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Do journalists need an education?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari had the media aflutter with a proposal that those wishing to be journalists should first pass an exam before they are granted a licence to be reporters.

Tewari presumably believes the quality of Indian journalism has plummeted, and that this deterioration can be stemmed through a license system. Obviously, he thinks journalism has the same mould as the medical and legal professions, their practice crucially dependent on mastering a specific body of knowledge.

I have yet to come across a journalist who has an office to which people troop to have their ideas of governance or society refined, and paying a fee in return. Journalists are, to use the cliché, the watchdogs of democracy. They are the muckrakers, they hold a mirror to society, they educate as well entertain. Their oeuvre necessarily combines the kitsch and the sublime. They are the medium through which the nation converses with itself.

Might not better-educated, better-trained journalists help the nation to converse with itself in more meaningful, efficacious ways? Theoretically, yes. But, do educated politicians make better leaders and parliamentarians? Yes, you are likely to say.

Shocking as it may sound, better-educated MPs in India don’t necessarily improve its productivity. Here are some facts about the Indian Lok Sabha, culled from the impressive database of PRS Legislative Research, an independent, non-partisan organisation.

In the First Lok Sabha, 23 per cent of members were not even high school graduates, as against just 3 per cent of members in the current one. Yet, at its dissolution, the First Lok Sabha completed 677 sittings and passed 333 bills. By contrast, the current Lok Sabha, till 20 August, has had 322 sittings and adopted 152 bills.

Again, the 13th Lok Sabha is generally considered the most educated: only 3 per cent of its members were non-matriculate, 17 per cent were matriculate or high-school pass, a whopping 48 per cent were graduates – the highest ever in India’s parliamentary history – an impressive 27 per cent were postgraduates, and 5 per cent doctorates. However, it managed 356 sittings and passed 297 bills, not anywhere near the First Lok Sabha’s tally on these key performance indicators.

It was the Third Lok Sabha which was perhaps the least educated. Yet, it had 578 sittings and passed 272 bills, just 25 less than what the most educated MPs achieved. The skewed ratio between sittings and bills during the term of the best-educated Lok Sabha suggests that it hastily cleared its legislative business, a norm which has become increasingly reinforced over the last decade.

Might not education-quality correlation turn out skewed in journalism as well? What is good or bad journalism depends on your definition of quality. As far as the media’s role of being the watchdog of democracy goes, it is conceivable that erudite journalists could fail to point to or oppose executive overreach, the loot of the exchequer, or its dereliction of duty, just as better-educated parliamentarians have failed to acquit their responsibilities.

Indeed, the perceived crisis plaguing the Indian parliament and journalism isn’t a function of education as much as it is about conflicting ideas of ethics and norms. Even the most scholarly parliament would come a cropper until its members are inclined to debate and pass bills, or agree to the norms for its smooth functioning. Likewise, irrespective of the minimum qualification prescribed for journalists, the media’s watchdog-role as well its quality cannot improve unless its practitioners adhere to ethical standards and evolve a consensus over the norms binding them.

It wouldn’t require months of education to inculcate ethics in those wishing to be journalists. The problem lies elsewhere. In the media, as in politics, ethics and diligence are compromised because of the greed of the journalist. Again, more often than not, it is the party bosses who abet or condone those who transgress the standards of ethics in politics. Similarly, in the media, it is the proprietors who, to either earn inordinately high profits or for other ulterior motives, redefine ideas of journalism that unconscionably compromises its quality.

Even licenced journalists will still have a master to sing to. Their refusal to join the chorus will not depend on their education. No educational institute necessarily makes you sensitive to a guilty conscience.

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