Tuesday, November 23, 2010

#barkhagate: Protests in 140 characters leave no space for grey areas

Barkha Dutt, one of the icons of Indian news television, has spent a generous part of the last few days, patiently replying to tweets, many of which express their loss of faith in her, and are demanding answers for her involvement in a controversial expose.

Her active presence on Twitter, has ensured that all ire is directed straight at her and she cannot dodge any of it. Search for '#barkhagate' on Twitter, and you sense that Twitter users, bloggers are baying for her blood, questioning her ethics and demanding her resignation.

Her reply to each tweet is calm and calculated. Like this one: "Ethics should be measured by coverage of issues. Diplomatic friendliness to get information from a source is very different. To get news one speaks to all kinds of people, dirty or clean, if they are a source of real time updates. That is not a crime."

But Twitter is a rather merciless place. Rohan Babu, head of social media at digital agency Media2Win says, "Once Twitter users take a stand against someone, the negative publicity can spread virally to all other media in a short span of time. Let's see how long protests in #barkhagate last. We're living in times where one controversy is only waiting to be suppressed by another."

Shubho Sengupta, head of digital media at Rediffusion Y&R agrees and says that #barkhagate is not going to affect her in the long run. "By replying to tweets, I think Barkha is handling the issue very intelligently and she should continue the discussions. But most tweets are very impulsive rants or attacks against her, they aren’t asking her the right questions."

How will they? Most users of Twitter are probably unaware of the lengths journalists have to go to, the shoulders they rub, the relationships they build, to bring their viewers fresh news everyday. After all, exclusive interviews don’t just walk into your studio. For many, the printed word in a newspaper is sacrosanct, coming from journalists who have access to 'the truth'.

Veteran media critic, V Gangadhar says, "This controversy has shown that the media is not so sacrosanct after all." He adds, "For long, the Letters to the Editor was the only section where you could complain about an erroneous report, or give feedback. Social media has changed all that, since criticism happens on public fora."

The controversy over paid news, the relentless play of the ‘breaking news’ on Hindi news channels and the coverage of the 26/11 terror attacks are only some of the instances where the media has come under sharp criticism.

Which is why, since the last few years, the growing adoption of new media - blogs, citizen journalism websites and Twitter - has thrown open a parallel source of news, not dependant entirely on journalists. It's a rather crucial phase in the history of journalism, when the media's reputation of having the final word is being challenged.

"I think #barkhgate has given people legitimate grounds to question the neutrality of the mainstream media," says Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands. "The blackout of reporting on the scandal by major newspapers and news channels, was the biggest reason that angered social media users."

But there is also criticism of the kind of debate that new media is generating. Gangadhar describes it as 'very Right-wing, unbalanced and extreme'. "In general, audiences and readers expect journalists to be all righteous creatures, black and white; they haven't been able to accept them in shades of grey. "

Desai says that people must read every issue with some sort of sensitivity and maturity of the context in which it took place. "#barkhagate hasn’t grasped that issue with a certain sensitivity required, or crafted it like a debate. Rather it is more of a personalized attack."

Still, social media is the true manifestation of a ‘free press’, says Shishir Joshi, former journalist and founder, Journalism Mentor Foundation for Excellence in Journalism. "Media organizations with dotted connections across businesses often find it tough to carry stories such as the allegedly grey role senior journalists have played in the spectrum drama. Social media, thus offers them an option of carrying these (by quoting the 'tsunami of buzz in the web world') and yet, not hurting relationships (which has been the case currently)."

In a way, it is hoped that the current backlash against mainstream media can only help journalists pull up their socks and be more accountable and accessible, because a certain Big Brother – the audience - is watching. "A free press is the strength of a vibrant democracy. We must admire its strength and be wary of its weakness (absence of control). Let us be skeptical, not cynical," says Joshi.

(An edited version of the above piece appeared in Daily News Analysis (DNA), Mumbai on 24 November.)

Image courtesy: Satish Acharya, Mid-Day