. Another thing that helps is conversations, because it forces you to fact check, and your biases are questioned.
Ashish Kulkarni: I find it difficult to agree with folks who hold views contrary to mine, even if I tell myself that I must be unbiased. Do you struggle with this too? How do you deal with it?
In my opinion, there are very few people on the other side who speak in good faith. I try to separate them from the larger mass, and challenge myself with their views. It is futile to give equal time to all sources. It’s down to judgement, to decide who is speaking in good faith and engage with them.
Saylee Jog: How do you as a writer guard against a reporter’s bias when you are writing or researching a story? As readers, how do we guard against a reporter’s bias?
As a writer, my biases will creep into my writing. I don’t believe I must completely eliminate them anyway, because my beliefs are strong, and that should echo in my work. I will not manipulate facts to fit my story, but if I completely eliminate biases, it takes away my worldview, and I’m no longer being truthful.
As a reader, it’s important to be critical at the start, and develop a short hand in the longer run.
Devangee: In cases where the news or information has been extremely polarizing (such as the lab leak theory for Covid) over time, and very little empirical evidence is available, how do research on the topic? Do you just give up until more evidence comes to light?
For the lab leak case specifically, the Nicholas Wade article is what re-catapulted it into the spotlight because a scientist made the claim, and not an extreme right winger or anything. That itself is indicative of some credibility.
It is possible to find credible sources that have some authority in the topic, and quote them on the specifics of the issue. Yes there will be biases, the game of journalism is balancing. In cases where no one knows the truth and theories are going wild, quote someone with strong views from both sides. Take the middle ground, but don’t give up on it.
Anoosheh: What if consumers could block stories of certain themes that disturb them? How do you feel about it?
It is highly controversial to hide news just because it is distressing. I am a big supporter of trigger warnings, though. It gives the reader the option to make a choice.
Rajlakshmi: What are the revenue streams that aspiring journalists can explore, in today’s world?
I don’t have a definitive answer for this. It is subjective to the person in question. I would not encourage young journalists to freelance, because it is very challenging. Initial ne]years in a newsroom allows you to build a base to eventually freelance.
Editing, copywriting, content writing, being a research assistant is often a supplementary revenue stream though. You need networks to find out about these jobs, though.