It is said that an editor’s is a thankless job. He is respected, feared, even hated. There is a story that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor, missed him and killed the publisher. The narrator adds for good measure that Napoleon’s intentions were good! So how should we judge a member of the species? The Press Council of India Guidelines on Ethical Norms deal at some length with editors’ discretion. It recognises that in the matter of writing an editorial, the editor enjoys a good deal of latitude and discretion. It is for him/her to choose the subject and to use the language s/he considers appropriate, provided that in the process the boundaries of the law and the norms of journalism are not transgressed and the views are couched in sober, dignified and socially acceptable language. The guidelines uphold the editors’ discretion in the selection of the material for publication, but in the expectation that, on any controversial issue of public interest, all views would be given equal prominence so that the public can form an independent opinion.
These are substantial powers. The media has a transmutative capacity. It not only portrays reality but can alter the perception of reality itself. The editor thus holds the key to forming public perception and, by extension, public opinion, and thereby sets the agenda for national debate. Powerful editors have often taken on the government of the day, and occasionally, even brought one down.
There was a time, not long ago, when newspaper editors were intellectual stalwarts who acted as the brains trust of the country. The editor was the personality of the newspaper—setting its tone and tenor, as well as determining its philosophical and political line.
Does contemporary reality correspond to this ideal of a liberal democracy? A political editor recently confided that credibility, which often takes years to build, is being treated as a commodity by media houses, and that part of it is being bartered for immediate economic gains. Such an observation, serious in itself, dents the requisite professional standard of journalism and impinges on an essential prerequisite of a free press in a free society.
There was a time when the editor was the personality of the newspaper—setting its tone and tenor, as well as determining its political and philosophical line.
The philosopher John Rawls noted that substantially equal access to the media was to prevent politics from being captured by concentrations of private economic power, which would make it impossible for equally-able citizens to have equal opportunities to influence politics regardless of their class. Much the same was said by Amartya Sen when he observed that it is not hard to see why a free, energetic, and efficient media can facilitate the needed discursive process significantly. The media is important not only for democracy but also for the pursuit of justice in general.
In a recent article investigating the charges of editorial bias against a newspaper, A.S. Panneerselvan writes that journalism has two central functions, the credible-informational and the critical-investigative-adversarial, and that it operates to fulfill two social requirements—“what is in public interest and what the public is interested in—in a manner where issues of public interest are not subsumed by the dictates of what the public is interested in”.
To uphold journalistic ethos and values, an editor must:
- Ensure that the content is accurate and relevant: In a fluid, 24x7 news environment, speed in providing news stories is surely important. The need to guarantee accuracy, however, is even more important in this information frenzy. We have seen how erroneous reports exacerbate social and communal divides. There have been cases when news groups have aired content with doubtful veracity and antecedents, and the effects have been disastrous. While such content may, in the short run, increase visibility or serve preferred political patronage, it eventually detracts from the credibility of the press and eats into civil liberties. In every society, information plays a key role in empowering citizens to form their own opinions and play an active role in society. This is a duty that the news mediums have. The reporting, therefore, should be accurate and the mistakes corrected quickly.
- Be impartial and independent: Trust is at the heart of the relationship that a news medium has with its readers. The content has to be a proof of this precious relationship with readers. The editor has to be an independent observer of power. This independence is a cornerstone of reliability.
In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that journalistic independence is not mere neutrality. “While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform—not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.”
- Be fair and respectful of the readers and the audience: The news medium should be open about its objectives and approach its subject with respect. Victims of violence, crime, war, conflicts, accidents or disasters should be treated with the utmost respect. The aim should not be to sensationalise.
It has to be admitted, regrettably, that examples of editorial daring and high professional and ethical standards are now few and far between. Even some of the newspapers that have a reputation for quality have faced serious allegations on issues of accuracy, empathy and maintaining ethical standards. Correctives are few and insufficiently enforced.
Over the years, there has been a change in the role and the position of the editor.
The first big change came with the coming of television. Initially, the television was an empowering tool, allowing the editor to see the news as it broke without relying only on his journalist in the field. However, the 24x7 agitation that defines news television today has put tremendous pressure on editors. They now have to compete with this instantaneous medium to grab ‘eyeballs’ and, at the same time, deliver quality content to the readers.
In this cacophony, the pressure on the editor to be heard and seen has increased. In the constant tussle between upholding the values and ethics of journalism, such as being fair and impartial, and the need to keep the newspaper financially viable, the editor is increasingly forced to prefer a healthier bottomline over neutrality and fairness.
Is the era of tall editors over? Perhaps not. In the very technology that has rapidly changed the role and position of editors lies, perhaps, their salvation.
Not only do editors have to acquiesce to owners to do what it takes to generate public interest or controversy, but sometimes they also have to become ‘event managers’ for various sponsorship drives. Editors have had to make compromises to attract star participants and ensure attendance of the high-and-mighty, newsworthy personalities.
The sharp demarcation between the editor’s responsibilities in determining the prioritisation of news hierarchy and the domain of the owner in the running a profitable venture has become increasingly blurred. Owners seem reluctant to have a visible, independent and opinionated editor. They have also started playing a larger role in determining the news content and orientation of the newspaper or television channel. This situation further subordinates the editor’s position and ability to take independent stands.
This becomes particularly challenging in an age where big corporate are also the owners of media outlets. The lines between an editorial and an advertisement should, therefore, be drawn in bold.
The evolution of the digital space and social media has had a further impact on the position of editors. This age of Twitter and Facebook feeds, where the newsmaker is able to directly communicate with the audience and the masses, is redefining the whole concept of journalism as we understand it. The editor’s role, in this surfeit of information, has become limited to trying to filter the information and acting as a goalkeeper to prevent incorrect information from going out through his medium to the audience.
So is the era of tall editors over?
Perhaps not. In the very technology that brought about a rapid change in the position and role of editors, lies, perhaps, their salvation. The digital medium today provides space for independent thought and contrarian views. We have seen some recent examples where prominent editors of well-known print dailies have moved completely to a digital medium in order to preserve their space and independence. With the digital divide in India narrowing, this might provide a way out for the editors. We have already seen this happen in the United States, where, as the news and readers both moved to the digital medium, so did the editors.
The challenges before editors arising from ready access of readers to alternative sources of information and the increasing expectation on editors to focus on marketing and revenue—even as a larger proportion of the editorial staff gets deployed in revenue raising work—is daunting.
One last word may be of some relevance here. Some years back, when I was in the National Commission for Minorities, I came across a piece of writing that included the following pithy comment: “The administrative truth was passed on to the media; media took the official truth and transformed it into ‘media truth’. The judiciary accepted the official and the media truth and transformed it into judicial truth; media praised the judicial truth, without attending the trial.”
(Excerpted from the Vice-President’s opening remarks at a seminar organised by Rajya Sabha TV)
A survey on how journalists in India use the social media threw up some interesting findings. At least 69 per cent of the respondents said they use Twitter as a source of news, or to look for leads. The corresponding figure for Facebook was 61 per cent. One out of every two repondents said they use both social media platforms to disseminate their work, and many also use them to share the work of fellow journalists.