Monday, September 11, 2023

What news is good news?

 The answer is tricky as the line between producers and consumers has been blurred.  

By Dharma Adhikari

We often hear these days that trust in the media is collapsing, and that the question of news quality has assumed grave importance. The decline in news quality is mourned across the social, professional and scholarly spectrum, but there is very little debate about what constitutes quality news.

News quality is usually seen in the context of objectivity or credibility, or in language and formatting proficiency. An emphasis on khabardari or vigilance and regular scrutiny of the actions of those in power remain another dominant indicator of news quality in a democracy. Those who adhere to this notion of quality often mourn the decline of the so-called hard-hitting or no-holds-barred journalism, dedicated to only the truth. And increasingly, accuracy and factuality have gained new currency in the digital misinformation ecosystem.

For a journalist, accuracy stands out as an important measure of quality while the consumer may judge the quality of the news based on how useful it was or how much they enjoyed reading or viewing it. The quality standards developed and adopted by the professionals themselves can differ from the general view of the market. But the professionals value their own evaluation more than the consumers' evaluation because they believe that the audience is a poor judge as they lack inside knowledge about journalism.

Authentic bombshell

News stories focusing on the audience seldom receive enough attention although the audience today has a greater say in what constitutes news. A recent case being a post on popular social media site Routine of Nepal Banda: “Balen Shah and his wife Sabina Kafle gives (sic) birth to a baby girl.” For a journalist, this pithy line is far from complete or accurate in terms of information or spelling. Missing details regarding where and when are starkly evident. And yet, for millions of users, it was an authentic bombshell.

As the line between producers and consumers continues to blur in the digital environment, the question of quality has become tricky, and it assumes an even greater significance today.

News quality thus is a dynamic and contested concept, contingent upon real world conditions that are ever in a flux. Professionals frequently cite state intervention, harassment, insufficient investment, underpaid staff, shady business practices, rise of social media and lack of self-development opportunities as some of the contributing factors in the deterioration of news quality in Nepal. The consumers, for their part, point to what they perceive as news professionals’ partisanship, bias, clickbait tendencies, lazy reporting, misinformation, omissions and ad hominem attacks.

Experts have debated the quality question in terms of reporting quality measures such as accuracy, balance, clarity, completeness, diversity and truth. Others add comprehensibility, depth, impartiality, and ethics to the yardstick. Yet others propose social order and solidarity. Contextualisation has also gained currency in recent times.

The conceptual stretching of news quality continues as new measures such as transparency, engagement, interpretation and shareability become more pronounced in the digital environment. The debate is Cartesian in perspective, emphasising objective, quantitative measures although the different values people place on news are subjective in nature.

In our culture that views the interplay of different and even self-contradictory gunas (quality) as given in an object or a practice, the Cartesian logic may appear rather reductionist. However, truth or harmony, one of the positive qualities hailed by sages, is fast being superseded by passion or emotion, or by ignorance or laziness in the digital sphere. In our case, gunastar, or the level of quality, would involve maintaining a respectable proportion between these three.

In other words, emotions or sensationalism, or ignorance or misinformation are here to stay in journalism, but they seem to far exceed truth or goodness, the desirable qualities in the profession.

From a professional perspective, a realistic assessment would focus on the gains made in the quality of our journalism and the gaps at this stage of the profession’s development. Efforts in independent journalism began merely a few decades ago. Diversity of channels and contents available today offer some options for experimentation in quality for an independent (and responsible) press.

Investigative journalism

We also see some resurgence in investigative journalism in recent years. Individual journalists and some media outlets are trying out long form and interpretive journalism for depth, breadth and understanding, which is missing in the deluge of digital media. The mainline press still has catching up to do with social sites practicing how-to or solutions-oriented utility reporting, catering to the everyday or professional needs of the masses.

With access to technology and skilled human resources, newspapers and news sites are designed better, although aesthetically, many look cluttered, gaudy and distracting. A few sites look elegant and moderate in their colours. The self-reinforcing waves of negative news also call for a moderation in tone, including in the headlines which are often laden with sarcasm, omissions and exaggeration. Not least of all, the emotional turn in journalism, marked by subjectivity, is gaining momentum. It has the potential to change the way we think and debate about journalism and its quality.

Published in the Kathmandu Post, 11 September 2023.