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Rethinking journalism

FEB 10 -

Polarisation of the Nepali media and journalists along political lines is not new. However, there are times when this division becomes glaringly evident. It was on display recently in the wake of the Dekendra Thapa case, and the Dailekh and Kavre incidents, among others, that followed.

I wish to talk about journalism in Nepal against the above backdrop by drawing parallels to arguments that a pre-eminent American sociologist Herbert J Gans has made in his article “Journalism for democracy”. The context could not be more different— American vs Nepali—but the parallels are surprisingly relevant. The dominance of political communication in the news, the polarisation of journalists based on political loyalties, and a weakness in judgment as to what is “newsworthy” in Nepal, heightens this relevance.

Gans states that the media provides a sense of security to its audiences, often inadvertently, by filling an information vacuum which would otherwise have led to speculation, rumour and sometimes, social and political unrest. Other than that, he opines that the American news media is limited in its contribution to democracy as they take a top-down and pegged approach in their daily political reporting. By a top-down approach, Gans refers to the trend of reporting the decisions, speeches and actions of top political figures and the events they participate in; and by a pegged approach, he refers to the trend of addressing problems as they arise, rather than in a comprehensive manner. As in Nepal, journalists are usually so busy in reporting top-down politics, they very rarely report about the genuine problems facing democracy.

Although journalists alone are not responsible for the safeguard of democracy, Gans admits that they have a role in making democracy newsworthy. He asks journalists to rethink ways in which they will be able to create a mass audience for the type of political news he is arguing for—because audiences represent diverse ideologies and would not generally want their belief system challenged. He makes five suggestions with the admission that none of them is totally original and that some of them may even be very idealistic. Nonetheless, he hopes that they will help rekindle a discussion around what journalism can do for democracy.   

First, Gans suggests that journalists need to accord added priority to “journalism for democracy” within their professional discourses. He suggests they assess how they have addressed it in the past and how they will do so in the future, taking into account changes that have occurred in the political landscape. In the context of Nepal, it calls for journalists to understand the need for bringing changes in political reporting by moving beyond “mission” journalism which was relevant in the pre-1990s Panchayat era. The challenge lies in developing criteria for newsworthiness, not only for politics, but more importantly for the impediments facing Nepal’s transition to democracy.

Second, Gans suggests that journalists need to broaden their range of political coverage beyond limited top-level elected officials, to include lobbies and interest groups. He is of the opinion that as long as such groups continue to remain powerful and influential, their actions and relationship with the government need to be covered more comprehensively. When Nepal finally develops its new constitution, there will be initiation for and progress towards a string of new legislation and policy. Journalists in Nepal will have a role in covering news associated with new legislation and policy development and their relationship with lobbies and interest groups. For example, they may look into how and why the need for new legislation and policy is put forth; from whom and where there is support or objection; what incentives or hurdles exist for elected officials in the decision-making process; and how and why things unfolded the way they did.

Third, Gans suggests that journalists move beyond merely reporting on the political status quo or playing the role of stenographers for the powerful. They need to carry the voices of the unrepresented, underrepresented or unorganised citizens, as citizens form the prime constituency of a democracy, he adds. It is the obligation of Nepali journalists to ensure that critical voices of dissent and disagreement against the status quo, and social movements of all ideological hues are reported. These voices that carry messages of the change they hope to see may otherwise never be heard.   

Fourth, Gans argues that the newsworthiness of political communication (what politicians tell citizens) needs to be challenged by journalists on the basis of accuracy, factualness, trustworthiness and relevance. Fact-checking is relevant to Nepal, especially as there is grave danger for political rhetoric adding to already existing inaccuracies in the public information domain. Even when journalists might not always be able to ascertain the integrity of their news sources, it is imperative that they check facts on a consistent basis.

Gans’ fifth recommendation calls for more analytic and interpretive stories surrounding political institutions and processes by experienced political beat reporters. Regular analytic journalism that looks closely into the process of political decision making, their results, and how democracy may be affected as a result, could serve as political education for news audiences, he argues. In the context of Nepal, this might mean a fair bit of resource allocation, time and practice before quality and appealing analytic journalism may be produced. However, such an investment will be worth the value as it will contribute towards stability of democracy.

It is not as if the Nepali media and journalists are not already doing most of what has been recommended above. They have repeatedly been instrumental in bringing about social and political change and safeguarding democracy. However, the majority does not have relevant education or training. Most media outlets do not have a culture of internal orientation on the norms and conventions of political reporting. Also, the Nepali media sector is still at a very nascent stage in terms of financial stability. Gans suggests that “journalism for democracy” can attract funding from non-profits, foundations and the government. Such funding might help reduce pressure on journalists to produce “commercially saleable” news, thereby contributing to democracy.

Rijal is former Country Director for Equal Access Nepal, and currently a PhD candidate at the RMIT University School of Media and Communication, Australia

Posted on: 2013-02-11 09:35


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