The biggest news break this week is that the government is planning to levy a special technology cess on all those who have WhatsApp on their mobile phones.
As you can see, the biggest news break this week actually is: Fake News.
Fake news is getting very rampant and is even sneaking into respectable and dependable news sources like Crank’s Corner (motto: “Our news is unique because we just make them up.”)
While fake news may be a problem, people also have many misconceptions about the news industry, as they have little or no knowledge of how most newsrooms operate. So this week, I will try and explain how newspapers get the news to publish, in the hope that it will give you a better understanding of why most of you skip straight to the zodiac column.
First off, for any news to be reported, it has to be first found whether it is actually news-worthy or not. Newsrooms have very good established journalistic norms to decide that: The mood of the editors.
Okay, I’m kidding. But only just. News worthiness is decided by what is important to people and what they generally are interested in. And so you have the IPL, Tamil film industry strike, censoring of Kaala film, Salman Khan poaching case, tantalising picture of Stormy Daniels, Vadivelu memes — all things that people can’t do without —- get space on the newspaper in a manner that will readily catch their eye. Other stuff that people are not so keen to follow like rising fuel prices are confined to obscure corners, alongside Editorials.
News-gathering is the other pivotal aspect of print journalism. It is a highly skilled process that requires a lot of patience because it involves — you should write this down in a notebook for handy reference later — a lot of TV watching.
Allow me to elaborate. Since at today’s expenses, most newsrooms cannot afford to send reporters to places where news breaks happen, they follow who actually follow it.
The moment a news breaks, a section of the newsroom tunes into some news channel and starts tracking it on TV, while another set begins scrounging social media platforms for what people are saying about the same news break. (Twitter-tracking these days is a skill that can be put proudly on CVs). It is because of such an efficient system in place that when Sri Devi died in Dubai the main investigative story in most newspapers was: TV news guys are totally goofing up their coverage.
Another way by which news publications get news is through ‘news agency’ or ‘wire services’. There are agencies like Associated Press (AP), Reuters, Press Trust of India (PTI), United News of India (UNI). You would think, going by their names, that these are vast, efficient information-providing nerve-centres, but in fact they mostly comprise disgruntled, overworked, grumpy journalists hastily rewriting stories from foreign publications or by watching news television.
Wire agency reporters are also trained to focus solely on the newsy core, and in time their language and style acquires the efficiency of a government clerk. (“India today scored 235 for no loss at lunch as Australian bowlers toiled hard without any luck to tamper the ball and claim a wicket.”)
Amidst all the news break, the layout design team in the newsroom also comes up attractive illustrations and graphics that will completely distract the readers from reading any actual news on the paper.
Oh okay, we forgot to mention that newspaper reporters also cultivate their own ‘sources’ to generate news. Top journalists always build sources because when the news goes wrong they will have somebody else to blame. (‘My source mislead me’ is the newsroom equivalent of ‘dog ate my homework’ — you keep hearing it daily from someone).
Away from TV, wire services and sources, journalists also fall back on one well-honed method: News invention. They just make up things on the fly in a manner that no one will mind. Let me give you an example that is quite popular in the industry: A business journalist was pestered by his editor to give an ‘exclusive’ news story. The journalist, covering the automobile sector, left the office with the promise to come back with such a report, but he never managed to find one. While on the way back he, however, got a brainwave that to this day remains a source of inspiration to the entire journalistic fraternity. The automobile correspondent quickly hammered out his report titled: Ashok Leyland Not To Make Bicycles.
The Editor was happy that he had on his hand a ‘weighty’ story involving a big corporate. The Ashok Leyland guys, however, called in to say that they had never ever announced that they would be getting into bicycle manufacture. The next day the journalist put out another report: Ashok Leyland confirms this newspaper’s report on not manufacturing bicycles.
So, Fake News may be bad for journalism’s future. But it can be, on occasions, good for journalists’ future.