Journalism is in real need of some PR right now. I’m pretty sure I will get a lot of stick for this from the journalist fraternity but it’s the truth. We are living in unprecedented times. But, the fact that you know how unprecedented times are is testament to the fact that we still have a functioning fourth estate. Journalists are endlessly putting their life on the line, sniffing out stories from unexpected places and making the powers that be more accountable.
However, let’s get one thing straight, folks. The fourth estate is in real trouble.
I have always been in awe of journalists – people putting in real work to get to the bottom of an issue, unbiased. When it was unveiled, I was really struck by the slogan of the Washington Post, coined in 2017 – ‘Democracy dies in darkness’. Supposedly aimed at Mr. Trump, it turned out the actual inspiration for the slogan was a nondescript judgement in the pre-Watergate era about the dangers of secrecy in government.
Extrapolate it to today’s times – it would probably have read ‘Democracy dies in confusion’.
We are living in the golden age of information, where information doesn’t flow from few to many, but many to many. The democratisation of technology means a frighteningly low barrier to entry in sharing information. Any Joe with a phone is a feeder of information into a larger ecosystem. In this age of instant gratification, news is consumed in seconds, and not minutes.
Getting your news from one random tweet cannot be equated to getting your news from the newspaper, where even the snippet you ended up reading at the bottom of Page 5 went through multiple layers of vetting before you laid your eyes on them. Journalism is like the filter in the filter coffee. Its primary role is unbiased reporting of facts and circumstances; helping weed out the misinformation and propaganda. However, the advent of social media and the lack of regulatory oversight over it means the line between propaganda and news keeps diminishing every passing day.
It is safe to say, at this point we need journalism more than journalism needs us. All the Pulitzers in the world haven’t been able to keep journalists away from the jaws of corporate sharks and vested interests. News organisations need to constantly walk a delicate tight-rope between being a business and a public service – which is why newspaper ownership has become a hot-button issue. Roy Greenslade, a prominent media commentator, once said that there are “four reasons for owning a newspaper … profit, propaganda, prestige and public service”. While profit should be an important motive for a publication, it cannot be the sole one. In the end, the fourth estate should try and be accountable only to its consumers – the general public. Precisely why the general public needs to step up and treat news organisations as a public utility service, and start paying for it.
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