‘When there are more media outlets, govt responds more quickly’

Social media is helping journalists connect to sources around the world and to each other to do cross-border investigations.

Updated: September 15, 2014 12:07:53 am

By: Aakanksha Tangri

Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and communications program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, is an anthology of investigative reporting from the developing world including groundbreaking pieces of journalism from India.

How did the idea of the book come about?
I was doing research to prepare a history of journalism class at Columbia’s journalism school and began reading newspapers from the 19th century and books about journalism. I came across King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild which described E D Morel’s campaign for better conditions for workers in the Congo who were gathering rubber. I became interested to know what kind of journalism was being written in the 19th century… and inevitably that also led me to read many more newspapers in Teen Murti Library and also in Calcutta. Reading these old newspapers inspired me to edit a collection that would showcase journalism from the developing world.

What pieces of journalism did you end up choosing?
I got historians, journalists and activists from around the world to nominate pieces that they thought were important and then we divided the book into categories such as rural affairs, women, corruption. Some of the pieces from India include writing by Dwarkanath Ganguly which is introduced by Jayeeta Sharma, a piece by Madhusree Mukerjee who introduced Biplabi and a piece on honour killings by a Pakistani journalist. P Sainath is in the book as well. Amartya Sen has talked so much about the Bengal Famine and the impact the press coverage has had on food supply in India, so I thought it was important to have a piece from the Bengal Famine. I had a researcher spend a lot of time reading the English-language newspapers from Kolkata and we ended up using one of The Statesman editorials about the 1943 famine. As I understand it, war-time censorship from the British prevented the famine from being reported in the English-language newspapers in India.

How has the style of reporting and writing evolved over time?
In English, writing has become more concise. There’s also more use of data and probably more sources. A lot of 19th century newspapers feel a bit like blogs in the sense that there’s randomness, personal stories and rumours… Another lesson learned was that for the journalism to have an impact, there have to be other social forces that are really ready to make a change. For example, Jayeeta Sharma talks about how Ganguly was part of Brahmo Samaj. Sharma places Ganguly’s journalism in the context of that movement. That’s part of what we wanted to with the book — not just present the journalism, but also give the social context that it came from and to talk about when it did or did not have an impact.

What is biggest challenge facing journalism today?
Right now, there’s an extraordinary amount of good journalism being done. There’s more data available. Social media is helping journalists connect to sources around the world and to each other to do cross-border investigations. The business model that will pay for the journalism is still a question that needs to be resolved.

What are your thoughts on the journalism scene in India?
India is known for its lively media scene: the range, the quality, the stories are just phenomenal. Like everywhere, there is a lot of commercial low-quality media and reporting but there’s also fantastic reporting. It’s not just an interesting place for people who like to read journalism but there is interesting economic scholarship about the Indian media too. Because of Amartya Sen’s writing about the Bengal Famine and the importance of democracy, there has been research by economists looking at the impact media has on accountability. Economists like Robin Burgess and Tim Besley looked at India and found that when there are more media outlets, government responds more quickly to things like droughts and famine and natural disasters.

Over the past year, there have been concerns about press freedom and censorship in India, and about corporations buying stakes in media houses. How can journalists approach this issue?
I haven’t been to India since the elections so I haven’t seen it for myself but usually when new governments come in, journalists are cautious. They need access and they don’t want to alienate the new authorities. Ownership of media outlets certainly affects the kind of news that is covered and that is a problem. As much as possible, it’s good to have boundaries between the financial side and the news side but those boundaries are eroding in many places — including in the United States. The rise of “native advertising” i.e. sponsored content is an example of this erosion.

Tangri is an Indian-born journalist based in New York

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