David Usborne, freelance columnist, feature writer and reporter, and Josy Joseph, an investigative journalist, spoke about the issues in mainstream media in the session, ‘Investigative generalism: Journalism to corporate diligence.’ The session was moderated by Neha Dixit, an independent journalist based in New Delhi.
The session on investigative journalism began with Joseph remarking that mainstream media is merely a propagandist arm for the government of today and the advertisement model drives the content. He further said that Indian mainstream media does not address the real issues of society, and that it lags in comparison to media in the US, UK and Pakistan.
The panelists discussed the harassment of journalists, both offline and online. Joseph said that while there is definitely an improvement in the situation of media under the current government, it is still not free and is used by the government to make profits and influence the masses. Sharing his point of view, Usborne said that despite being a progressive leader, Obama was still intolerant towards journalists who leaked information about the government. Reminiscing about one such incident, Usborne said that he once wrote a story about sexual harassment and approached NBC to publish it. But he was threatened with jail time if he went forward with the story and was forced to pull the plug on it. However, Usborne agreed that Indian media has larger issues in comparison to media in the UK.
The discussion of media harassment by the government naturally shifted to the issue of field reporting. Joseph expressed that one of the key aspects of effective reporting is access to authentic information from the correct source. It is impossible to do so without access to government offices. He was of the opinion that until the introduction of the RTI act in 2005, reporters had no clue about the inner functioning of the government. In this regard, the Modi government has done revolutionary work, he said. Journalists can come and go to government offices and get access to information they would not get otherwise.
With digital media coming to power, the authenticity of news cannot be guaranteed. Journalists no longer feel the need to do field reporting and rehash information that is already floating on the internet with nothing to back that piece of information. Usborne agreed that even though digital media has expanded the number of sources to get information, field reporting is still necessary to add value to news. “I had various ways through which I got my information; I knew people. And that is how I worked for 30 years but I never realized how difficult and value adding it is to find information by going on the field. Today, it is important to go on field and get authentic information but journalists need to be provided with financial backup so that they have an incentive to do better than just sitting at their desks,” he said.
However, Joseph added that today the TRP model of digital is reigning supreme and journalists simply look at tweets and social media profiles of government officials rather than getting a direct word. He further said that mainstream media is not investing enough in investigative journalism. Newspapers in India are really cheap, “cheaper than a cup of tea,” in comparison to US and UK. The brain drain of talented Indian journalists is also preventing Indian mainstream media to improve.
The panelists agreed that there remain a few exceptional journalists who are courageous enough to report authentic information about the government. However, when they do that, they have to face the wrath of the government. Joseph recalled being slammed with two defamation cases where he did not receive any help from any institution. Acknowledging the seemingly benign UK situation, Usborne said he has been lucky so far.