Recently, I interviewed a young journalist wanting to turn to public relations as a profession and I asked her two questions. The first, why she joined journalism received an appropriate, though expected answer - 'To give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves', followed quickly by 'It is perhaps the only profession in which you can be fearless and work towards correcting the wrongs you see in society.'
I gave her a smile, and lodged my second question. 'Why then do you want to shift to Public Relations?' She remorsefully replied, 'I'm disillusioned.'
That conversation, in a nutshell, sums up most of mainstream journalism today. Viewed from the outside, most see a brave, determined journalist standing up for the truth, upholding the 4D principles above all - Detect, Discern, Doubt and Demand. When seen from the inside, most journalists have experienced persuasion - bordering on mild coercion disguised as 'advice', management encouraged 'self-censorship', editorial bias and/or complicity, interference of 'Response' - the benign name given to the media advertising departments, not to mention the sometimes direct threats and forced resignations.
Today, much of the Indian media is under corporate control. Network 18 (CNBC, Colors, Firstpost, MTV among others) is owned by Mukesh Ambani and Reliance Industries; Hindustan Times Group (Hindustan Times, Mint, Hindustan, FM channel Fever and some more) by the Bhartias; Zee Group by Subhash Chandra; Sun Group by the Marans; and this is just a list of a few.
Every corporate entity is careful about, if not completely fearful of, how media can impact them. From my 20-year PR experience I can staunchly aver that a negative media story tops among their biggest horrors. It's no wonder that investment in a big media house makes flawless business sense. And, those who cannot or will not invest in a media house, know that similar influence can also be exerted through threat of moving the advertising budget. The less pronounced journalistic Ds have their origins here.
The recent Cobrapost stings show the face of the media owners and revenue generators - those with a love of lucre. The journalists from these publications (and journalism as a whole) are the victims. Victims because, the trust that most journalists so ardently strive to protect in their media, has been tarnished. As a consequence, so has their profession. Public Relations agencies too have become inadvertent victims. News - once seen as the unassailable truth, has come under intense scrutiny.
As always, in such chaos too there is opportunity. I see opportunity in journalists reemphasising their role, independence and importance in editorial rooms. I also see opportunity for PR agencies which have stayed the ethical path despite all pressures to create awareness among disbelieving businesses, about the real and true nature and role of journalism. I also see it as the propitious moment for independent media, like Cobrapost - the paid-media sting originator and others that strive to keep up journalistic integrity, to establish themselves strongly as alternatives to the mainstream. As for the readers, I see a chance for choice - the choice to not follow the herd - to let their money follow their beliefs.
If any of these four stars align, the vested interests will follow suit. Else, journalism will be snuffed out. And so will Public Relations.