April 08, 2008

life in journalism: the dark side

There is something about human behaviour in the current age we are living that one keeps on experiencing inflated egos of those who grab positions of power, whether in the workplace or in a family. This is seen in the corporate world, or within the confines of an urban family or even within a village community.

In Indian journalism this is reflected in the attitudes and actions of editors of those kind who wield power over other journalists in their respective organisations. Their designations could range from editor-in-chief to executive editor to deputy editor to associate editor.

I present below some unpleasant characteristics in the last 14 years I have observed and also every now and then experienced. To be sure, there are some good and pleasant characteristics too.

1) They will brag about themselves most of the time. They give little importance to listen to their journalists. They will highlight something strong and ethical they have done but fail to acknowledge the same traits in the journalists working for them (even to acknowledge one has to know; these editors do not even try to find out how strong and ethical their journalists even are).

2) Rules made are mostly to be implemented one-way. That is to say the journalists are held accountable (some of them shout at, scream at and verbally abuse their journalists) for some serious non-adherence to a rule, but when the editors do not follow that same spirit of the rule they do not acknowledge it nor is there any one above them to take them to task.
The editors in charge of their journalists will keep harping on how their journalists are not professional. What I find greatly worrisome is their inability or unwillingness to hold the mirror to themselves with the same vigour. It is important that they are professional because their lack of professionalism has an adverse effect on all the journalists working for them. For instance, in a profession where time is precious the top editor will go on his ego trip in meetings with journalists talking on and on about issues that are not relevant or important for the immediate tasks at hand. And since he is the head of the team the others are almost forced to listen to his endless talk. This eats away into the time of the journalists and the editor does not even recognise it.
A good rule is meant to be adhered by all including the top bosses. But a rule should also be framed after adequately and honestly consulting everyone who is affected by that rule. I don't know whether this is widely prevalent in all of Indian print media but the internal rules of operations are heavily biased against the editorial department (reporters and feature writers) and excessively favour the working of the copy desk department and the graphic design department.

3) This is another ugly aspect in Indian journalism. Quite some editors compete with their journalists in stories and story ideas, and then harp about how they have done this or that. I find it a sign of not immaturity but also a sign of insecurity because these editors tend to ride on the shoulders of their journalists. This happens in two ways.
a) Firstly, being editors they have much better access to the top honchos in whatever beat (corporate or political) they cover; this is simply because the hypocritical corporate or political world tends to open doors more faster and easily for the editors then they would for the journalists working for these same editors.
The companies or their PR agencies provide much more information and access to the editors than they would to the others.And the better the circulation figures of the publication the more the pampering. The nature of the business of media is such it is not just PR agencies but also readers when they write to the publications about their various problems or at times give breaking news tips it is always the top editors in that publication to whom this will first go to.
All this means that in any competition between a top editor in a publication and the other editorial writers in that publication the former will always an upper hand based not on his skill sets or abilities but chiefly on the basis of his designation and his publication's reputation.
b) When journalists write some insightful or news-breaking stories they do so on the basis of various kinds of sources. The top editors who have the final authority on the journalist's stories can use or abuse (depending on his/her intent) his/her power by making the journalist disclose the sources. These same sources are then later tapped into by the editors.

4) The passing the buck game, as is seen in other companies, is also very widely prevailing in Indian media. If the circulation figures are faltering or if they get a negative feedback on the quality of their publications, many editors will tend to pass the buck on to the journalists saying they are not doing quality stories. But they forget that they are the ones having the final say on a journalist's stories and many a time they do not encourage or at times even kill good story ideas by the journalist or even make a journalist do stories on ideas that they themselves have come up (and thereby deplete the journalists' time available to work on his/her own story ideas).
It is a simple management principle. The ones who wield the highest power in an organisation are also supposed to be held the most accountable. But the irony is that the ones with the highest power also have powers to sweep their own dirt under the carpet. There is no one to monitor them! Similarly, one of the most important aspect of an editor's job is on how he/she behaves with other journalists on whom he/she wields his/her power. But who is there to check on whether he/she is doing that fairly, ethically and professionally? The answer is no one.

5) If you are a female journalist then you have the additional burden of undergoing subtle sexual harassment
too. I have heard horror stories from my female colleagues about the behaviour of some editors in Indian media. But even if the story is not a horror story, subtle forms of sexual discrimination always operates in the workplace. This is not unique to the media industry. It prevails widely in the entire corporate world.

The above 5 are not the only ones. There are more.

At the same time, however, when an editor is straight-forward and honest the end result can be beautiful not just for the journalists but for the entire reading public at large. Indian media does have instances of this happening. I have experienced some of them too. I only wish that the number of such good instances increase.

I am also aware that journalists (some or many, I can't say for sure) too, through their weaknesses and dishonesty, add to the problem. But it must be recognised that if the top editors in any publication are themselves fair and straight forward no journalist working for them can get away for long with un-professional or un-ethical behaviour. At times, even I falter in my work with regard to deadlines and quality and I have no right to crib if a straight-forward and professional editor takes me to task for it.

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