Time Or Journalist: Who Decides Journalistic Discourse?

Posted by Shamim Zakaria in Media
February 8, 2017

-Celebs may advise on how to celebrate love with opened arms but definitely not on journalism

Ever since the clarion for US Presidential election was blown, the world witnessed new folds unfurling in journalistic discourse. While Donald Trump and his collusion with media every second day gave a new thrill and direction to political reportage, debates ranged about how far we could tickle the limits of criticism and critical reporting. Furthermore, there were discussions and debates around the phenomenon of paid news that dominated headlines.

Merryl Streep giving her opinion about Trump at the Golden Globes
Photo Credits: Getty Images

If this was not enough now in the aftermath we have Meryl Streep’s fireband speech at the Golden Globe awards, coated with bravado in which many described some apparent optimism. This was immediately followed by Indian film star Shahrukh Khan’s piece, “Why No Indian Meryl Streep?” In which he went on to pat journalists of the west and laid down their professional conduct as a benchmark for the Indian scribes to look up to.

In the midst of all this, evidently or subtly, what has occupied the centre stage is the question around the functioning of journalism – to be more precise – what is exactly the role of journalism? Or perhaps in a more cynical way, the changing discourse of journalism.

When I was writing my MA dissertation, I knocked at my supervisor Dr. Lee Salter’s doorsteps for our first meeting. After briefing him about my topic, reading out the proposal and explaining the plausible methodology, I expected his nod and feedback on taking my research forward. However, to my astonishment he had just one question for me, “So, what is journalism? You have nowhere attempted to explain it.” Having known Dr. Salter as a man of astounding wisdom from all my previous erudite interactions with him, I tried hard not to be skeptical.

However, unable to resist my curiosity, I ended up giving in to an obvious answer, insisting that the topic for my dissertation was way beyond the bookish definitions of journalism and had barely anything to do with the basic terminologies. To that he patiently yet firmly opined that I could not expect to draw a successful conclusion or even attempt at conducting a research encompassing journalism without having the basic understanding of it. Also, why would anyone accept my research as a journalistic piece if I fail to reiterate the basic role of journalism for without that every argument I make remains merely a fiction or judgment without any factual grounds to it.

During the next few tenacious weeks as I delved into the definitions of journalism, what appalled me more was discovering there actually cannot be an absolute defining line for journalism. The reason being, a formal definition of journalism may be troubling for an organization, as a strict definition could be used in court against the organization when it deviates from the set parameters. Therefore, what looked feasible was to define the role of journalists.

One may pursue whatever theory of press he/she wishes to but every single one would in the end culminate that holding the establishment and authority to account, tackling vested interests and speaking up for the common mass are the ideals of journalism. Whichever corner of the world you may be practicing the profession, the methods you use for chasing a story might vary but there can never be a second opinion to the fact that your role as a reporter is all about telling people what they do not know, exposing wrongdoing, questioning leaders, examine policy, put the powerful on the spot, making a nuisance of themselves.

While writing my dissertation as I was interviewing many journalists I could recall an interesting conversation I had with the editor of a local British daily, Mr. Mike Gilson. He firmly emphasized that journalists must essentially be the most hated beings by the establishment. It is not healthy for any journalist to have too cosy a relationship with the leaders in our community and journalists should necessarily act as outsiders because the safeguards that governs democracy demand that that’s how journalism should function.

Journalist wearing a gas mask during protests in Cairo
Photo credits: Flickr/Alisdare Hickson

Sticking to India, when a public figure of Shahrukh Khan’s stature having phenomenal global following rolls up his sleeves to be a journalism lecturer lamenting, “Why don’t journalists here behave the way their counterparts do in the West.” There indeed are some serious flaws or perhaps Mr. Khan should be thankful enough that journalists here “aren’t yet behaving like their counterparts in the West”. His personal telephonic conversations are yet to be a part of some news outlet’s next bestselling cover story. Indian media is yet to cover another Lady Diana like macabre story for “journalists here are yet to behave the way their counterparts do in the West”.

This brings me back to the question, is the journalistic discourse changing? I still have reasons enough to revel, for now, in a state of denial. Few months back during a panel discussion at a college event I had constructive arguments with the editor of a vernacular news channel. The gentleman seemed a little irked on my repeated exemplifying of the western press to establish my stance. He believed western press cannot set the yardsticks for Indian journalism. Indeed, I too nod in affirmation to that but also believe Indian journalism isn’t beyond perils either. Apart from writing an error free and factually correct story journalists here have to oblige to a lot more. Added to that there’s also now a need to take extra care to not give an “anti-nationalistic” impression!

Personally speaking, I am devoid of any answers if there’s any way out. But, I am optimistic enough to believe that this everyday collusion will certainly open new gates for discussion and through discussions we can foresee a change. Interestingly, journalism today rather than being defined on the basis any ideals, gets its definition from how professionals actually perform journalism. They might try to challenge the traditional framework and redefine it as a profession. But, few ideals shall remain as the unquestionable pillars of journalism. The role of a journalist shall forever be to question the mighty, to demand answers, to annoy and to open governments. The way they practice will define their role as practitioners but their practice cannot be a defining factor for the profession. The discourse cannot be altered.