Loss of accountability in Journalism


By Monalisa Changkija

For people of my generation, we got into journalism because it was not merely a profession or a career move- it stood for the very essence of the best of human values and ideals such as freedom, liberty, justice and integrity. For people of my generation, journalism was a vocation and we walked, in fact, raced into it with our eyes wide open, even if our wide-open eyes were full of ideals and illusions.

But, you see, that's the whole point of journalism, the Fourth Estate, which alas is now reduced to merely "the media". The very genesis and evolution of the Fourth Estate speaks for the desire in the human being to dream and design a better human society and state- a place where each individual would live in and with dignity and strive to realize the best potentials inherent in every person thereby create a society and state, which would provide the most congenial atmosphere and environment for all to achieve the highest state of human living.

It is sad that today the term "Fourth Estate" is rarely used- perhaps because the concept, the values, the ideals and the objectives of the Fourth Estate are no longer the aspirations of "the media". After all, what is the media? It is merely the plural of medium and with the advent and advance of technology, the medium has assumed more importance than the message- so much so that the role of the message have been so disdainfully discounted. Hence, it has been easy to unceremoniously hijack the contents of the message paving the way for the phenomenon of paid news.

But all this has not happened in a vacuum, outside the periphery of human "development", particularly outside the periphery of the changed value-systems of human beings and human society and state. Because change is constant in human history, it is a natural corollary that all spheres and aspects of human activities change too. And because change too is a product of the human mind- ideas, thoughts, imaginations, aspirations- and these, I believe, emerge due to human need to confront and overcome challenges.

It is needless now to go into human history to underscore the changes that have occurred so suffice it to say that because our survival instincts are so strong that we see nothing wrong in reducing our humanness. In the process, we have reduced all spheres and aspects of human activities to achieving maximum personal benefits and gains thereby reducing the quality of human life. So whether in our social, political, economic, cultural, religious, educational, or any other aspect of our lives, quality and integrity have been sacrificed at the altar of instant gratification and gains.

Against the background of this avalanche of reductionism of human quality, which is perceived to be vital for human survival, it was only a matter of time for the Fourth Estate to be reduced to merely "the media". If educational degrees and other certificates could be purchased, if the medical practice could be reduced to enriching pharmaceutical firms, if votes can be purchased, to cite a few examples, "news" too can be purchased, couldn't it? It was tried and it was successful, and today, it has become quite rife; hence, there is so much hullaballoo about it- to the point that the Election Commission has laid down very specific and stringent guidelines against paid news during elections.

So, does this phenomenon happen in the Northeast, and specifically in Nagaland? If the need to survive is equally strong across the world, across the country, surely the same need would be equally strong in the region and in Nagaland after all, we all belong to the same human race? Also, if greed has propelled us to corruption in other spheres and aspects of our lives, surely, we wouldn't perceive "the media" to be sacrosanct, after all, "the media" today is the most persuasive vehicle to exert power? Then again, the objectives, the imperatives and the persuasions of individual media houses could influence the perceptions of paid news- sometimes as something that is a part of competition that must be fuelled by big bucks and sometimes as totally anathema to the very concept of the Fourth Estate. So yes, individual media houses would conduct themselves according to their perceptions of why they are into this line in the first place. And because we are such small "enterprises", nobody really pays any attention to how we conduct our business and nobody would "investigate" us; therefore, the proclivity to take to paid news could be tempting and also could be very much in practice.

When I started my newspaper, Nagaland Page, in May 1999, and even today, we would have people coming with their press releases asking us how much it would cost to get them published and we would tell them that we take money only for advertisements, not press releases. I would be amazed at their simplicity and ignorance, and I would tell my staff never to accept such offers of payment for press releases as it would go against the grain of the very concept of the Fourth Estate. But now since this whole issue of paid news has come out in the open, I'm not too sure, especially since I hear things but I have no roof and I wouldn't like to cast aspersions on any of our local newspapers. But I'm positive that my staff hasn't been tempted, not because I pay them well but because they just don't have it in them to indulge in such corruption.

A few years ago, an advertiser refused to pay on the grounds that one of my staff bought an item from her shop so she thought her payments would be quits, as she made the same arrangement with the staff of another paper in the town. My staff was paying monthly installments but my advertiser, the owner of the shop, didn't know it, as the deal was made with her manager and my staff. So I told her that she should differentiate between advertisement and personal purchases. She got the point and paid promptly. So, you see, an individual journalist may make deals with advertisers or the public, but that doesn't mean that the newspaper owners are involved in paid news, much less aware of what's going on. At the same time, if the proprietor or publishers or editor, depending on whether they are the one and same person, indulges in paid news, the staff may be totally unaware. So the issue of paid news is very dicey. And this is the very reason why paid news happens.

But there could be pointers when newspapers or individual journalists focus too much attention on branded and non-branded companies and firms that aggressively sell their products and want to attract public attention on their "corporate social responsibility" activities. Yes, it is time even for Northeastern state Governments to set-up monitoring mechanism to ensure that paid news doesn't happen here, as well as to bring to book the culprits when it does happen.