Sunday, June 06, 2010

Righting Reporting Wrong

The primary purpose of journalism is to tell the truth. Truth is a subjective noun and therefore journalists would love to narrate their versions of truth and readers will stick to the version they consider closest to their heart. To some journalists, truth may be objective; a monolithic entity and they would go to any length and breadth to hammer their version. They will employ means to peddle and thrust a particular version upon readers. It is in this background that modern-day journalism has become infested with a pest called ‘opinion’. From breaking news to talk shows, we are being constantly bombarded with opinion disguised as “news”. Views have filled the vacancy of news. The ratio of opinion in a news report is on the rise. In journalistic parlance news is described as “impatient” but views have become so “impatient” that it has dethroned news.
Yet the importance of opinion in journalism cannot be understated as beautifully depicted in the famous one-liner: In journalism, your opinion is as good as mine. 
Despite this, the word opinion does not figure in principles of reporting. Once the opinion of journalist seeps into reporting, it no longer remains a “news story” as we say in journalism. It rather becomes a “views story”.
The above-mentioned traditional rule has been replaced by the prevalent trend of opinionated news story. Every day, such reports appear in newspapers and unconsciously affect readers’ way of thinking and perception. One such example of opinionated report appeared in Times of India titled Maulvis excommunicate 5 Muslims in Malegaon(The Times of India, Page 1, page 3, June 2, 2010, Mumbai edition).
The news snippet on front page began with opinion and drew parallels with Taliban and Khap Panchayats:
  1)  “In a shocking decision that’s as regressive as some of those taken by the Taliban and the Khap panchayats, a group of maulvis in Malegaon have excommunicated five Muslims forallegedly being “apostates and infidels”. Their crime: they believed in and preached ideas and beliefs which reportedly went against Islam.”
The web edition of the same news report went a step further. The first line began with a provocative and opinionated question mark:
2)  “Has Talibanism breached the solid wall which guarded Indian Islam for centuries? If the diktat issued by a Sharia panchayat comprising a dozen or so clerics in the Muslim-majority town of Malegaon last week is any indication, it seems to have.”
The news report quotes local MLA Mufti Mohammed Ismail that they have not pressed for any social boycott against the five “excommunicated” men and people have been advised not to harass them. 
Immediately, the report brings an alternate perspective and opinion:
3)  Despite Ismail’s claims, however, a boycott is already in place as the excommunicated men are too afraid to visit the local mosque. And they are feeling the heat.
The report further claims: 
4)  Islamic scholars and liberal thinkers insist that such a unilateral decision has no standing, especially as Islam doesn't recognise priesthood and the practice of ex-communication is non-existent, unlike in Christianity.”
The report concludes on a quote of an Urdu “columnist”: 
5) “Indian Islam is not Talibani Islam. Moreover, there is a law of the land. If the clerics of Malegaon felt that these five Muslims were threat to peace, they could have approached the court instead of passing a medieval diktat.”

Now, let’s analyse each one of the quotes in order of numbers.
  1. It is not the job of a journalist to pronounce judgement. A news report can never be judgmental in nature. A journalist is only required to state facts as they are and get out of the reporting. In the same way drawing parallels is not intrinsic in the nature of good reporting. As Melvin Mencher, professor emeritus of Columbia School of Journalism, said, “Keep your opinions to yourself.” 
  2. This provocative opening advocates that “Talibanism” has breached the solid wall of Indian Islam. Once again this falls in the category of opinion. Strictly speaking, it can never become part of a news report. News is sacred and views can be venomous. This is an edit page material where one is free to rant and rumble!
  3. This is journalist’s own perspective rather than the truth. The statement is a result of telephone journalism. A reporter is obliged to visit the place of incident to gain direct access to people involved in the news report. Journalism guru Roy Peter Clark terms this guideline as “unobtrusive”. He writes, “This guideline invites writers to work hard to gain access to people and events, to spend time, to hang around, to become such a part of the scenery that they can observe conditions in an unaltered state.” Also, this is no way to authenticate and verify that the five men are facing “social boycott”. Melvin Mencher has an advice for those who practice telephone journalism: “Don’t report from the office chair.”
  4. This claim is based on sheer falsehood. A Google search will reveal that people can be ostracized (I avoid the word “excommunication” simply for the reason that it originated from Church) in Islam. There have been many historical incidents where people have been declared “apostates” and “infidels.” The primary purpose of journalism is to tell the truth. Melvin Mencher says, “When in doubt, check it out.”
  5. There is nothing wrong with this statement as a “quote” in news story. People have right to express their views. The point here is the nature of hypocritical journalism some journalists practice. The Urdu “columnist” should raise this issue in the Urdu newspaper he is associated with!    
The deadly cocktail of news and views is an insult to the noble profession of journalism. Readers have a right to get pure “news” on news pages. The venom of “views” can be splattered on edit page! 

Postscript: As I write this, there is no “social boycott” against the five “excommunicated” men in Malegaon. They have in fact taken a press conference to narrate their side of the story. There has been no untoward incident so far. Contrary to the untruthful reports in The Times of India and The Indian Express, Malegaon remains peaceful.