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Coping with GenNext journalists

December 18, 2011 20:33 IST
Concepts keep evolving. When I was in service, one used to talk of media management by the police. It is now a hated concept. After I left service in August 1994, one started talking of perception management. This too has now fallen into a disfavour. One now talks of perception correction. It is a politically neutral concept acceptable both to the police and the media.

Police officers have a right and a responsibility to identify wrong perceptions created by the media either consciously or unconsciously and have them corrected. For that, continuous interaction between the police and the media is necessary -- not only in times of crisis, but also in normal times.

Cordial relations with the media is not just a question of entertaining it from time to time. It is a question of respecting it as playing a useful role in keeping its spotlight on the police and winning its respect through our professionalism.

A good professional doesn't have to all the time strut around projecting himself as one. He will be sensed from a distance by the media and the public. Professionalism is a combination of various factors -- your competence, your efficiency, your record, your integrity and your ability to earn respect by giving respect.

The media expects from us respect, accessibility and a willingness to share correct information that can be shared for the benefit of the media and the public and in the interest of the public and the nation. If these factors are kept in mind, one can more effectively than at present prevent the emergence of wrong perceptions and correct wrong perceptions that arise despite the best efforts of the police to prevent them.

Not only concepts evolve, but the media landscape also keeps evolving. When I was in service, dealing with the media was simple. Today, it has become difficult and complex. In those days, we had to deal only with the print media and the government-run electronic media. The media landscape has since changed beyond recognition due to the mushrooming of privately run TV and radio networks, the easy availability of foreign channels for the viewers due to satellite TV, the blooming of the new media which has enabled any individual with the required motivation and energy to become a virtual journalist.

The rapid advance of media-related technologies has further empowered the media and given the police the impression and feeling of having been disempowered. The police, like other wings of the government, does not know how to deal with this phenomenon of an aggressive and assertive media and equally aggressive and assertive citizens. Those who understand this phenomenal change in the media landscape and use it for their benefit are the driving force of today. Those, who do not, find themselves left far behind by the march of the new forces and new ideas in the real and virtual world of the media.

Without a proper understanding of the new forces and the new ideas sweeping across the media world, the police, like other wings of the government, will not be able to deal with the multiplying complexities of media relations today.

The profile of journalists has also been evolving. When I was in service, I had to deal with journalists who were in their late 40s or early 50s. They were reverential to senior government servants, they were respecters of persons and they knew and respected the Laxman Rekha in the relations between the media and the government.

Today, while the media continues to be driven commercially by the people in their middle ages, it is driven professionally by journalists in their 20s and 30s. There has been a spectacular bloom of young journalists, who respect no age, who respect no person, who respect no authority and who observe no Laxman Rekha. For them, getting at the news and reporting it as they think it should be reported is the end-all and be-all of their profession.

Today's young journalists, unlike their predecessors, are risk-takers and risk-seekers. Their predecessors used to come to us for advice and briefing before they undertook any dangerous reporting assignment. Today's they don't care. The moment they decide to go somewhere to get the news, they make a dash for it without worrying about the risks and dangers. A new generation of journalists has come up since the Kargil conflict driven by a fearsome passion to get at the news even if they have to ruffle the feathers of those in authority. I call it the Barkha generation -- full of determination, drive and courage. Look at the way Barkha dashed into rebel-controlled Libya without worrying about the consequences for her.

The Barkha generation has its positive and negative qualities. Look at the way it complicated the handling of the Kandahar hijacking in December 1999. Look at the way Barkha, in alleged disregard of the difficulties of the police and other security forces, covered the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai.

I am yet to come across a single IPS officer who does not talk critically of the way she covered the 26/11 strikes. Look at the way she went after a blogger who chose to criticise her style of news coverage. She would expect the police to understand and be responsive to her style of news coverage, but she could not understand and be responsive to a blogger's criticism --however immoderate -- of her style of reporting. This brought out the double standards adopted by some of the young journalists of today.

We have not yet found an answer to the question as to how to cope with this new generation of journalists with its insatiable hunger for the Breaking News because many of us are not even aware that the media world of today and the ever-bubbling journalists of today are unrecognisably different from those of yesterday. This question has to be debated carefully in our search for an answer.

Look how poorly we understand the mind-boggling reach and potential of the new media. How many of us have thought of ways of using the new media for disseminating the correct news, for projecting the police point of view and for correcting wrong perceptions?

Improving the conventional ways and style of relationship with the media alone is not sufficient. The police has to be proactive in the world of the new media. Instead of understanding the new media and its social networks and benefitting from them, we are thinking of curbing and even suppressing them. This shows that while the mindset of Generation Next in the media world is galloping forward, our mindset remains shackled to the past. It is time to break this.

This is a post-seminar expansion of introductory observations made by me at a seminar on Police and Media at Hyderabad on December 15 and 16.

(The writer is additional secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and presently, the director of Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies)

B Raman