I didn’t know Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros personally. Nor did I jump on the Libyan Armageddon to understand the stretch of what is going on there. But like many others who didn’t know them or hardly know about their work, my heart is wrenched at the thought of their premature demise – the repugnant truth of the war zone. Barring Hetherington and Hondros, there are at least 18 journalists missing or detained, and their fate is, well, uncertain right now. I will not ponder on the monotone of the brutality of the battlefield, the Unnecessary called War. That has been done by scholars and philosophers time and over again. But, sincere contemplation is needed when it comes to our understanding of the necessity of information – or as my journalist friend Alex Lobov puts it ‘the ridiculous nature of our market economy & superficial society where journalists who put themselves in the line of fire so that we get to know what’s going on.’
Conceptualizing the absurdities of the market economy is a wide-spread practice – eliminating the remote determinants of life, death, provisionals is just another. The basic structure follows this route – create a value chain, point towards a target audience, go to unfathomable lengths to capture the attention of that target audience. Media content and services are proliferating at such a rapid rate that the volume of log-material is essentially unlimited, but that of new variants of issues are at a massive dearth. Therefore, the ‘urgent’ call for risky pursuits and do-whatever-it-takes to dig for feeds.
The widening gap between limitless media and limited attention means it is harder for any offering to attract significant public attention. In the early 1970s, Nobel laureate Herbert Simon described this growing disparity as a ”poverty of attention”. Commentators from many disciplines now view attention as a prerequisite for the exercise of economic or social influence. The general fraternity assumption is that, the real scarce commodity will always be human attention and that attracting that attention will be the necessary precondition of social change. It is this lust for change and rearrangement of the social order that gets zealous journalists going and repeatedly plunging into known peril. Tim Hetherington was in Libya to continue his ongoing multimedia project to highlight humanitarian issues at this time of war and conflict, supposed to bring about a structural change in the Middle Eastern geometry. Verifies the hypothesis – less known facts, even less area of coverage, hence, strikes the chord of uniquity in rarity.
Now to reflect on informative journalism – it is important (very), but at the same time picture partial and discriminatory. As Walter Lippmann, the American essayist wrote in his seminal work “Public Opinion”, newspapers do not try to keep an eye on all mankind. By its nature, news is selective, dependent on editors’ as well as readers’ tastes.
Democracy and journalism are not synonymous either. There was no journalism in ancient Greece. British journalism evolved under a constitutional monarchy. American journalism, operating under a monarchical, colonial power, preceded American democracy. But as Michael Schudson has observed in his excellent book Why Democracies need an Unlovable Press, “Where there is democracy, or where there are forces prepared to bring it about, journalism can provide a number of different services to help establish or sustain representative government.”
Albeit, should such depths of journalism be pursued even if there’s a possibility of being bombarded by a rocket-propelled grenade (in analogy to Hetherington)? Decide with a counterpoint. The essential argument here is that informative journalism enables the citizenry to have indirect contact with people of power or institutions of the state, to better understand how society works, both to their advantage and to their disadvantage. It matters not simply because it is a manifestation of dissent and direct cognizance but because it is an expression of plurality – alternative views and newer fronts of understanding that would lead to individual thinking and not desirous impositions of standardized outlook.
Unlike established professions of law, medicine or accounting any standard of journalistic competency must be centred on practice rather than theory.
For this reason calling a journalist a professional would require a peculiar taxonomy to define a profession. Furthermore, relegating journalists to the realm of professionals is undesirable because it implies limitations that diminish the important role they play in society. Thus the debate is not in the favour of role play by the media but an unrestrained approach of working towards an achievement meant to trumpet its status as a social science – not merely an outpost for narrow vocationalism and a churn-house of information.
These are the best of times and the worst of times if one happens to be a journalist. The best, because the job has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to report, analyse and comment on the most serious happenings since the advent of communicatives. The worst of times, because the business is suffering from the cyclical shock of a deep recession and the skeletal change driven by the internet revolution. To pull up from that the necessity is to reinvent the model of journalism, sticking to the core ingredient of representing all that is not represented and thinking over newer ways to boost media economics other than using news puffery and running behind cannons to get a bestselling front-page. Lord Northcliffe, the British publishing magnate and owner of the Times and Daily Mail, among many other titles, once declared that “news is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” Take it as a hint of a new curriculum from the excess of the yellow press – make it an exercise of social evolution rather than stereotyping it as an institutional establishment – paving the way for a new archetype, redefining the word ‘important’.
(The illustrative here is not meant to give aspiring mass media students a perspective on their future life, or a career defining course of action – but a weigh of priorities in a world which thrives on feral sensationalism. Do your bit, make a difference.)
Written for IBNLive