Ramanathan S
Journalism and standards: An insider’s take
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

It isn’t exactly news that the various ‘out of the box’ ideas suggested by Justice Katju in his post-retirement avatar are, to put it mildly, thoughtless. From his statistical conclusions on the intelligence of average Indians to his pitch for a pardon for convict Sanjay Dutt, his ideas only prove that he is a part of that 1% of the population which takes him seriously. But as a young journalist, in spite of being a part of the 99% which are dismissive of his great ideas, it is my duty to point out the futility of his recent pitch for a ‘legal qualification’ for practicing journalists. The main reason being the on-going popular discourse on this subject, which is a Journalist vs. Katju spat meaninglessly digressing to media freedom and censorship. The real debate should be between free, fair, ethical journalism on one side and Katju, star journalists and popular commentators on the other. For, it is the mainstream media which continues to take him seriously while forgetting their own complicity in the sad state of affairs.

Following Katju’s initial statement, veteran journalist vs. Gangadhar wrote in The Hindu supporting Katju’s call for a legal, formal qualification for journalists. I humbly disagree with him, and submit that I have a natural advantage over both of them. I was a journalism student in a system which Gangadhar has aptly described, and later went on to become a part of the mammoth mainstream media environment. But Gangadhar’s article did strike a distinct chord. It is a small part of my life on print.

I remember being confused after writing my ‘entrance examination’ for the journalism course I chose in a reputed private university. “Who built the Taj Mahal?” was one of the multiple-choice questions among several other spectacularly dumb ones. I wondered, is this possible? How can they ask me such a question for a University entrance examination?

On the first day, a professor walked in and asked everyone to introduce themselves and explain why they were here, what they wanted to do in college and later in life. A student got up and spoke out loud and proud, “I am here because I did not get admitted anywhere else.” It was promptly responded to with giggles.

I (and I wasn’t alone) did not think it was funny. It was a small glimpse of the incompetence, carelessness, disrespect and academic inferiority which we would inflict upon each other as students and the faculty (barring few exceptions) would subject us to in the next three years. Most of us just did not care, and after all, we were just college kids out to have fun. What was definitely inexcusable was the academic incompetence of the lecturers. My batch-mates and I have spent long hours in the beautiful corridors of our campus discussing how to change this. What will happen to the industry in the future if we do not learn anything in college? But the minute I stepped into mainstream media, I realized the problem wasn’t within the four walls of a classroom, but out there for everyone to see, in the industry.

Let us first get to what Justice Katju had to say about qualifications for journalism, you can read a news report and his full statement here. He suggests that there be a legally constituted qualification for being a journalist in India, like LLB and Bar Council exam for a practising lawyer or MBBS degree for a doctor.

My main contention is this – in today’s scenario, a ‘good education in journalism’ does not help in improving the situation of journalism on ground zero. Is it really possible for a person to change the sordid, sorry state of Indian media by being ‘well educated in journalism’? Or is it true, that those who have received no formal education in journalism don’t do their job most perfectly? To my knowledge, among the biggest culprits of Indian mainstream media are those who fall under the category of having received good education in journalism (which Gangadhar has stated in his article too), and many among the very few who still have their ideals and journalism intact barely knew journalism when their career began.

There are numerous examples of how new-age journalists, armed with journalism degrees from Columbia and the like and massive experience in international media, have set foot in the Indian media scene only to get back where they came from disappointed, dejected and having lost hope in improving the media.

There are many youngsters who have been educated with intelligence and ideals or have received training in the few reputed institutes of journalism in India. But after entering the mainstream media we were reduced to screaming matches on air, thrusting mikes at politicians demanding answers for scams or at victims asking aapko kaisa lag raha hai. Many among us took education in college seriously, interned and worked hard before we eventually started a professional career and yet our journalism is hardly what we can be proud of, barring a few rare stories. Why?

Because the industry is bad, and the key to the change in journalism lies in the industry, not in the education sector. The standards of education will only improve when the industry improves because the education sector draws expertise from the industry. What we need is a top-down approach, not the other way around.

The industry is the key and it needs to be changed by focusing on the economics of media and creating awareness among consumers. We have to improve media by improving standards of education in humanities, political science and arts across the board in society, not just for those who want to become journalists. We need to bring in a system where the viewer is eventually made to pay the true cost of good journalism because he thinks it is worth it. People have to be taught how to differentiate between good and bad journalism. What is the point if only journalists know that distinction? Don’t many in the industry know what good journalism is? And yet, don’t they not go ahead and do their job the same pathetic way? It’s the attitude of working journalists, consumers and the structure of the ad-dependent economics which has to be changed first. Ironically, sites like CRI which are run by ‘non-journalists’ are the best critics of mainstream media.

Gangadhar asks “Yes, learning on the job is fine, but how? A cub reporter assigned to cover a major event would not know how and where to begin or end. On the desk, can an untrained sub-editor cut a long story to its required length, provide subheads and give a suitable, catchy heading?” I ask in return, can the training to cover a major event be given in a school? Can subbing be taught to a student exactly the way his future organization will would want him to do his job? The solution then is not to give big tasks to newbies, train them first with smaller tasks through internships or training periods. For that, the industry has to be improved. Because even if these things can be taught in school, within months of joining mainstream media, all of it is forgotten under pressures of routine work and the state of media remains pathetic.

To talk specifically about Katju’s idea of a ‘legal’ qualification for journalism, I think that will remain a bureaucratic hurdle to be surpassed. More cases of leaked exam papers, fake certificates, long queues of eager youngsters lining up for the exam, all of which will ultimately mean nothing. Journalists don’t follow a book of laws like lawyers do and neither is journalism a science like medicine. Journalism makes you face dilemmas of life surrounded in politics, bureaucracy and social problems which can only be learned on the field. It cannot be compared with Bar Council exams and MBBS degrees.

But by no means do I suggest that education in these J-schools is not necessary or that it should be left in the lurch. Formal education in journalism must be improved. Universities should ask colleges to hire lecturers who are good journalists first, or refuse to recognize or allow J-courses. Students and parents should be careful about selecting colleges for journalism, or simply choose other courses in Humanities or Economics which still leaves the option of becoming a good journalist very much open. But another bureaucratic certification process is hardly a solution. The focus today should be on the state of the industry, especially for regulators like PCI. Many believe that it is not necessary to complete a course in journalism to be a good journalist. Books and exams in classrooms cannot teach you journalism. The student who said out loud in my class that she was there because she couldn’t get through anywhere else is among those from my batch doing a good job in media today. I don’t think I would be wrong in assuming it was the rare, positive exposure she got after college that made her serious about media.

(Author of this post is a practicing journalist)