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A spirited discussion on what good journalism can do

In November, the Press Institute of India (PII) and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Dhenkanal, conducted a virtual discussion focused on ‘What good journalism can do’ as a tribute to the legendary editor Sir Harold Evans who had died earlier in September. Participating were A.S. Panneerselvan, readers’ editor, The Hindu; Usha Rai and Manjira Mazumdar, both senior journalists; and Uma Shankar Pandey, associate professor and head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Surendranath College for Women, University of Calcutta. Panneerselvan, referring to Evans’ book, Good Times, Bad Times, described him as an extremely pragmatic person who managed to balance journalistic creed with the owner’s greed, and who never allowed that to subsume journalistic creed. Evans created that fine wall where journalistic creed could be protected, Panneerselvan said, and mentioned how by quitting Northern Echo, Evans created space for youngsters to take over. The idea of mentoring has disappeared today, he added.

Usha Rai referred to the Johnson & Johnson case (faulty hip replacements) being similar to the Harold Evans story about the use of thalidomide and children being born with deformities. There were several examples (in India) in the health field where journalists have taken on the role of activism, she pointed out – examples of dowry deaths, etc. The print media was much more sedate, Usha felt, adding that the fault lay more with television tending to sensationalise. Manjira Mazumdar painted a more realistic picture and said that a lot of good things were happening in journalism. She said journalism was going through a lot of churn and was not the way it used to be. Journalists have to ask questions which are not comfortable, she added. Uma Shankar Pandey referred to Evans’ style as “instinctive journalism” and talked about his contribution to South Asia, and his report about East Pakistan.

Panneerselvan said newspapers were no longer investing in having domain experts. Information today was being sourced from retired bureaucrats, banking chairmen, former sportspersons, all of who have a vested interest. He called it the biggest loss over the past 15 years and said we were paying a heavy price for it. Panneerselvan also mentioned how newsgathering expenditure had come down in recent times. We need more investment and the time… news organisations should move away from the ‘I am first’ approach to the ‘I am correct’ approach… unless that is done, we cannot reinvent good journalism, he said. There was no time for processing (information), he said, unlike the act of checking, verifying, and looking at attribution in the earlier days. “The dynamics of the newsroom have changed… there is no time to process. Our newsrooms are not frozen for a continuous deadline process.”

Usha Rai recalled how, learning on-the-job earlier, journalists acquired knowledge. She mentioned her initiation starting with a visit to the Delhi Zoo, which got her interested in the environment, and how newspapers steered the course for young journalists then. Manjira Mazumdar felt young journalists do not have a sense of history. They do not have the kind of commitment needed… also, there is a big disconnect between what they are taught and what they find on the field, she said. Panneerselvan said that to say somebody was not industry-ready was a misnomer. “It is the world of the editors and the world of the managers today. Unfortunately, the world of the managers is subsuming the world of editors. We have to spend more time with youngsters to understand their sharpness and their frustrations. We have to bring back the journalistic zeal and rescue journalism from the managerial lack of imagination,” he said. Mrinal Chatterjee, head, IIMC, Dhenkanal, welcomed. Sashi Nair, director, PII, moderated.