The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

What newspapers do and ought to do
Review by M.L. Sharma

A Practitionerís Guide to Journalistic Ethics
by P.K. Bandyopadhyay and Kuldip Singh Arora. Media Watch Group, New Delhi, Pages 178+x. Rs 250.

"THE antidote for political deviousness," according to Donald McDonald, an eminent magazine editor, "is journalistic integrity. Since truthfulness is not a political virtue, it has to be a journalistic virtue." Journalism is a noble profession as it holds a mirror before society in which are reflected the misdeeds and crimes of the wayward and the delinquent, political corruption and atrocities and sexual abuse of the fair sex and children. Next to judiciary, it occupies an eminent position in a free, democratic society. From time to time there has been need to highlight the function of a free and fair press as to create an awareness and jolt men in the media. The book under review is a "conscience restorer" and brings to light many facts, which are often ignored by the media.

Spread over 12 chapters, the book deals with themes like libellous and defamatory material, invasion of privacy, prior verification of reports, expose of misuse of diplomatic immunity, anonymity of the victims of sex crimes and crime stories. In "Global Perspective", he quotes Dr John C. Merril from his book, "The Imperative of Freedom": "What characterises most journalists today is a lack of commitment and consistency, a lack of coherent life plan. Before any journalist chooses any particular ethics, he must decide whether or not to be ethical: this is the first and most important choice facing him. However, it may well be, as Sartre and other existentialists have believed that Ďnot to choose is already to have chosení, that the refusal to choose the ethical is inevitably a choice for the non-ethical."


It is the imperative duty of a journalist to take up the cause of the oppressed and the downtrodden. There can be a social transformation if journalists followed the norms set for their working. The authors point out that since the media power can be used both for human emancipation and human destruction, it is a most difficult situation as it is the moral duty of a journalist to work for the welfare of mankind.

Information in journalism is taken as a social good and not as a commodity. The 12 international principles of professional ethics accepted at a Paris meeting of international and regional organisations of professional journalists include journalistís dedication to objective reality, journalistís social responsibility, peopleís right to true information, journalistís professional integrity, respect for universal values and diversity of cultures promotion of a new world information and communication order.

In Chapter III, they deal with journalistic ethics in the Indian perspective and shed light on the working of the Press Council of India, whose basic object is to preserve the freedom of the press and maintain and improve the standards of the working newspapers and news agencies in India. Pointing to the unethical standards, the authors cite an example of a vernacular paper, "Swatantra Bharat" of Varanasi, which had originally given the figure of 15 in the story relating to the dead "karsevaks" in the Ayodhya police firing in a special bulletin on November 2, inserted at the last minute the figure 1 by hand to make it 115. The item remained credited to the news agency even after the change.

Although advocates of journalistic ethics are vociferous in their criticism of obscenity, newspapers and magazines vie with each other and pride in giving obscene or semi-nude pictures, especially in commercial advertisements to cater to the taste of bohemian readers. Recently, there has been a spate of the magazines which thrive on vulgarity and nudity. Although they claim creating sex awareness among adults as their object, they transgress this limit and cater to the Carnal tastes of the gullible adult readers. Plagiarism is another journalistic norm so often violated by journalists.

In one of its guidelines the Press Council of India has urged journalists and especially financial reporters to refrain from accepting any gifts/grants/concessions/facilities, etc. in cash or kind. (But who follows this guideline?) In chapter IV the authors deal at length with press laws. They cite as an example a case of the contempt of court by an important English daily in which the Supreme Court took exception to the words, "Politics and policies have no place in the pure region of law, and courts of law would serve the country and the Constitution better by discarding all extraneous considerations and uncompromisingly observing divine detachment which is the glory of law and the guarantee of justice." The words "extraneous considerations" attracted contempt law.

In chapter VII, they deal with ombudsman, which the authors point out is the concept adopted only by the Times of India in the country whereas it is popular outside the country. The basic concept of ombudsman is to improve journalistic practices in the newspaper so as to make it more responsive and accountable to its readers.

The authors suggest that in reporting cases of communal violence, much more caution is needed. They give several examples in support of their contention that newspapers had flashed bold headlines which flare up communal tension whereas the reports did not support gravity of the situation to warrant such headlines.

There are 30 appendices in the book which cover subjects like principles adopted by the Congress of the International Union of Press Association (1936 Prague), FAJ, Arab Code of Ethics, American Society of Newspaper editors Statement of Principles, Mexico Declaration, NUJ Declaration (1981), AINEC Code of Ethics, International Principles of professional ethics in journalism, relevant Acts relating to the Press, summary of rights and responsibilities of journalists.

In the introduction to the book, V.N. Narayanan, a former editor of the Hindustan Times, has observed, "There are of course restraints to journalistic freedom but most of these come not from the state but from within the newspapers and from within the profession. The external threats come from the goon brigades of politicians, the suitcases of corporate executives, militant threats, etc... A toothless Press Council, ignored by newspapers engaged in price wars and circulation battles and identityless professional organisations shying away from taking definite stands on delinquent behaviour within journalism have had the effect of pushing professional ethics and norms into the background. The Fourth Estate is now as much in bad odour as politicians and corrupt bureaucracies".

At present, he laments, the Scott dictum of "Comment is free, facts are sacred" is being reversed as "news is free, comments are sacred". But strange as it may sound the editors are finding themselves helpless to observe journalistic norms, which sound good in print but difficult to implement. For example, editors have indulged in plagiarism and sensationmongering.

This comprehensive well-written book offers a wealth of information for the benefit of professional journalists, students of journalism, laymen who are anxious to know the principles of journalistic ethics. The appendices provide most useful information and add to the utility of the book. The price difference in a hardcover (Rs 250) and a paperback edition (Rs 100) is unjustified.