The government is mulling a “Communication University” to teach journalism. But do journalists need to attend schools to learn how to tell a story?

Posted by Arunabh Saikia and Manisha Pande | Jan 13, 2015 in Criticles, Featured

One of the mainstream news channels while reporting on the grisly murder and gang rape of a 40-year-old woman in New Delhi, chose to go into unnecessarily details about the victim’s alleged “extra marital” affair. Indeed when news of the Uber rape case — as it came to be known later — first emerged, many papers deemed it fit to report on how the victim was a little tipsy at the time of taking the cab, suggesting lack of watchfulness on her part.

This lackadaisical approach is not just limited to reporting on rape – every time an act of terror, a high-profile murder or a scam comes to light, the mainstream media is more likely to bombard news consumers with hysterical conclusions rather than straight reportage.

Add to that the problem of paid news, institutionalised selling of editorial space and PR plants, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s recent suggestions to ameliorate the way journalism is taught in the country to churn better professionals will seem like a bright idea.

It is the government’s contention that journalism education in the country needs an overhaul. The government is worried that unlike subjects like engineering, law and medicine, there is no “determination of the criteria for what all is being taught” in journalism and mass communication courses.

So it has proposed a solution to overcome that: set up a “Communication University”.

According to a report in Indian Express, the I&B ministry has now begun work “to conceptualise [a Communication University] and bring all diverse institutions dealing with print media, radio, animation, TV and other sub-sectors of the industry under a single establishment serving the nation”.

The idea to “standardise” the journalism curriculum is not new. The previous government, led by the then I&B minister Minster Manish Tewari, had suggested a common exam for journalists – à la the Bar Council, which holds a similar exam for lawyers – on clearing which journalists would be given a “license” to practice.

Here, it is important to point out that the current government has not been explicit about licensing the profession – the merits of which are debatable. While in some cases it is used by governments to control the press, there can be a case for licensing in that it can help streamline the entry process in the industry.

What this government (according to the IE report) does seek to do, is to fashion the proposed standardised curriculum in such a way that it “serves the nation”.

Before addressing questions on whether that’s a good thing or not, the more pressing question: does one need to enroll in a journalism school at all to become a journalist? And do Indian media schools churn out employable media professionals?

To answer the query it may be useful to first address what may seem like a banal enquiry: what is journalism? We asked four journalists from various organisations to know what they think:

Sandeep Pai, Principal Correspondent, Zee

Journalism for me is about speaking truth to power and highlighting weaknesses in society. For me, journalism is the art of the possible. It is to highlight seemingly unconnected events and forces, to discern and describe the major economic and social trends of the day.

Chitra Subramaniam Duella, Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute

Journalism for me is a public good that must be publicly accountable and responsible. This can be publicly or privately funded but the decision to read something and ignore something else is the right of people in a democracy. As the fourth pillar in a democracy, journalists have rights but more importantly, they have responsibilities too. We occupy a public space – that places an onus on us.

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, Writer, Scroll

I have a clear idea of what the news is — any information that’s new and/or relevant. To my mind, journalism is simply the dissemination of this news (which, it’s important to note, doesn’t just cover current affairs but can include a host of other things). Essentially, it is the act of passing on information that is either new or relevant.

R Sukumar Ranganathan, Editor, Mint

I see journalism as something that helps people make sense of the world around them.

Will going to a “Communication University” enhance a journalist’s ability to do what they think is his or her job?

Sandeep Pai, Principal Correspondent, Zee

Government regulating the curriculum will kill the very purpose of journalism as this profession is, in the real sense, anti-establishment.

Chitra Subramaniam Duella, Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute

Good journalism doesn’t necessarily require formal training or tests, but there are skills that you learn in a newsroom or journalism schools which are very important for the métier. Domain knowledge is important. I have seen journalists reporting on issues without knowing what they are talking about. For example, reporting on an AGM of a company without knowing how to read a balance sheet or reporting on public health without knowing the difference between prevalence and incidence or pandemic and endemic or worse, reporting on national security and terrorism without fully appreciating what their responsibility is. To make this happen is the job of the editor, not the government.

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, Writer, Scroll

Some of the best journalists I’ve met and know didn’t go to journalism school and didn’t have to take a test. Some of the worst journalists I’ve met and know were proud products of great journalism programmes. These programmes can go some way towards bringing people up to speed on the basics though.

R Sukumar Ranganathan, Editor, Mint

No, I don’t think good journalism requires formal training although it does help.

There is almost a unanimous consensus on one thing: going to journalism school does not necessarily make you a better journalist – irrespective of what you think journalism is.

Anubha Bhonsle, executive editor at CNN IBN, puts it succinctly: “Most of our predecessors have had no formal training in journalism but were independent, keen observers of life, political processes, society and more importantly had a zest to study and observe this. I believe if there are slices of the above and a moral compass, hard work, some guerrilla tactics and a thick skin, one should be good in this profession.”

But of course, journalism, as opposed to other forms of storytelling, comes with responsibilities. Not having trained journalists familiar with media ethics and practices can bode ill for the industry in the long term. If the government, then, wants to imbibe in aspiring journalists a sense of ethics that would help them be responsible storytellers, it is perhaps only more than fair.

The question though is if government institutions are abreast with developments in the media world to design courses that would produce employable professionals.

While journalism universities abroad constantly update their curricula, like adding courses on data journalism and visualisation, Indian colleges teaching journalism mainly stick to explaining concepts and processes without going into practical details or updating the course according to industry demands.

The two authors of this article have entered the profession in contrasting styles. One of them attended a journalism course at one of the country’s renowned journalism institutes, while the other majored in mechanical engineering with no professional journalism training.

Both agree that everything they needed to learn, they learnt in the newsroom.

There is also the question of whether responsible journalism entail “serving the nation”? Particularly as serving the nation increasingly seems to come with jingoistic connotations – as was evident when Right Wing groups went after Praveen Swami and Saikat Datta when they questioned the government stand on the recent “terror boat” controversy. It is worrying if the government thinks in the similar way too.

Journalism has inherently been anti-establishment. Responsible reporting is not – and has never been – toeing the government line. It inspires very little confidence when an effort to improve the standards of journalism education comes along with warped nationalistic ideas.

The answer then is perhaps to get media professionals on board to work with the government to design course at the communication university it plans to set up and have adequate representation from the industry.


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