The UNDP, the Central Government's Department of Personnel and Training, the Women's Feature Service, and the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore are jointly organizing a capacity building workshop for journalists and civil servants on March 3 and 4 at Bangalore. The central themes of the workshop are the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals and access to information. At the workshop, India Together is leading a session on the role of Media in strengthening civil society involvement in development.
The organisers assert that media persons and civil servants have a catalysing role in human development. "Media and civil servants are uniquely and strategically placed to bring about a change in the lives of people, especially the marginalized and by making the development process more inclusive of the concerns and needs the people, particularly the underprivileged", says the concept note. India Together recognizes that access to information - both about government as well as about deeper societal conditions - enables citizens to both demand and better participate in their own development and that of their neighbourhoods, villages and towns.
Commercial media in particular is controlled by publishers, not journalists. The publishing function is responsible for revenues and business growth, and editors are responsible for reporting and opinion. With profits acquiring the dominant focus, there is a predictable crunch in development reporting. For many years now, commercial media houses have been functioning as for-profit corporations first and holders of the public trust only next. India Together is a first-hand observer of this phenomenon; we receive a steady stream of letters from purposeful writers who want to report and comment for this publication, because they feel limited by the space available for their work in the commercial print media. This is startling, given that the typical print publication runs between 12-40 pages of broadsheet a day, compared to the one to two articles we publish daily!
Still, even publications that are not alert to the public interest nonetheless maintain some limited coverage of development matters. Why? In part, because there is wide-spread acceptance that this is necessary. It should not escape anyone that journalism itself has a calculus that is inherently pro-development. One purpose of journalism - as articulated by plenty of journalists themselves - is to provide citizens with information they need to be free and self governing. This foundation is directly tied to several principles of good journalism - loyalty to citizen readers, independence from factions, transparency about sources, fairness in monitoring power, vigilance, detailed and relevant reporting, etc.
But even assuming that all media organisations follow these principles, would that automatically lead to development? In other words, can media - by purposeful pursuit of these principles - perform a catalytic role in civil society?
Possibly, but we must not place too much faith in media doing this by itself. There are plenty of obstacles to development within civil society outside of the media. An entire range of institutions in India - for instance, the law enforcement system, the judiciary, the health/medical system, the education system, the civil administrative system - is in desperate need of pro-development reforms. Our nation in addition has among the most hierarchical and unjust social structures in the world. Even as journalists must continue to report relentlessly, it isn't clear that progress in these areas can be the outcome of a progressive media agenda alone.
But these are not beyond the ability of media to address, either. There is an important connection between media and the strengthening of civil society: citizenship. Media can play a stronger role if its reporting is premised on citizen participation, and does not regard readers, viewers and listeners as passive consumers of its reporting. We are suggesting nothing radical here. The principle that journalism must above all place its loyalty to citizens (and not partisan groupings, parties, and vested interests) is what places media in the public trust in the first place. The fact that time and again, media organizations digress greatly from serving this trust has not diminished the expectation that this principle should be adhered to.
But even on the matter of active citizenship - where more citizens get involved in accountability action, civic affairs, and community building - there are non-media concerns. Values may determine whether and how people act, and value systems in our large, densely populated and diverse nation are in competition with each other. Alongside these we find incomplete and inconsistent views of morality and justice, all of which perhaps come in the way of citizen participation. Media's focus on development cannot disregard this.
What do we mean by that? Consider the following question: is widespread poverty and deprivation in India a failure of development systems alone, or is it a moral failure? Are we inefficient in addressing the great needs of the majority, or simply choosing not to address those needs honestly? While development initiatives often begin from virtue - i.e. the view that fighting poverty and injustice is the moral obligation of all decent people - there is a tendency for 'effectiveness' and 'necessity' to very quickly overshadow the moral premises of such action itself. This is why, for example, spending on an employment guarantee for the poor is forced to meet the test of 'affordability', but no such burden is placed on buying a few hundred nuclear weapons, which are in any event unusable beyond the first few!
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For media-persons too, it is important to remember that eye-candy is a poor substitute for substantive engagement of the public good. Skill certainly matters. Especially when reporting on poverty and hunger, keeping individuals and their struggles or successes at the centre of stories arouses understanding and empathy in readers that policy reporting alone, though important, may not. We must report on progress and failure towards development goals fairly and repeatedly, but always with the knowledge that the reporting must enrich the humanity in each of us. The good society should challenge our minds and our hearts.