Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Good Journalist

The old stereotype of Nepali journalists: Beard-sporting, hard-drinking, jhola-bearing, shabby, arrogant, rebellious men with political leanings

Dharma Adhikari
One of the most ambitious journalism projects in Nepal sounds like a scientific experiment. When I read that the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) is starting a campaign to "purify" journalists, all I could see in my mind were the images of a group of journalists evaporate and another group condensate, with the contradictory process of heating and cooling taking place side by side.

This, however, is far more than a metaphor. The apex body of journalists is concerned that many of its members have nothing to do with journalism although they dominate the profession, while genuine journalists remain out of its fold. In other words, many journalists aren't journalists at all.

This chimes in with my own experience. What do you think of Nepali journalists? Most people don't make any distinction between a journalist and a publisher. Typically, both are jumbled up in that question.

It depends. That's the standard answer. But popular perceptions are too powerful to resist. We hear that journalists are failing miserably in their tasks, and journalism is going in the wrong direction. It does not matter if scientific surveys have shown that public trust of journalists is incredibly high in Nepal.

Partly, it is an image problem. Stereotypes have a way of resisting new realities or clouding our judgments. Note the old stereotypes of Nepali journalists: Beard-sporting, hard-drinking, jhola-bearing, shabby, arrogant, rebellious men (hardly women) with a political leaning. That's the image of a social misfit.

The old stereotypes persist in many forms as journalists continue to preside over the daily communicative proceedings of our democracy. American journalist James Reston once wrote that nineteenth century was the era of the novelist, and the twentieth century the era of journalist. We may be a little behind in time, but not in order. It was the late twentieth century that began to shape the grand narrative of journalists as crusaders, as champions of political emancipation.

Even to this day, there are many journalists, especially among the old breed, who like to project themselves as the true guardians of national integrity, unity or development. They cannot divorce themselves from the functional role of the press. For others, nothing but the defense of truth is their professional agenda. Both sides assert the legacy of suffering under despotism and political injustices.

An emerging self-image of a journalist is that of a hero-victim, an overplayed syndrome in the democratic dispensation. Increasingly, it is the economic structure rather than the political system that is the source of journalists' suffering. Another is the image of a culprit, at least in the eyes of the media-gazing public who believe that our press has increasingly transgressed many professional norms, including fairness and decency, and in a departure from its proven path, has afflicted the afflicted and comforted the comfortable.

This type of an image of a journalist is bad for our democracy because journalists still enjoy a relatively privileged position to dominate the process of informing the public in an organized and systematic way.

The popular image of a journalist has often been exaggerated. Kollywood movies portray them as omniscient, arrogant or invasive. My own impression is that the truth is somewhere in between such perceptions and the reality. Even in the developed world, it has taken a long time, or a "Spotlight" type movie of Oscar fame, to break with the old stereotypes of journalists.

The truth is that the actual image of Nepali journalists is changing, sometimes subtly and sometimes indomitably. Often they are the negative stereotypes that attract the most attention and derision. The negative actually asserts itself the positive. Darkness, despite its evil face, is the yang of light. Here is an evolving list of stereotypes, but the order is arbitrary:

The scroungers: "Journalists cannot make a living on their own; they are free-loaders, and even rely on extortion or intimidation". The truth is today's journalists are not anti-money, and many work really hard, true to the meaning of journalier, French for "laborers". Many are helping their publishers make tons of cash. It's another matter if they are not paid, or not paid enough. Perhaps they should stop talking about minimum wage, raise the bar higher and start pressing for maximum wage.

The privileged breed: We no longer talk only of the generic "men" journalists but take a more nuanced view: Nepali-speaking male, hill Bahun/Chhetri. Women, Newars, Madhesis, Janajatis, and Dalits, in that order, are now closely entwined actors.

The Kathmandu clan: Overwhelmingly, they used to be Valley dwellers. Because most exist only in numbers and in fake FNJ cards, it's hard to verify how many journalists actually live here today. The rise of regional media means that the majority of Nepal's radio and television journalists now come from semi-urban and rural areas. Many online journalists are not from Kathmandu.

The lapdogs: Political partisanship, the worst scourge of all, remains strong. In fact, it has more tentacles in the form of conservative, democratic, progressive, even revolutionary and ethnic-based platforms. You don't believe in neutrality and independence any more. Leadership is about manipulating disparate leanings. The shift to commercial interests and ownership influence in recent decades means the scale of partisanship has been greatly destabilized, with outlets taking the anti-establishment position, attacking any and every party in power.

The naysayers: "Nepali journalists are excessively negative". The old hacks get bitterer with age, and the young ones proudly emulate them. Hyperboles and "put-downs" are, after all, part of the professional arsenals. On a closer look, the issue is more about the tone of story or audience exposure than of the volume of negative reporting.

The arrogant: Some are definitely arrogant and even rude and others feign such temperament on account of detachment from story or its subject, and their outspokenness. Surprisingly, many are shy in person. It's like the crude Munnabhai of screen is a meek Sanjay Dutt of real life.

The ignoramus: "Nepali journalists are shallow; they hardly study and research or write significant pieces". Indeed, many would rather pretend to read the fictional narratives of Khaled Hosseini, Paulo Coelho or Chetan Bhagat than devote themselves to current affairs. Still, forced to be a generalist without steady specialization, their IQ should surprise and impress anyone, anywhere. No wonder, the no-nothings are often flipped into know-alls: how could you, as a journalist, say you don't know? One only needs to know where to look for individual journalists who are doing world-class work right here in Nepal.

The unskilled: "They have opted for journalism as a stepping stone. They do nothing more than play with clichés and their hackneyed styles. Schools are useless; they don't prepare graduates for the newsroom". The truth is, the majority of Nepal's journalists are high school and college degree holders. Perhaps call them lazy.

The unethical: A long list here, including labels such as charlatans, intruders, sensationalists, and code violators. Their trustworthiness and reliability is also often questioned. Exaggerations, hyperboles, euphemisms, anonymous sourcing, plagiarism, and newspeak are actually disservice to truth-telling, the core value of journalism. And yet, that more people have begun to report code violations does not mean journalists are becoming more unethical. We simply haven't kept track of mea culpa and retractions by journalists and media outlets.

These dualities and gray areas speak of the limitations of popular images or stereotypes. They also point at journalists' own limitations, not as an excuse, but as the need for deeper public understanding of the context of journalism, which is narrower than ever, percolating into many areas, channels and forms. Everyone is a journalist in a sense. And everyone is forced at some point to reflect on the questions of a good journalist, to confront the heating and the cooling process.

Published in Republica, 22 March 2016