The Journalism of Outrage
After retiring from the Supreme Court, Justice Markandey Katju now heads the Press Council of India, a role that everyone knows is a sinecure. Nonetheless, he has managed to stir up a controversy by saying nasty things about the competence of Indian journalists. He also wants additional regulations on newspapers.
We don’t have to agree with his proposed solution to recognize that he is right about the quality of Indian journalism. Take, for example, last week’s outrage of the week. Apparently, little children are dying in hospitals of West Bengal.
If you read news reports like this, you will “learn” that the “death toll” in the hospitals has reached 45. You will also learn that the Chief Minister has not woken up to the gravity of the crisis, has parried the questions asked of her, while her minister of state for health has made light of the crisis. The Governor, you will learn, has taken the government to task on the question.
The only problem with all this “reporting” is that there is very little about it that is useful if your objective is to learn about the problem rather than get outraged about it. The hospitals that the media laid siege to were referral centres that took cases that were too ill to be treated by primary health centres. The infants who are admitted there are very ill to begin with. So it is not surprising, though no less tragic, that some of them succumbed. The media simply added every child who had died in a hospital in West Bengal to the death toll of a manufactured crisis. This provided them with fodder for a few days worth of news reports, all following the same template. Report the latest number, add a few lines from some of the anguished parents, add a couple of lines about the unsanitary conditions of the hospital, lack of facilities or the general level of malnutrition among the poor, and voila! You have a news report. Then create a political controversy by ambushing the Chief Minister with questions about healthcare at an unrelated event, and when she tries to stick to her agenda, accuse her of being evasive. Ask the Governor what he thinks of children dying, and when he declares that he is against, make it seem like he is pulling up his government. The media’s job is done.
This is not to say that there was no story to be reported. The continuing tragedy of India’s overcrowded government hospitals, the lack of facilities, negligence by doctors, malnourishment among India’s poor, all need to be reported on. But the kind of reporting that needs to be done on those topics is exactly the kind of reporting that our media doesn’t do. For an example of good reporting, here is the Wall Street Journal on the same topic. They have provided the facts, sourced both points of view, provided background, and explained the larger context. If you follow the links there, you will realize that they have done follow up on an earlier such story (I couldn’t read it in full because it requires a login, and when I tried logging in through Facebook, I got into popup-blocker hell)
I am not saying that it is Pulitzer-level journalism – in fact my point is that this is basic good reporting that is very difficult to find in Indian media. Don’t get me wrong – the best Indian journalists are very good. But if one descends from the best and looks at the reporting of the average journalist, one has to accept that the quality is just abysmal.