It's exactly 91 days since the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. 91 days since TV news plumbed new depths in standards. Time enough for people to have started looking for better sources of news. But whom to trust?
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Kshiti texted me this question:
"I don't follow news and current affairs at all for various reasons. But in your opinion, is there ANY website/channel/publication that offers balanced reportage? That's not anti-or pro-BJP or Congress or anyone, but is balanced?"
I replied with a list of websites to read, one of them being Scroll.in. Kshiti replied,
"Admittedly I've read very less, but whatever I have on Scroll reeks of left-wing to me. I'm not a right-winger or a left-winger. Maybe that's naive. I'll give it another shot because you have recommended it."
Her reply to me needed a quick and decisive answer. Naturally, I replied with two rambling and halting audio messages, totaling up to 7:49 minutes. Sorry Kshiti!
Here's a better attempt. I've rephrased her question a little differently however:
Do Scroll.in, The Quint, The Wire and The News Minute offer balanced reportage? Aren't they 'left-wing'?
Even though they are vastly distinct news operations, I clubbed these four websites together for these reasons:
- A few others have asked me similar questions about them.
- They are all English-language news websites that launched in India around the same time: between 2014 and 2015. (Some of them operate in other languages too.)
- They are digital-only, and not part of any newspaper, TV or corporate chain.
- They were either launched or began original reporting after the BJP's electoral victory in the 2014 general election.
This last point is important. Often, those who accuse media organizations of bias say but you were so easy on the Congress, why are you so biased against the BJP? This is not a very convincing argument for reasons we can get into another time, but at least on this score, we cannot say that these websites have a history of bias against the current establishment.
With that out of the way, here are five ways to think about these websites.
1. 'Left' and 'Right' are subjective and based on your vantage point
Imagine a media landscape where players are similar to each other, like the national English-speaking media before 2010. You had an array of established newspapers and relatively new TV news channels to choose from. Yet, with maybe an exception or two, it was difficult to say who was 'left' and who was 'right'.
To paint in very broad strokes, The Indian Express was anti-establishment, the Hindustan Times establishment and The Hindu pro-left. However, the reporting done by these organizations was broadly similar.
Ditto with TV networks. CNN-IBN (where I worked for 9 years), Headlines Today (almost 3 years), NDTV and even Times Now were largely similar, with just a few differences either way. This was still Arnab 1.0! (For the uninitiated, Arnab 2.0 was a more ideologically committed and polarizing version at Times Now, and Arnab 3.0 may be described as an even shriller version at Republic TV.)
As the 2010s progressed and the BJP hawa began to blow, new media organizations came into the fray. After the 2014 election, many existing ones began taking clear pro-BJP positions.
Starting in 2014 and 2015, the likes of Scroll, The News Minute, The Wire and The Quint (where I was Editor - News) began operations much in the same manner as the pre-2010 news media, i.e. in the broad centre.
Seen in their own light today, they are neither left nor right. But if you view them through the lens of the majority media today (which is pro-establishment), they appear to be on the left.
I can't stress this point enough.
In 2017, I travelled with Siddharth Varadarajan, the founder and editor of The Wire, from Jaipur to Chennai via Ahmedabad for a roundtable. Because this included long airport transfers, we had plenty of time to talk. As we were bumping along a pitted road somewhere, I asked Siddharth about his own politics (and by extension The Wire's).
Pat came the answer,
"In all matters journalism, I'm guided by the Constitution of India."
It took me a while to understand his point, which is that he has always been guided by certain enduring values as a journalist. It is others, rather, who portray him as being on the left. (We will come back to this point later.)
At The Quint where I helped build and run the newsroom for a year, I was part of daily meetings with the founders, Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kapur. I've seen countless instances of their values, which can broadly be described as pro-free enterprise and pro-individual rights.
Scroll is edited by Naresh Fernandes. Under him, the website has done extensive reporting and analysis, but has steered clear for the most part from opinion writing.
The News Minute is run by Dhanya Rajendran and co-founder Vignesh Vellore. Because they serve the five southern states, they take on all parts of the establishment, regardless of who is in power.
2. Oh come on, they're liberals and leftists!
'Left', 'right', 'liberal', 'conservative'—these labels and their more colourful versions don't fit well in the Indian political landscape. They're mostly imports from the West. Even there, the term liberal means different things.
In India, the political left has all but vanished, and both the BJP and the Congress have broadly similar economic policies, regardless of the rhetoric around them.
And as someone said, when it comes to the idea of our choices being controlled, we are all liberals. And when it comes to preserving values we hold dear, we are all conservative.
So it just doesn't make sense to use the terminology of 'left-wing' and 'right-wing' to describe the Indian media. It is better to put the Indian media into three buckets:
- 'Fake news' media. This includes the ecosystem of media organizations and Facebook Pages that push out made up reports. Postcard News is an example.
- Pro-government media. This category accounts for most news organizations in India. They're either enthusiastic supporters of the current government or have been forced to become supporters through direct and indirect forms of control. (Some media organizations say that they are not supporters of the government. Rather, they are driven by the idea of more nationalistic India.)
- Independent media. Also called the watchdog media. This is a rare species and for now, mostly restricted to the internet where they can't easily be controlled by the government.
(Towards the end of the piece, I briefly discuss an effort at a multi-criteria analysis on the topic of 'left' and 'right'.)
3. But they're sharply critical of the government!
A core dharmic principle of journalism is to make the powerful accountable, and journalists do this by asking questions of politicians to justify their actions. Or as we like to put it, "speak truth to power".
So by its very nature, journalism is anti-establishment, and when you ask a journalist to do the opposite, their work becomes PR.
4. VIA: Three pillars of good journalism
A useful way to assess a news service's worth is the VIA framework, standing for Verification, Independence and Accountability.
Verification refers to the process of checking whether a piece of news or a claim is true or not. A good journalistic organization will check and double-check before publishing.
Independence is the freedom from any governmental or corporate control.
Journalists, like all humans, make a lot of mistakes. Most mistakes are caught before the reporting is published. But even so, blunders creep into published copy more often than you might think. This is where, the third pillar, accountability comes in. When a news organization acknowledges its mistakes, or updates news stories without erasing their mistakes, they are accountable.
Sometimes, you find these lines at the bottom of an article, "In an earlier version of this piece, we reported that…It has since been updated." This shows that the media organization is accountable.
From their record, all four websites are independent. They verify before publishing. When they do inevitably make mistakes, they own up to them.
5. Still, aren't these websites biased?
I want to draw a distinction between 'values' and 'bias', and our tendency to confuse one for the other. The press has certain enduring values. They also have inbuilt biases. (There isn't any such thing as objective news.)
As Matthew Pressman notes in his book On Press, these values can be political values, such as "mistrust of the wealthy and powerful, sympathy for the dispossessed, belief in the government's responsibility to address social ills."
There are also journalistic values, such as "beliefs that journalists must analyze the news, must serve the readers, must try to be evenhanded. These values are not designed to serve any ideological agenda." (Emphasis mine.)
The press is also prey to biases. These include unconscious biases (such as confirmation bias) and certain structural biases. The journalist and media commentator Brooke Gladstone lists some biases in her comic:
- New-ness bias - the preference for anything that is new.
- Bad news bias - the tendency to highlight bad news.
- Access bias - the tendency to cozy up to powerful people.
- Visual bias - the tendency to prefer dramatic pictures.
- Narrative bias - the tendency for the media to find heroes and villains to every story.
- Fairness bias - the tendency to include the 'other side' even when it isn't warranted.
These values and biases apply to any media organization, but anecdotally speaking, Scroll, The Wire, The News Minute and The Quint are driven by certain universal journalistic values. While they do fall prey to biases, they strive towards journalistic values.
Bottomline: We shouldn't be quick to label them.
To sum up, the next time someone asks me or you a question about the reliability of these news organizations, this crisp summary might be useful:
"There are five or six reasons why you can't say these media organizations aren't left or right. One, they launched only after the BJP government came to power. Two, left and right is subjective based on economic, political and social lines. Three, you can't anyway apply this left-right, liberal-conservative framework to India. Four, the media's dharma is supposed to be anti-establishment and questioning of power. Five, it is better to think of the media in India as either independent and accountable, or pro-government, or as purveyors of fake news. And six, news organizations are driven by certain values, such as mistrust of the powerful and also unconscious biases.
So you should definitely read them regularly and help them continue to be accountable by spotting any mistakes you might find."
Postscript: Since I work at BOOM, it would be remiss if I didn't say a few words about our work.
Since our focus is on fact-checking and busting fake news, we understand that the burden of proof is even more important than before. That's why we follow the IFCN Code of Principles for every fact-check we publish. What this means is that we not only tell you what our conclusion is, but we also tell you how we came to it. The idea is that readers can follow our methodology and come to the same conclusions.
Our journalism then is closer to the scientific method than traditional story-driven journalism.
If you would like to support us with a financial contribution, here is the link.
Post-Postscript: In 2017 and 2018, I participated in an exercise led by my then colleague Nasr ul Hadi, an ICFJ Knight Fellow. The idea was to create a 'Media Credibility Grid', and Nasr provided a framework for a fellow colleague, Cyril Sam to finish.
On the X axis, the categories ranged among Unreliable, Extreme, Moderate and Neutral for both left and right. And on the Y axis, the categories ranged from Complex, Analytical and Standard to Sensational and Unreliable.
But eventually we dropped the idea. Speaking to me over the phone this week, Nasr who runs Proto, a media development startup, said, "In the end there were too many factors to take into consideration. The nuances are far too complex for a two-dimensional model." Nasr also stated that depending on their perspective, people will likely move a particular media organization either one step to the left or right.
Yet another issue, he said, was that it was difficult to apply this grid to large media organizations which contain different types of journalists and journalism across sub-brands. He gave me permission to share this grid (with all the names removed). Here goes:
Statement of transparency: I worked at The Quint for a year as Editor, News in 2015-16. I have written for Scroll and I've been part of organizations that did partnerships with The Wire and The News Minute. Here's a statement of my values.
Note: This piece was originally published on our Substack website.