Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fair And Balanced?


As I write these lines, the chaotic 50 billion rupees election process for a new Constituent Assembly (CA) has reached its climax. Many voters have cast their ballots, defying threats and intimidation by poll-opposing groups.

For months, since Khil Raj Regmi was sworn in March as the supervisor of the polls, many skeptics saw elections as unforeseeable and even impossible. Some political parties opposed it vehemently, and they even resorted to terror tactics to scare away voters. Those among the determined continued to insist that the elections were necessary in a democracy, hence inevitable. And then there were many indifferent and disillusioned people who could not believe that their voting would make a difference in the renewed effort at writing a path-breaking constitution of a federated nation.

All along, journalists shared the split moods of the general population, even though many among the professional types feigned a neutral outlook: just the facts ma’m, without opinion. To be fair, it will take time to realistically assess how their views and attitudes reflected in their media works, in their associations with candidates and political parties as well as the election process.

But one thing is clear: this time around journalists had the advantage of hindsight. I had the opportunity to interact recently with many journalists during election reporting training sessions in all five development regions of the country. The participants were aware that partisan, negative and personalistic reporting during the 2008 elections earned a bad name for the profession.

Rather than reporting only the facts, analyzing options and offering a comprehensive picture of the election agenda, many journalists in 2008 had turned speculative, and in the horse-race some even hurried to falsely predict the poll outcome. In particular, provincial journalists bemoaned that while editors in Kathmandu butchered their article-length dispatches down to pithy event-oriented leads, the national media outlets often inundated their print space and air-time with arm-chair drivels. Journalists from Kathmandu rarely set their feet in the rural constituencies.

And so, the journalists agreed, it was important to be objective and issue-focused as far as possible. However, in a practice-based craft like journalism, of political communication, knowing and doing do not always go together. Note the phrases “to be objective” and “as far as possible”.

Definitions are self-serving and relative. Lacking widely shared media standards adds to the muddle and eccentricities. For some, to be objective is nothing more than to have an objective. In the case of elections, it often means a concealed, undeclared bias towards an ideology, a candidate or political party. Labels like accuracy, balance and credibility cannot obfuscate the underlying tilt that manifests abundantly in skewed coverage, in the fixation on certain candidates and parties, and in the exclusion of others. It is also apparent in negative news constantly attacking certain actors while leaving many flawed others unscathed.

For others, objectivity is a matter of mechanics, based on the fair and balanced formula, juxtaposing quotes with counter-quotes, or corroborating assertions with buts and ifs: He said, but she claimed; he asserted, but she boasted. Some even crack a single actor into discordant bits to spotlight their journalistic honesty: Pushpa Kamal Dahal, if not a liar then certainly a shrewd orator; not a fan of Mohan Baidya, but he should have been given a fair hearing; Gagan Thapa, the charismatic but a radical youth leader, etc.

You see, dekheko lekheko, reported what was observed—that’s the usual refrain. The choice of topic or sources, type and volume of coverage, the tone, or the guise of objectivity are merely part of the news routine, with few notable exceptions. For example, it was encouraging to see some great examples of field reporting by some enterprising journalists during this election season as well as some data visualization projects focused on the polls.

A troubling issue this time surfaced in the online clamor of readers and listeners of broadcast news and opinion journalism, an indication that the feedback end of the news process is finally thriving on the virtual space. The social media networks have made it far too easy to amplify the users’ voices.

Surveying posts on Twitter and Facebook in the last month via a web analytics application, one comes across thousands of comments, overwhelmingly negative, directed at journalists or their media outlets. Many of these criticize journalists for selling out to political parties and doing their laundry. Some commenters are bemused that the social networks now help to easily track journalists’ political leanings, often concealed from their readers in traditional media. Others single out individual journalists and even editors as propagandists for endorsing a candidate and asking voters not to elect certain political parties. Besides, there are many news portals today that are far too biased, blatantly ideological, constantly spitting out vitriol against perceived opponents.

Most individual journalists jealously guard their biases. However, not surprisingly, what they often share, like, tweet, retweet or favorite on their timelines is a clear compass of their political preferences, even if their profile loudly proclaims that “retweets are not endorsements”. Some commenters sound irritated: If you identify yourself as a journalist on your profile, then act like one; report, not preach.

It’s a pity that Nepal’s emerging online media remained outside the purview of the electoral code of conduct for the media. New media journalists, who will be the key mediators in the next elections, have been shortchanged on the opportunity to test their professional wings in poll reporting.

Regardless of media or their platforms, the issue of bias deserves a closer look and continued debates among professionals. It’s true that the historical-cultural roots of political partisanship in the style of “mission journalism” so deeply embedded in our craft do not let us off that easily. The seed sown long back has budded into a plant, branching into diverse political offshoots, apparent in the several associations of journalists aligned to one or the other political party or ideology.

Elections serve as the litmus test of journalists’ independence and fairness. Concealing bias to project false objectivity or independence costs them their credibility and consequently public trust. That is one reason why newspapers in some Western countries have long held the tradition of publicly endorsing their preferred candidate in their editorial pages. Here in Nepal, the candidacy of over a dozen journalists, including some familiar faces, has brought the topic of disclosure into a sharper focus this election season. Objectivity is as much about openness and confession as it is about detachment or neutrality.

To be sure, a small minority of Nepali journalists is at the other extreme of the objectivity spectrum. Recently, I met some journalists who said they are members of none of the professional associations, have never voted and will never vote in elections simply to preserve their neutrality as journalists.

At the same time, many journalists, because they are away from their ancestral homes covering polls in the field, cannot participate in the elections. Nepal has no provision for absentee voting by journalists. In some developed democracies, journalists who cover politics and elections are required by employers to abstain from voting, or to disclose whom they voted in order to ensure they have no conflict of interest in electing certain candidates or endorsing certain issues.

In the end, it comes down to personal choice, but as our media matures and as we institutionalize our electoral culture, this issue invites more open debates.

If professionals cannot agree on the core values of the profession, it should ultimately be the public that judges their actions. But the Nepali publics are varied and some still require a better understanding of who a journalist is.

One commenter on a social network wrote recently that he was surprised that journalists, who always called themselves independent, were shouting for votes on behalf of one political party or another. He pleaded with the “journalist friends” to be independent, pointing out how respectable the MaHa duo is! He must be kidding, right?

Published in Republica, November 20, 2013