What is the future of news and journalism?

Have you noticed the pattern of news broadcasting especially on the Indian news TV channels? Normally there is no “news” no matter how loudly some channels scream “Breaking News!”. Most are predictable political controversies. Then these controversies are used to target political parties and individuals. It normally begins with the statement or a declaration and then there is a litany of debates where they invite known and unknown panelists to scream their brains out until you can’t make sense of what they’re saying and what they want to prove, to each other, and to the viewer.

For instance, as I’m writing this, a woman NCP leader who also leads the Maharashtra Women’s Commission said yesterday that women get raped because of the way they dress or the way the stay out late. About the Nirbhaya rape she said, why was there need to go watch a movie late in the evening? Predictably, all TV news channels today are going to hyperventilate on the insensitivity of the leader, the patriarchal mentality that ails our society and whether the person should resign or apologize. Parallels will be drawn to various other personalities from various other political parties and fields who have previously mouthed such rubbish and the crescendo will be reached in the evening during prime time TV debates. I’m not saying that such debates shouldn’t happen and such characters shouldn’t be held responsible and taken to task, but when they go on and on, it becomes a bit overbearing. It becomes an obsession.

That is why from 8 PM onwards normally there is no news. There are debates. No news, just debates, and even if it is humanly impossible to ignore some major news, it is shown in flashes, between the debates.

Anyway, I’m talking about this just to stress upon the point that news these days doesn’t mean gathering information at various spots and attempting to inform people in a timely manner unless there is a catastrophe. Panelists and anchors are more famous than journalists and reporters; in fact many anchors unabashedly call themselves “journalists”.

Newspapers in the West are mostly dead (if not in terms of circulation or viewership than certainly in terms of revenue) although this might not be the case in India where a majority of population still relies on newspapers – mostly local, vernacular newspapers – to access news. The roadside chaiwala is everyday witness to highly charged up debates on various bits of news published, including politics.

The same happens on social networking websites like Twitter. A majority of links posted over there are from newspapers – both online versions of conventional newspapers as well as web-only newspapers. Then people discuss these links. They debate on the data and information contained within the link and then many post counter information and this goes on every day. Blogs and articles are written contesting the disputed article. However much powerful social media is, the main source of information remain conventional news agencies. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook cannot generate news themselves unless there comes a day when professional journalists start posting the news and investigative works on their own profiles rather than through newspapers and magazines. This may happen if a workable financial model can be developed.

Merely having an opinion doesn’t make you a journalist. It can make you a columnist, it can make you a writer and in some cases it can also make you an analyst (fair enough, and you can also make money). A journalist needs to go out to the places where an event is actually taking place and then give a first-hand experience – “first-hand” is the key word here. If you are not writing a first-hand experience you are merely gleaning information from here and there and then compiling it just the way one writes a blog post. In the early days of the Internet I came across many such “journalists” who would visit various news websites (very early in the morning) scouring the information needed for their own articles. I stopped tracking consciously, but I’m sure most of the journalists work like this these days. There may be very few journalists who visit places and events in order to write about them. Of course there are many niches where you cannot work without visiting actual places such as travel, entertainment and even technology summits.

As social media becomes more and more a part of our daily grain I think the quality of written journalism is going to improve tremendously. I’m not sure about TV news channels because they are more noise and less voice. A good thing about social media is every journalist is held accountable the moment he or she says something factually wrong or culturally/socially repulsive. This may force journalists to do their research and represent the actual truth rather than creating their own individual versions as they used to do when there was no direct way to hold them accountable and they couldn’t get immediate feedback. There are many journalists who don’t like this trend but this is because they are forced to work harder or they miss their ability to run political and ideological propaganda unencumbered and uncontested.