The crisis of Indian media is being fiercely debated these days. Here’s a diagnosis that has largely remained beyond the fence. Journalism plummeted when social media became the preferred mode of journalistic expression and hashtags hijacked field reporting. The slide continued when the follower count started determining the worth of a journalist, and instead of toiling away in the field, they increasingly opted for provocative opinions in a few characters. It reached its nadir when selfies became an obsession, a complex reportage brought fewer rewards than Twitter outrage, and the holy adage ‘you are as good as your last byline’ stood replaced by ‘you are as good as your last tweet’.
The first assault on reporting came from prime-time stars over a decade ago, but it managed to retain its ground because TV anchoring, being available to a few, eventually got exposed. Since Twitter works in the garb of democracy, a free-for-all platform, the inherent monopolies and shrewdness of its players are not easy to confront.
The vanishing art of reporting
Field reporting is a messy affair. A reporter lands in the field only to find their perceptions and beliefs being challenged. Every question that a reporter asks to the outside world may boomerang on them. Voices on the ground confront you, unsettle you, make you contest your preferences and prejudices. Field reporting is essentially a melancholic act that often raises debilitating self-doubt within you. It marks the end of certitudes and the beginning of the contextual. This reportage, in its finest moments, carries the possibility of becoming a rare blend of an anthropological, sociological and novelistic enquiry.
A good field reporter is an elephant in the newsroom that the editors cannot easily avoid, much less dismiss. An editor, smugly ensconced in the capital, may believe that to their reader “an attic fire in the Latin Quarter is more important than a revolution in Madrid”, but the earnest dispatches of their reporter from distant places will shake and subvert the editorial meetings. Great media houses are built on stories broken from all corners, often by faceless reporters.
Even now, amid all bleakness, most of the significant and award-winning reports are by those with little social media following. The trend is likely to continue unless a new category of Excellence in Hashtag Journalism is announced.
Hashtags honour recklessness and assertions, and make rigour and nuances look non-glamourous and antediluvian. By ensuring an easy and immediate, though fake, redemption, Twitter journalism stifles field reporting, and almost pushes it out of the arena. A reporter can write only on the area of their expertise, whereas a hashtagger will deliver on anything ranging from Bastar, Kashmir, migrant crisis to the US elections — with equal aplomb. Such is the matrix that an unrestrained social media timeline (TL) is rewarded with infinitely greater traction and privileges, in terms of instant networks and connections.
Why take the pain of actual reporting when, relaxing on your couch, you can tag anybody on the planet and deliver sermons to politicians, film stars, cricketers and bureaucrats, most of them outside your area of domain.
The clamour for retweets and hits has also prompted several media institutions to prefer ‘provocative opinion pieces’ over solid and stolid reporting. The TRP race is no longer limited to TV channels; it has invaded various forms of news media. The temptations of Twitter seem invincible.
Field reporting faces several challenges in the current ecosystem. It’s too complicated to be reduced to a few characters or an Instagram post. In its sobriety and sombreness, it may not always bring sufficient hits, and it requires enormously more resources and time than an 800-word opinion piece.
Culture of outrage
The rise of hashtags and the decline in reporting mirror the larger culture of outrage in the last decade that has emerged following the Anna Hazare movement. Indians are outraged — more Indians, more than ever. We no longer turn pensive, melancholic, and we no longer leave introspection and anger for later. And yet, outrage has brought little tangible change on the ground. Contrarily, cruelty has only found innovative ways to register itself.
The outrage factory works to the disadvantage of field reporters whose struggle is often appropriated by some humungous TLs. A journalist in Bastar tweets and writes about an incident they have been eyewitness to, sits on a dharna and risks their life. Within moments big TLs take it over and soon, the only face that recurs is of the outraged ones in capital cities. With the brutal power of their massive following, astutely built over the years, they manage to push the ground activist or reporter to oblivion. When social media should have acted to supplement the groundwork, it conveniently supplants it.
Gauge its hollowness by the TLs of bureaucrats, who often get outraged these days but for incidents beyond their jurisdiction. Chhattisgarh’s bureaucrats, for instance, tweet over incidents in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, but remain mum over police atrocities in Bastar.
Hashtag journalism suits the govt
It is often said that the Anna movement actually helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It can also be argued that the journalism and activism of outrage will eventually support the ruling party because such outpours function as a safety valve to dilute and divert the genuine anger of people. Journalists often accuse politicians that they don’t visit the field, merely fight a Twitter battle. The charge can easily be reversed. A large number of journalists and writers rarely touch the ground, merely go on fencing in the hashtag space.
Indian journalism cannot be revived without resurrecting the institution of field reporting, and without giving field reporters their rightful due. As long as some hurriedly typed characters bring hugely disproportionate rewards than a hard-earned report, journalism will remain endangered.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency. Views are personal.