Media..well, let me think (Pic Courtesy: Akanksha)

She was sitting on the first row. With an intense, intelligent gaze. And quiet most of the time. The classroom was like any other. Actually, perhaps better. At least brighter and airier. Large trees outside provided a protective cover. Not quite from traffic noise though. The road I turned off earlier went on to join the northern tip of Bombay’s Marine Drive. The desks were nicer too. Not beat-up, wooden ones. Like in my time. With all sorts of names and initials etched, testimony to many a belaboured hour.

Her question came at the end of the session. “Do you journalists really feel for what you do ?” I was stumped. Did I read a little more than perhaps her question really meant. Or not? Several days later, I am still not sure. “Can you explain that ?” I asked. “Hmm, for example, you talk about saving paper and all that and yet print so many newspapers.” I got the feeling the example was watered down. Her look said something else.

This was a classroom of school children between Class 8 and 10. And we were four journalists talking to them about how great and glorious the profession was. And what it took to be a hard-nosed journo. My friend Shobhan defined what a journalist’s trade was about. About asking the basic questions, What, Where, When, Who, Why and How ? Answer these questions and you have a newsman, he said. He made it sound simple.

Grilling Session

As we fumbled for answers, another question from the back. Another eager looking girl. “How is it that the newspapers say you cannot eat chicken and the television channels say you can ?” Well. Maybe the newspaper or channel in question did not convey the message properly. And did but it got lost. But here was another 14-year-old with some serious doubts about what we were all about.

The teacher, Poorvi, joined in to hammer the last nail. “What about the kind of stuff we read and see ? Don’t journalists sensationalise too much. Particularly nowadays?” I have the answers to that one. Well, we try and reflect what the larger society wants. So on and so forth. Same answer to two different kinds of people. Hoping they accept and believe. Yet I wonder.

Poorvi has worked with consulting firm PriceWaterhouse (now PriceWaterhouseCoopers) in the US and a leading venture capital fund in India. In the latter, she must have taken million dollar investment decisions. And then she switched to teaching children. Arguably, being older and possibly well travelled, she has seen more of the world. And yet teacher and students were resonating on the same frequency. Or so it appeared.

Building Leaders

Now, a little about the children. They were part of Akanksha Foundation, a non profit that helps teach or augment the education of children from less-privileged backgrounds. Particularly Bombay’s slum children. Akanksha is run very professionally and the stories about its success and work are legion. It benefits from the talents of many people who have done well in the corporate world. Not surprisingly, a key initiative of Akanksha is Learning to Lead, a crème-de-la-crème group of the roughly 2,600 students that are enrolled presently.

Its this group of maybe around 25 children we were talking to today. I will not say more about them and their backgrounds - Akanksha’s website is self-explanatory. What I can say is that they were very smart, articulate, insightful and intelligent. Compared to anyone and anything. Which goes to say lots for creating an almost Nehruvian selection process of this sort. Lots of people can learn from this. But that’s another story.

Media Conclave

I will now digress a bit, only a little though. Three days later, I was at India's biggest media and entertainment conclave – Frames 2006 – organized by industry body FICCI. Held at Bombay’s suburban Grand Hyatt hotel, it was spread over three days and saw the who’s who of India’s entertainment industry participating. Including a healthy smattering of Bollywood, from actors to directors and everyone in between.

One `plenary' session was on the future of print media. Being an interested party, I attended. Malayalam Manorama’s Jacob Mathew and India Today Group’s Aroon Puri spoke. Both, essentially, said print was growing in India. And that the regional press was growing faster than English language press. To get to the point, in the Q&A that followed, someone asked Puri a question, actually two. They were: why does the media sensationalize everything ? And has news become entertainment ? Several members of the audience actually clapped in approval.

Puri, in effect, said he did not agree with a lot of things that went on air either (He owns Aaj Tak). In news and entertainment. But advertising followed TRPs, he pointed out. He quoted a few examples. For instance, he said, the best TRPs in recent weeks were not from sting operations exposing corrupt members of parliament, rather some story about a man who claimed he was re-incarnated. And so on. “I have to run a business to,” he shrugged.

Journalism, Anyone ?

Back at the Bombay International School, we were wrapping up with Akanksha. Outside, dusk was on us. And bird cries from the trees rent the air. One of us asked the children. “How many of you want to become journalists ?” Hesitation. Perhaps a hand or two. A faces-saving measure was called for. “Okay,” the question went again, “How many of you would consider becoming journalists ?”. Heads nodded. Considering was fine. More hands were raised. Not one of them looked quite convinced though.


Anonymous said…
The day is not far when people start hating Media and journalists.

Does journalists get training on "how to change the world" ? I mean, do they learn and simulate how social dynamics ? If not, then why they are so eager to change the world ?

What is a journalist's job ?

1) to present unbiased facts.
2) to change the world.

If it is the later, then can s/he ever present the unbiased facts ?

I hope, the day should not come when people start protesting against media on the streets and start hating media the way they hate politicians.
Anonymous said…
Its very easy to generalise any and every profession. As regards journalism, the journalist as an individual doesn't have to believe in a story he covers as he's only doing his job. I guess only famous/successful journalists get to choose and pick the stories they wish to cover.
Also, it is media houses which sensationalise stories and not journalists.
Finally, lets not forget that its often imperative to be politically correct rather than give an unbiased opinion.
Lubna said…
What has happened to this norm, which our previous boss used to drill into us:
News - Just report the facts, do not add your views
Edit pages - Give your views (ahem, those of your paper)
Your column - hopefully still remains uncensored

These days I find news blurring with views, this is where one problem stems from.
Anonymous said…
Good to hear that more and more people are actually seeing beyond the crap(mostly) being churned out by a lot of newspapers and TV channels. It's good that we are moving away from a time when many of us unthinkingly believed everything the media said.

And contrary to what Neeti says, I dont think it's imperative for a journalist to be politically correct rather than unbiased. Its the other way round actually. The way I see it its imperative for a journalist to be unbiased. Political correctness is hardly an issue.
Anonymous said…
Govind, The widespread skepticism about journalism as a profession is sad because media has a tremendous social responsiblity/ power to influence/educate/make people feel enabled and empowered about what is going on in/around our lives and help raise and solve important issues.

That said, I admire the quality/ range/depth of issues covered in Time/Newsweek/CNBC/NDTV/Oprah shows etc. that touch lives/help make a difference by not just raising important issues but more importantly being part of the solution. eg. the way media took on obesity/smoking debate forced large food/tobacco companies worldwide to rethink their businesses as the push came from both empowered consumers and public policy makers. Best wishes.
Anonymous said…
If you were to predict by the way the kids grilled you guys, they would make for great journos, no?!

And if media companies want to hide behind the reasons that “this is a business” or “we have to make money” or “we are catering to what people want to read/see”, what a cop-out! I mean are these companies any worse than the unscrupulous politicians who say/do anything to get votes? With great power comes great responsibility…maybe just a comic book quote but editors would do well to heed to it.

I do understand having a separate section for gossip but in the front pages of the daily newspapers is just plain dumb. We need a NPR or a PBS or a quality newspaper like the Economist or the New York Times in India. And Govind, with this small space of a blog you have been able to discuss and bring up topics which are both newsworthy and informative. So I am sure you can head an organization/a newsletter with the same principles too…I will be the first to sign up. Or is it asking for too much? :)
Balaji said…
This is a very nice and profound question to answer. Infact i will digress here. I am more interested in the sharpness and intelligence shown by the kids. It doesn't matter whether they are from the slum or from a rich house. They are intelligent and hopefully every child in our country should get an opportunity for education and an opportunity to express themselves.

Regarding Journalism, yes the media sensationalize things, but at the same it gives an opportunity for some of the serious journalists to write serious and meaningful stuff. Not every news paper can be Hindu isn't it? how boring it will be if every channel produces and distributes te news like Hindu. So there should be a fine balance and that is sometimes i feel that is missing.
Bombay Addict said…
Thought provoking blog, Govind. I'm not a journo so I'd probably not be able to appreciate their dilemmas. Or whether journalism is a noble profession/career to aspire for.

My point is that at least the public today has more access to news than ever before, thanks to more newspapers and more TV channels. Yes, the general public's apathy towards important issues like corruption is alarming. But hasn't that always been the case? At least today, we have access to enough news to form an opinion, should we choose to do so.

Engaging the public in a meaningful issue, as against the page-3 obsession is the key challenge for any newspaper/TV channel. And here I'm reminded of Good night and good luck.

I wonder how many journalists would put up their money to sponsor their show, much in the way that Mr. Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly did on CBS when Alcoa walked out on their expose on Senator McCarthy. Just because these two gentlemen believed in their cause - and more importantly, that it was worth highligting to the American public.

This comment from Mr. Murrow at an awards speech in 1958 seems so relevant now that I can't help but quote it. "..during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER."
ali said…
The indian media is going to the dogs! they have infact tabloidised the entire scene, where salary figures of MBA grads becomes more important than what they did prior to that or after that. Things are trivialised and sensationalised out of proportion.
sad situation indeed! here's an article in Dawn by Omar R Quraishi that very much states the truth.
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