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A race to the bottom

A race to the bottom
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First Published: Tue, Jul 29 2008. 10 27 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Jul 29 2008. 10 27 PM IST
Readers, listeners and viewers have a right to objective, fair and balanced presentation, reflecting all legitimate points of view and the right to correction and reply without delay. At the end of the day, it is the media’s credibility and moral standing that is its shield and anchor.
The Press Council has a code of conduct which has been codified and published from time to time. This is a useful guide. Unfortunately, the broadcast media is as yet without a regulatory mechanism and has not as yet come up with an accepted code of conduct. Some media organizations have fashioned their own internal codes of conduct and have established internal ombudsmen. The Hindu has a Reader’s Editor who critically reviews errors and omissions that are published. The Indian Express has recently started a “Corrections” column. But the major channel of communication and feedback is the traditional Letters/Reader’s Views column. Broadcast organizations have no corresponding slot and would do well to consider providing time for listeners’/viewers’ comments on a regular basis.
Part of the weakness and vulnerability of news organizations is that boards of management give exclusive or excessive weightage to family/proprietorial interests. The appointment of men and women of standing as public interest directors would introduce a level of participation that would normally be expected to prevent narrowly partisan policies, excessive bias and unfair practices. These directors would be custodians of the public interest as opposed to purely family/corporate welfare.
The real problem lies in the steady growth of market-driven media, all fiercely competitive and anxious to grab readers or eyeballs. With honourable exceptions, this has sometimes led to a spiralling down of standards and values, catering to the lowest common factor with a fare of sensation and infotainment. The reach of the media has enhanced its power and political clout, with mass viewerships and circulations bringing in huge income flows. The change from mission to market has also impacted the relationship between proprietor/manager and editor, the latter often being content to assume second place. Horizontal expansion, with multiple editions and channels in multiple languages, multi-media conglomerates, local/district editions and multiple sections with different editors, has resulted in dilution of top editorial control. Managers and “response” departments have cosied up to business houses and brands. Advertising-for-equity bargains have been reported as well as the sale of editorial space and sponsoring of supplements. At the other end of the scale, reporters and, particularly, stringers have sprouted and have been known to use their media calling cards as negotiable instruments to build or mar reputations, facilitate or obstruct business transactions and clearances or act as piece-work lobbyists.
Some well-known media organizations have no editor, but only page or section editors. In other cases, editors appear to have abdicated their authority, spending more time outside their offices during critical hours, attending seminars, appearing on channels or writing columns, delivering lectures, appearing in the company of the big and the beautiful, acting as brand managers. This appreciation is perhaps exaggerated but is sufficiently true to be cause for anxiety.
The decline of the editor is by no means universal. But a few rotten apples tend to affect the quality of the basket. Many have allowed themselves to be trampled over.
Excerpts from a report made for the Editors’ Guild that was first published by www.hoot.org. Mint’s journalistic code of conduct is at www.livemint.com, and since its inception in 2007, the newspaper has been publishing corrections on Page 2. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Jul 29 2008. 10 27 PM IST