Dialogue  October - December 2005 , Volume 7  No. 2

Yellow journalism and how to combat it

Shankar Sharan

The dictionary meaning of yellow journalism is ‘a journalism that exploits, distorts, or exaggerates the news to create sensations and attract readers’. Thus yellow journalism is fundamentally dishonest, unethical or incredibly sloppy and uncaring reporting. Now keeping this in mind watch our news channels and the conclusion will be inescapable: that India’s top news channels have become the best examples of yellow journalism. The print media, newspapers and news magazines, are not far behind. They are always in search of sleaze and opportunity to present base materials. 
    Besides the formal meaning of yellow journalism, most of the respected journalists world over do think that the line had been crossed into yellow journalism when the reportage told the reader how to think. Putting someone or something in black or pink colours, and thus pushing the reader towards a pre-determined conclusion, is a daily occurrence in our newspapers. All this was going on for years. Some say it began with the year 1989, when people realise a single newspaper’s effort to disclose corruption at high places brought down a government till now enjoying two-third majority in the parliament. With time some business houses made it their habit to tarnish or puff up a leader or a party to serve their own petty interest. In this process, the role of the editor and along with him the entire editorial, reporting personnel become mere servant of the owner of the newspaper.  
    This tendency was growing menacingly, which culminated in the advent of tehelka brand of journalism. It was the nadir of yellow journalism when falsehood, political motive, manufacturing of ‘news’ with only manufacture and no news, craving for quick money and power, selling dirty sex and working as pimps – it all joined together to form what came to be known as tehelka kind of journalism.  
    It was ugly and wholly unscrupulous. In its quest for instant fame and big money tehelka was willing to go to any extent to malign some particular politicians and parties. Perhaps, the filth that has been accumulating in our upper class in recent years has engulfed the media. So the reporters of the tehelka gratuitously plied some defense personnel with prostitutes and then video-taped the resulting sexual action. It shamed the vocation of journalism. Yet there has not been any serious introspection.  
    Many high-minded senior journalists, retired and reigning editors regularly pontificate about the essential co-relation between means and ends. They routinely criticise politicians for having given up morality and ethics. But the same lot tried to take an equivocal stand on the tehelka’s prostitution scandal. Tarun Tejpal, the tehelka mastermind, and his reporters disgraced the journalistic profession. In fact, there were always serious doubts about the real agenda of the people behind tehelka. This was confirmed after their call girl running racket came to fore, that some wicked people are playing someone else’s game in the single-minded pursuit of big money and power.
    Of course, Tejpal tried to justify the use of dirty means by saying that ‘unusual stories require unusual means’. But what was the unusual story? There was no actual defense deal that tehelka reported. It merely stated that people in high places are liable to compromise themselves if allured by women and money. This is always a well-known fact, since time immemorial. In past, present and future some things always remains the same and this is one of it. So, what was new that tehelka presented? Nothing, absolutely nothing, except trying to manufacture a contrived story. By that logic of ‘unusual means’ can a journalist also take to printing counterfeit currency? If caught, he can counter that it was doing so to show the incompetence of the authorities.
    If one were to follow the logic of tehelka, investigative reporters of media organisations would be demanding the services of prostitutes for ‘finding’ a story or for the amusement of their news sources. So keen was tehelka to earn big money that it continued plying filth for a long time. Its web portal had a hard porn site. It was closed down only after there were repeated protests in the media.
    Curiously, the political class of our country did not come heavily on tehelka brand of journalism. They are reluctant to attack yellow journalism. Tehelka had falsely implicated a union minister Srinivas Prasad of receiving bribes. While the evidence instead pointing to the tehelka journalist’s own desperation to thrust Rs 2 lakh “donation” into some unknown and unseen hands. It was a clear case of falsehood and willful defamation. But instead of directly charging the tehelka with unethical practices, the union ministers of the time directed their flak at the Opposition for trying to make political capital of this particular falsehood. Why they were shy on attacking yellow journalism? Because, the media has also become a terrible trade union and an attack on any one might invite the wrath of other members on the attacking politicians. (Recall the newspaper ‘The Hindu’s quarrel with Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu. In spite of unfair, malicious portrayal of Jayalalitha by the newspaper, no newspaper reported the Jayalalitha’s version. Even the reporting of the court proceedings on the matter was reported one-sidedly.)  
    Thus, the tehelka tapes also exposed this country to the howls of a media-led lynch mob. Its clear attempt to destabilise the then Union Government and ultimately the removal of the Defense Minister were effected in an artificial environment. An environment where the lynch mob mentality prevailed. As Swapan Dasgupta said so pithily, “The tehelka tapes were a very successful exercise in political supari but in journalistic terms it was plain tendentious. The elementary norms of verification and corroboration were expediently given the go-by because facts wouldn’t have coincided with the images and sound-bites of the spycam.” 
    It is noteworthy that tehelka made it its habit to manufacture news where there was none. Very soon after its first scandal, it tried to manufacture a story of poaching of endangered animals. And this time it arranged to kill some animals, by using hired poachers and bribing the officials of the forest, and shoot the whole thing in order to present this as a sensational story on poaching of animals in forest! Fortunately the scheme failed and the whole plot was uncovered. The matter went to court. While refusing bail to the tehelka reporter Kumar Badal, the main accused of stage-managing the poaching of animals, the Honourable Justice S.S. Kulshreshta of the Allahabad High Court said in his order: “It is a matter where the accused applicant gets ghoulish delight in wanton killing and destruction of wild animals in order to achieve his reprehensible ends, which is beyond human imagination”. In the meantime, senior tehelka men contacted higher police officials alluring them to ‘settle’ the matter. The court also took note of it and recorded in its order. The order ends by stating, “Suffice it to mention that there is motivated malignity on the part of the accused applicant that instead of giving accurate account of the wild life and the apprehended danger to the wild animals, he himself was involved in getting the trapping and killing of the wild animals and tenancing his accomplice for making film of such poaching etc.”

    This is but one trend of yellow journalism, that is, instead of collecting news some unscrupulous journalists are hell-bent on manufacturing sensational news. Unfortunately, in the wake of tehelka scandal, many journalists took fancy to emulate tehelka kind of journalism, though with less unscrupulousness. Now it has become a routine fare on all our news channels to see sensational and senseless, dirty, violent stories especially manufactured(recreated). This is nothing but a round about way of doing tehelka kind of journalism.
    However, if we examine issues of national importance streaks of yellow journalism are all pervasive there too. For instance, the journalistic response to Pokhran II. There was much dissent expressed by some worthy members of the editorial classes and what is aptly called chattering class or chatterati. Unfortunately much of that dissent was based on purely ideological-political motives, personal peeves, and also plain ignorance. Responsible journalism was not observed when it came to malign the Vajpayee government which decided to go nuclear.
    Informed and well-considered dissent is one thing . But, many Indian editors and commentators responded to Pokhran II as if they were responding to some kind of political sin. They let their aversion for the BJP blind them to various strategic, security issues. While criticising they seldom bothered to check any facts but accepted all kinds of factoids spewed by the media empires of the West. Later many of such commentators became international ‘peace activists’, a breed of its own kind who enjoy at the cost of national self-respect.
    Such examples are many. Pakistani attack on Kargil, Al Queda attack on New York, Bamiyan Buddha destruction, POTA, Godhra, Narendra Modi, international Islamic jehad, Kashmir problem, General Musharraf, Kashmiri Hindus, Gudia, Imrana, are some other issues on which many of our journalists and commentators did all they could to persuade people ‘how to think’. Think not in a truthful way, but in a politically correct way disregarding piles of facts contradicting that thinking. Blinded by their political idiosyncrasies, on issues mentioned above many reporters and editors tailored their stories and comments to make people against someone or for something. None of which was done in national interest, but to serve political correctness.
    Generally speaking our columnists can be divided into two camps, with few exceptions. First, the ignorant ones and second, the intellectually enslaved. The majority of Indian journalists are happily abdicating their responsibility. They neither critically think nor check the point they habitually present. Either to serve a political ideology or out of pure laziness. On opinion pages of our national dailies a huge amount of absolute tripe masquerades as ‘thoughtful’ commentary. But even a lay reader can poke holes in their so-called arguments with little difficulty. Because those views and arguments are mostly based on faulty assumptions or logic. Many journalists and commentators are innocent of elementary history, political realities and economics. They are hardly able to differentiate between political rhetoric (‘progressive step’, ‘social justice’ etc.) and political thought. It is also a tribute to the pathetic state of the social studies in Indian universities. But the fact remains, that our reporters, commentators, anchors, editors usually latch on to some easily refutable claim/premise etc, and then keep repeating it.
    Take the example of articles about Bosnia or Israel or Iraq. One commentator called Bosnian migration and killings ‘the second Holocaust’. Quite forgetting the brutal regime of Mao during ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76), and Pol Pot’s Cambodia when one fourth of its population butchered. But our journalist knows nothing of it, and calls Bosnia ‘the second Holocaust’. He was only regurgitating the stories recited by the Western, politically correct media. In any case, how many died in Bosnia and around? Not more than a hundred thousand. But our semi-educated journalists do not bother even to compare Bosnian Muslims with Kashmiri Hindus. Or even the Partition of India forced in 1947. It was the single greatest forced migration of people in history in which several million killed in the West and East parts of this country.  
    It is natural, therefore, that Indian journalism has begun to struggle with credibility ratings. It can be ranked somewhere between jorno-politicians and journo-pimps. With the advent of cable and satellite news, the print media has also embraced a manufacturing news culture and a docudrama culture. The dividing line between fiction and non-fiction, good and bad have begun to blur. Precious human values, family values, age old and tested, healthy moral principals are being trivialized just for making quick money. Western advertisers and their Indian followers sponsor certain events, gatherings, attitudes etc. to make people, especially young ones, forget everything and ‘enjoy’ the present. How pernicious is the whole business could be a breathtaking story, but no media will cover it! 
    It is not for nothing that former Punjab police chief K P S Gill wrote, “Presiding over this insistent, corrosive loss of values is a stifling conspiracy of silence. No editor or journalist will write about the scandals, the compromises, or the corruption of his own peers; and if he did, no newspaper would publish such a critique... No other institution can be as aware as is the Press of the disastrous consequences of secrecy and the lack of introspection in any institutional structure... It is time, however, that the members of the Fourth Estate gave evidence of a realisation that these principles apply as much to their own profession and institutions as they do to others.”

    So, can there be any corrective measure? Whenever a politician proposes a code of conduct for the press, the usual reaction is; “Why don’t the politicians formulate a code for themselves?” There are genuine apprehensions that the code would become another stick in the hand of the politician. But it seems the politicians are right, at least on this score. There should be a code for media men to abide by. Or at least there should be a standard against which they can be measured.
    As Arun Shourie says, to devise such a code is not only possible, it will also be a shield for the pressman. That is, a code which shall not just be an ideal which when worked towards will have the virtue of drawing out the best in the journalist, but which will constitute a protection so that should the authorities attempt to put down a person adhering to the code they will at once put themselves in the wrong.  
    Based on Gandhian principles and precepts Shourie set out a code of self-conduct for pressmen which addresses itself to the situation discussed above:

The Code

          1.   I affirm that an open society is imperative for India, not so much for the rich as for the poor and for 
                all who work for transforming our society in the interest of the poor. I therefore subscribe to and I 
                shall fight for the institutions of an open society.
2.   I believe that a free press is an essential instrument for maintaining our society as an open one and 
                also for reforming it, for to reform society we must first inform the people.
3.   I affirm that I shall be a citizen first and last and not a mere professional; in particular I shall not 
                for myself any more than I would urge for the ordinary citizen; but simultaneously being a citizen, I 
                shall wholeheartedly and relentlessly devote myself to the public weal.
4.   As in a society where the overwhelming millions are mute, the access to a forum that reaches large 
                numbers is a privilege; as the use of the forum can have considerable consequence - both for good 
                and ill - I shall view my work as a trust to be exercised on behalf of the people.
5.   In particular: I shall not use my access to the forum for personal gain nor shall I let personal enmity 
                distort what I write.
6.   I shall use the forum for the good of the people at large and not to advance any sectional interests - 
                including in the latter the interests of the press or any part thereof.
7.   I shall not write anything or desist from writing anything out of fear or out of an expectation of 
                reward, whether from official or private sources.
8.   Should any hindrance be put to keep me from thus serving the people in the form of “laws” or other 
                obstacles, I will at once redouble my efforts to get the truth to the people.
9.   I shall not censor the work of a colleague or a subordinate who is thus serving the people. Nor shall 
                I submit to censorship; if the publication I write for starts submitting to censorship or itself starts 
                censoring, I will at once inform the largest number I can reach of the change, and find other avenues 
                of getting the truth to the people.
10.   I shall scrupulously check the facts and I shall report them all irrespective of who or which point of 
                view is helped or hurt by the truth.
11.   I shall not purvey as fact what I cannot substantiate.
12.   Unless the public interest unambiguously requires it, I shall not purvey an allegation merely because 
                others are purveying it; on the contrary, I will expose every effort to “plant” news.
        13.   If I am proven wrong I shall at once and openly acknowledge the error and suffer such punishment 
                as will convince the reader that sufficient amends have been made, in particular I shall not use the 
                courts or the prevailing laws as a device for delaying justice to the person who might have suffered 
                at my hands.
14.   In reporting the facts and in commenting on them I shall use the right word, neither sensationalizing 
                the effect by exaggeration nor diluting it by equivocation.
15.   As my first charge I will do everything in my power to cleanse and strengthen the press, knowing 
                well that its existing weaknesses render it easy prey and that unless it is honed into a strong         
                instrument itself it cannot help improve our society.
16.   I recognize that the written word is only one instrument of change, that in a society such as ours it 
                can have only a limited effect, I shall therefore not let the rationalization that I must preserve my 
                access to the forum as if that is lost I will no longer be able to serve the people, deter me from 
                broadcasting the truth; I shall labour in the confidence that ultimately a writer can only serve as an 
                announcement and that, if I have worked diligently and truthfully, no one can keep me from serving 
                as such.
17.   I will subscribe to this Code only after prolonged and detailed deliberation, but once I subscribed 
                to it I shall adhere to it in every particular and under all circumstances. In particular: I shall         
                openly acknowledge my lapses from the code and I shall inform my colleagues in the press of their 
                lapses from it.
    While formulating these codes Shourie anticipated the main criticism of it. “But these are just platitudes. Who will enforce such a code? What penalties will follow if some journalist violates it?” But, first, the codes are not as innocent as it looks. Here it is very interesting to note what Alexandre Solzhenitsyn asked the Soviet authors in view of the age-old Communist repression in the Soviet Union. No, he did never advise any revolt. Nor any political fight, agitation, much less any revolution or such high sounding rhetoric (a regular fare with our radicals). Solzhenitsyn asked just one thing: never write or repeat a singe false word, a word that you know is false or which is not given to verification. Just this simple advise was such a threat to the all-powerful superpower that its had to expel the author from the country (because by that time killing him would have more negative consequences).  
    So, the codes are not just platitudes. Nor does a principle become useless merely because it is obvious, merely because it is familiar. “But who is to enforce the codes? And how?” The codes must be enforced by the readers and by the journalists themselves, underlimes Shourie. And this can be done in several ways. Vigilant readers can do a good bit to bring the press to heel.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati