Not a fine balance
Objectivity in journalism became unfashionable a while ago. Balance is now going the same way. This is partly because the articles generally perceived as examples of good writing now are those that get the most comments. Any piece of writing that manages to whip up sentiments and generate a lot of heat is seen as successful. Usually, polemical writings strewn with controversial remarks tend to do this. Such pieces are therefore seen as good.
This is, in my view, wrong.
I opposed embedded journalism when Fox News did it in Iraq, because it seemed to me that the reporter was taking sides, and telling only one side of the story. I had questions when Mary Colvin did it in Syria as well. I want my reports without slant as far as possible. The reporter trying to prejudice me one way or another is purveying a sort of propaganda. I understand that perfect objectivity and balance are humanly impossible, but how about at least trying to be balanced?
Taking sides is fine in an opinion piece. Such pieces clearly state a particular writer’s point of view. However the reader must distinguish between hot, unsubstantiated opinion, and analysis. The first is nonsense. The second is useful, because it is based on facts and clear reasoning. Unfortunately, today’s journalism environment doesn’t encourage this latter kind of writing, because it tends not to scream. In our loud, crass media environment, voices of sanity cannot easily be heard above the din.
The real irony is that even the same people who sneer at The Times of India for its Page 3 approach to journalism – which the TOI has mostly limited to Page 3 – seem to have no problems patronizing essentially the same approach to more serious matters such as reviews. A girl in a mini skirt is a problem with these folks, because it is seen as trivialization. But a seemingly serious review or analysis that aims at the intellectual equivalent of the lowest common denominator is not trivialization? At least Page 3 doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
I don’t think journalism should substitute for the circus. If a solid investigation yields a controversial story, that’s great. But the story should be reported with as much data as possible, and be balanced and fair to all concerned. A basic principle of justice is that people are innocent until proved guilty. It is not for the reporter to pass judgment.
Reviews are a different matter. A critic is required to pass judgment, but in all fairness, ought to judge the book, film, or work in question, or even the body of work – not the artist or writer. It is a foul if you play the man, not the ball. Exceptions may be made only when a person becomes almost synonymous with a style, genre or event.
With analysis, the lack of balance leads to a simple and basic problem: a biased analyst will almost always be wrong, because he or she will see only what he wants to see. Most of the analysis published by armchair journalists in India, about India, eventually proves to be wrong. This is because, firstly, these journalists don’t really know the entire country, or understand the range of subjects required. Secondly, they’ve usually chosen their side before they start researching their articles, if at all they do any research. Thirdly, they’re too full of themselves to seek other opinions and points of view.
When journalists start loving the sounds of their own voices too much, they turn into pundits or activists, or even Arnab Goswami.
The activist and the journalist are two different people. The activist has a strongly held position and point of view. He or she makes no claim to impartiality. He’s only championing his cause. The journalist, in contrast, at least pretends to be enquiring into the truth of a matter, and telling it straight, without theatrics. This is his only legitimate cause.
Unfortunately it’s become rather fashionable for journalists to take sides, and indulge in drama.
We don’t (or at least should not) carry advertorials without labelling them as such, because they are biased. If a journalist with a deep bias writes an article, why is it carried without full disclosure? Such articles ought to come with a line at the bottom saying, “the writer is a friend of this political party” or “an associate of that business house”.
As for measuring the success of a piece of writing by the number of comments, well…if numbers decide merit, then The Times of India is the best English newspaper in the world, and Chetan Bhagat is the best Indian writer.