Journalism in the Time of Ram Mandir: Faith. Reporting. Integrity.

Journalism in the Time of Ram Mandir: Navigating Faith, Reporting, and Integrity

Balancing Faith and Objectivity: The Crucial Role of Ethical Journalism Amidst India's Historic Ram Mandir Event
First Published: Jan 20,2024 01:49PM
by Chitra Subramaniam

Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

It is said that a visitor once came to the home of the Danish Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and, having noticed a horseshoe hung above the entrance, asked incredulously if the professor believed horseshoes brought good luck. 

“No,” Bohr replied, “but I’m told that they bring luck even to those who do not believe in them.” 

Geeta Seshu, Co-Founder of Free Speech Collective speaks to The Probe’s Srishti Mukherjee

A ceremony of civilisation proportions is unfurling in the world’s largest democracy – India. The Ram temple consecration ceremony is scheduled for January 22, 2024, inside the temple complex on Tuesday in Ayodhya. Lord Ram, or Rama as he’s called in South India, is a presiding deity of Hinduism. I have been reading and watching Indian media coverage about the consecration ceremony and the various events leading up to the final moment when Lord Rama’s statue will be installed at the sanctum sanctorum. We will be witnessing history in the making. But I am troubled, rather appalled by some of what I am reading and watching. Insulting people’s faith and imposing your views on them is sacrilege, to say the least. On the eve of this very important ceremony for Hindus worldwide, I write about journalism, faith, rituals, and respect for people’s beliefs. Journalism is a noble profession. If you muddy the waters with personal issues, you’ll get called out.

Read More: We will fight you tooth and nail.

Vengeance is not journalism. 

If bile, vengeance, and gratuitous attacks on people, their beliefs, and faith are what float your boat, journalism is not for you. Vicious reporting, mocking not just those who do not think like you but running them down systematically with every byte and column inch with all the means at your disposal, exposes you more than it does them. I see this happening on all sides, whether it is coming from the left or right. It is a mark of ignorance, something that good and courageous journalists will chase out of newsrooms, as is happening across India. Good journalists know that interviewing people of knowledge – gurus, all of them – requires humility and grace. A person who is knowledgeable about the Bhagavad Gita is as much of a scholar as someone who has read Karl Marx. Vidya, or knowledge, has no sides. Good journalists make the effort of informing themselves, reading, asking their teams to come up with evidence, and making the case for what will be written or discussed.

Good journalists do not boast about speaking truth to power or their legacies. 

If you are speaking truth to power, your work will show it. There is no need to boast about it. There is no need to tell people you are an intellectual who will not cow down to anything or anyone, including political pressure. Good journalists do not flee from their investigations – they stay and fight the good fight, come hell or high water. If you do not have the courage to face threats, including threats to your life, do not boast about your courage. You will get called out on social media. If you have made a mistake – and only fools make no mistakes – have the courage to apologise in public. I have little time for people who cannot laugh at themselves. Good journalists will never boast publicly about their legacies or how they go about doing their work and the long hours their stories need.

Good journalism is not about furthering a personal agenda.

It is fine if you lean towards a certain political view or another. Don’t pretend to be neutral when you write, speak, or are leading a debate. It shows glaringly in the choice of talking heads and how you stack your arguments. Like a lot of journalists I admire, I can tell intent rather rapidly. Don’t show off about your humble origins online or in print – nobody cares. Read how people in Europe and the United States (US) have come up. Hard work is par for the course. Don’t say you are humbled when the government gives you an award. We all know how you begged to get it. For me, accepting any government award is corruption. For me, accepting anything from the government comes with strings attached. Sycophancy cannot be hidden, especially not in the days of social media.

Stop playing victim. 

All governments snoop on people. Some are subtle, others not. Don’t get on your high horse and shout that you will keep free speech secure, as none can. That’s for others to tell you. If you are genuinely concerned about free speech, clearly speak for it with everything you do on a daily basis. If you change sides, say why and be dignified about it. By doing so, you will gain the confidence of your audience.

Read More: The woman who died protecting free media, her story cuts new ground in journalism worldover

Good journalism does not make people feel they do not belong.

The colonisers made people native to a country feel that they did not belong by snatching everything from them. They did this as they rode into foreign lands, killing, maiming, dismembering people of their language, their cooking, their dance, their music, their politics, and much more. They are now called indigenous people – how would you feel if you are a refugee in your own country as Kashmiri pandits are in India? Go out of your studios to fight for their rights to return to their homes. If you do not have the guts to do that, stop patronising the world with your stupid ragtag solutions to grief, which includes telling them they can return to a little place in their backyard. Stop crying on television. The examples in the above lines are metaphors. Good journalists know what a metaphor is.

Journalism is about the capacity to read a room with respect. 

The first capacity a good journalist must have is to be able to listen so as to be able to read the room with dignity. Maturity, courage, and humility to read the room go hand in hand, and good journalists cultivate this ability every day. Irrespective of the number of years they have spent reporting, writing, or editing, they know their capacity to listen, not interrupt, not shout down, and not insult people is a sign of maturity. This essential quality is woefully lacking in what I see in most of the Delhi and Mumbai based networks in the English language.

If some of our television anchors embarrass themselves every evening, their guests are much worse. There are those who are on television channels 24/7 insulting people, offering their ‘expertise’ on everything, and insulting others by asking which university, if any, they went to. Anchors who have no domain knowledge invite these ‘experts’ who have no domain knowledge as well, and the result is a celebration of stupidity.

I have seen anchors and the instant expert giggle about others. I have been on panels myself. The pitched debates you see are all staged. Off-air, the same people laugh and joke about how they have managed to fool their audience. What they don’t realise is the joke is on them. Good journalists know the public is not duped. Good journalists are subtle, they are stylish, and whenever there is the need to invite information, they provoke gently without insulting their guest. But to do that, the journalist knows that they must first have done their homework well.

Put the donkey last. 

When I was learning English (I limit myself to English for this piece), I was taught to put the donkey last. This means ‘my friend and I,’ not ‘I and my friend.’ Good journalists know that it is ‘my team and I,’ not ‘I and my team.’ Good journalists know that their views on Lord Rama must come after they have invited their audience to speak. Good journalists invite others to speak first and encourage debates gently. The moment a journalist becomes the story, that story is dead. Good journalists know they are but a vehicle for their readers and audience.

Good journalists are team builders. 

Good journalists know that teams do better than individuals. Good journalists understand that no one achieves anything single-handedly. Good journalists support their teams, including those who are feeble, with a view to building confidence. Sharing information in the team is a confidence-building measure. Keeping ego – everyone’s ego – out. Once the ego is out, the rest will be easy. Show your team how you build your team, learn from your team about team building. There’s grace and happiness in it, and the cherry on the top is a superb piece that all are proud of. Like many colleagues I admire, I earned my spurs by making mistakes and learning from them.

Read More: World Press Freedom Day 2022: When did technologists become journalists?

Good journalists know about the importance of framing an issue. 

Frames decide what is at stake, who is responsible, and where solutions can be found. I recently came across a journalist who said that with him, Dharmic India was safe and went on to wax eloquent about him, his friends, and himself (my friends and I, he said!). Another time, an anchor said the same thing and asked who was against him at the very beginning of the debate. Good journalists do not open debates with their opinion. Nobody cares – let that sink in.

Good journalists do not boast about their access to political power. 

There is access journalism and there is source-based journalism. Good journalists understand the difference between the two and use them with discretion only when necessary. Good journalists know that it must be at least two independent sources per piece of information and no more than one or two pieces of new information per piece. Good journalists never say they have more information about an investigation and dangle it like a threat. I would like to signal here that I asked a few of our ‘star’ anchors in English if they were not worried about plants. I was brushed aside. Sources can spread gossip. Gossip has no place in good journalism.

Good journalists do not rush to print or telecast.

English television journalism has destroyed news reporting in India. The breaking news phenomenon and the greed for TRPs have struck at the very roots of our profession. The result is that journalists involved in this type of exercise have fallen between two stools – they are neither reporters nor businesspeople.

Good journalists do not display their ignorance in public. 

If you know your Ramayanam or your Bible, if you understand the significance of the kappa or the skullcap, the tali, the cross, or the hijab, you will not begin your exchange by asking people questions about their faith. If you say you have Jewish, Christian, or Muslim friends, you are making a fool of yourself because good journalists know that identifying difference, especially religious difference in public, is unkind. I am being polite. A true believer in knowledge knows there is no other. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are three Semitic and book religions. Europe is Christian, France is laic, the other countries in the 28-member European Union (EU) deal with religion and rights in respectful language, and respect for entrepreneurship unites the US, Bangkok, and Indonesia, which are full of Hinduism. 

Tamil is the world’s oldest language and can be traced far into West Asia, and India is vast enough to be the home to all religions. It is a young democracy, and it is going through bumps, some larger than others. Switzerland, my home by adoption, is one of the world’s oldest democracies and also has tumultuous debates – debates are what make democracies strong. History will be constantly rewritten as generations ask different questions that are pertinent to them. Good journalists know that it is their duty to identify these issues one by one and give people the opportunity to explain them. Good journalism is not easy. If you’re in this to become famous, try public relations. 

On a personal note, during the darkest moments of my investigative work during Bofors, when our son’s life was threatened, my car’s windows were smashed, and brakes were cut, among other difficulties (I am writing about this), I chanted Agastya Muni’s Aditya Hrudayam and Tulsidas’s Hanuman Chalisa. Faith is as much about one’s work as it is about one’s beliefs. It must be built like a case log with clarity and humility with a view to fighting the good fight. If faith is lost, all else is. There is a tide in Indian journalism, and it is no surprise that people are willing to fund communities of journalists for whom this noble métier is a public good. Communities of journalists share resources, talent, and exclusives with each other. They understand that their bandwidth is limited, so they cooperate to get the information out with the sole aim of informing those who pay to keep news free. Despite the rough and tumble that Indian journalism is going through, I am happy to belong to one of the freest media spaces in the world. I keep the faith.

Chitra Subramaniam | The Probe

Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning Journalist and media entrepreneur, best known for her path-breaking investigative stories on Bofors scam. She is the founder of Geneva-based CSD consulting and writes on public health, media, development and geopolitics.

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