The novel coronavirus has taken a toll on every sector. Its impact on journalism is tremendous. PatnaBeats interviews the former editor of Indian Express, Amitabh Ranjan to understand how members of the print media are coping in these trying times.
Most of the states have gone for lockdown, businesses facing downturn and advertising industry has also taken a hit. As Print media depends on advertisements for revenue, how does the Pandemic impact the industry?
The financial stress of the print media is not something which has happened now. It has been there for quite some time. The pandemic has only aggravated the situation, obviously because recession has hit businesses and this in turn has hit advertisements. Many newspapers have gone for cost-cutting by pruning staff, cutting salaries, putting on hold annual increments and reducing the number of pages. Hopefully, we will be on the other side of the pandemic in a couple of months and businesses and advertisements will pick up to the pre-pandemic level. What newspapers have to do in the long-run is to evolve a business model which is sustainable in the face of dwindling advertisements. A sizable section of print readers won’t mind paying a little more for their daily dose of credible information. So, raising the price of a daily newspaper to a more realistic level could be a way out. Some hybrid newspapers (those which have both print and online formats) could think of raising a paywall to access their online editions.
How the pandemic is affecting trust in journalism and the media?
I look at it differently. The pandemic has brought news of the death of dear ones and acquaintances and its possibility is so close to you that almost everyone is living with fear. People have become hungry for credible information as they think that politicians and the authorities have more to hide than to reveal. They realize that it is only an independent media that can help them remain informed about the pandemic, its severity, the required precautions, treatment protocols to be followed at home and hospital, medicines available, etc. So, the pandemic has only made people realize that objective and impartial journalism is a sine qua non of modern existence.
The Internet is filled with random information. People are sharing information online that they are turning out to be false. What according to you is the role of newspapers in combating misinformation?
With its long history of providing information to the masses, it is time for newspapers to cash in on their reputation. Today, TV debates and social media posts on various platforms create some kind of cacophony. While the TV debates hardly lead to any conclusive view, social media information is often biased, unchecked for facts, fake or half-truth. You also don’t come across a set of news items that are prioritized in terms of display. It is in this sense that newspapers every day cut through the clutter of the previous day to give you what you need to know. They also have the capability and credibility to give you well-rounded news analyses, features and opinion pieces, all in one place. This is exactly what some of the respected newspapers are doing right now.
A large number of journalists have succumbed to Covid-19. Many state governments have declared journalists as ‘frontline workers’. How do you see this move? Do you think more states should follow this move so that journalists get vaccines on priority?
Declaring journalists as ‘frontline workers’, so that they receive vaccines on a priority, is a good move. By disseminating information from ground zero they are rendering an essential public service because correct information is a key to fighting an emergency like the current pandemic.
In the World Press Freedom index 2021, India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries. How do you see this? Do you think the government is censoring the media during the pandemic?
It is certainly a matter of concern and shame. More so, when we realise that ours is the biggest democracy in the world with a constitution which enshrines the freedom of speech and expression as one of the fundamental rights.
It is not censoring per se. It is about manipulating the media to air the government’s voice and stifling the voice from the other side which may not be to its liking. And it is not only an immediate situation, as the pandemic when one sees the government trying to check the free flow of information. In fact, it happens most of the time. The annual ranking, done by Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders), itself takes into account a number of parameters to arrive at the ranking. It looks into instances of threat to journalists, cases against them by the authorities on one pretext or the other, their access to offices and information, control over the newsprint, grant of government ads to media outlets among other things. The pandemic and its inept handling have brought a lot of bad press for the government and there have been efforts from sections of the government and some states to rein in the information. However, the advent of social media has ensured that the dissemination of information is unrestrained and democratic. In a Web-linked world, it is difficult for the government to control voices. Moreover, overt measures to control the media will be detrimental to its global image.
What is your message for journalists who have no other option but to step out amidst this pandemic and are dealing with emotional and psychological issues?
Journalism has always been seen as a profession with a mission. In fact, information based on facts is a public good in any modern democracy. So, despite obvious dangers lurking around journalists have to step out and report the ground realities. Necessary precautions, of course, are called for.
A journalist too is a human being. So, if she comes across so many miseries caused by loss of lives, loss of jobs, incomes and penury, she is bound to get affected. Being emotionally strong and having a positive bend of mind will help her carry out her duty. It is easier said than done but a journalist must come to terms with it.
Another aspect that has to be kept in mind is that emotions should not overtake the sense of news. The journalist must understand that being too emotionally involved (with her subjects, issues) may take her away from the truth, the bare facts. Giving human element to her story is fine, but facts and only facts are sacrosanct in this profession.
A pandemic is substantially a health issue. So, a reporter should try to acquire the relevant awareness on the subject. It needs hard work. Nothing should be believed or written about because something is doing the rounds. Every piece of information meant for the reader has to be verified by experts and the authorities and proper attribution provided in the report.
In your journalism career, have you ever dealt with any health crisis? Can you share your experience with our readers?
As someone who worked on the Newsdesk, I cannot shed light on how reporting is done from ground zero. But since all reports have to finally land on the desk and vetted there before being cleared for publication, I have a fair experience of handling health news.
No one in our generation and generation after that has seen a pandemic of this scale that we are going through, both in terms of geography and casualties. We have seen epidemics earlier, the first since the start of this century being SARS in 2002-04,its causes were similar to what we are witnessing with the Covid-19. There were a few other localised outbreaks of diseases of significant severity, Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala in 2018.
As an editor I have to ensure that whatever a reporter has filed is attributed to genuine sources. Since epidemics lead to deaths, we must ensure that reports should not cause panic among the general public. The use of photographs is also a tricky affair which has to be handled deftly. While photographs do chronicle significant events and record them for posterity, too many of them of death and human agony create a depressing mood among the public.
A major problem that I have experienced with health reporting in the country is that 90 percent or more of the reports are event-driven rather than planned and investigated over time. Once something like this pandemic happens, reporters go on a mad rush for stories and as a result come out with half-baked reports. In a country like India, health needs to be a priority both for the government and the journalists. It is by constantly showing light on the flaws of the health system that a pandemic like the present one can be prevented or at least handled effectively.