Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Yes, Justice Katju, journalists today do need minimum qualifications

I may not agree with some of the pronouncements made by the chairman of the Press Council of India. But I think Justice Markandey Katju was spot on with his recent comments on the issue of minimum qualifications for journalists.

Twenty years ago, or going even further back, it was perhaps enough to be literate and have an interest in reading and writing to become a journalist. And becoming a journalist in those days usually meant joining a daily newspaper. Which is what I did after obtaining a B.Sc. degree — I became a trainee sub-editor with Mumbai's Mid Day in June 1981. Like many journalists of the era, I "learnt" on the job. Of course, it helped that my father was a journalist, with PTI, so I had been introduced to some of the principles of journalism at an early age. It also helped that, at Mid Day, I had some wonderful colleagues who were willing to teach me before thrusting editing and page-making responsibilities on me.

Today, journalism is much, much more competitive. Today, journalism is much, much tougher with newspapers and TV news channels and online news sites all engaged in a race for audiences and advertisers. The old-school-type of journalism will not work today. If you join the editorial staff of a newspaper or magazine or TV news channel, you will not have the luxury of friendly colleagues and seniors taking time out to teach you the ropes. You will be expected to pull your weight from Day One. How will you do that if you have not been taught the necessary skills, if you do not have the minimum qualifications expected of someone who wants to become a journalist? (Full disclosure: I teach journalism at a media college in Bangalore.)


As V. Gangadhar writes in The Hindu today...

"Yes, learning on the job is fine, but how? A cub reporter assigned to cover a major event would not know how and where to begin or end. On the desk, can an untrained sub-editor cut a long story to its required length, provide subheads and give a suitable, catchy heading?"

Exactly. So why are so many old-school-type journalists annoyed with Justice Katju? I can't understand it. And neither can Gangadhar:

Will the journalists who made snide comments on the Katju remarks appoint young people without previous experience in their publications or channels?

Gangadhar makes one other point that I am wholly in agreement with:

[Journalism] schools must improve. Mumbai University granted affiliation to dozens upon dozens of BMM and BMS departments without caring to examine whether they had any kind of infrastructure, like library facilities, classrooms and qualified teachers. After a couple of years, the university, in its wisdom, abolished entrance tests and decided that applicants to these courses should be admitted on the strength of their standard 12 marks, completely ignoring the fact that the cramming habits [encouraged in] and inflated marks awarded by junior colleges are not enough to judge the different needs of a journalism course.

Read Gangadhar's enlightening column in its entirety here: "Indian journalism at ground zero".
  • Senior journalist Bala Murali Krishna, who now works as a financial writer and blogger, commented via e-mail:

    With the (needless) debate having been started, I would say this:

    Do we need better educated, more knowledgeable, more independent and more ethical journalists?

    The answer is a resounding yes.

    Do we need a state-sponsored (or privately sponsored) organisation to specify educational qualifications for journalists or issue any form of certification?

    The answer is a resounding no. Look at what we have done with Medical Council of India, which, in theory, should be far easier to regulate.

    Also, is stipulation of minimum qualifications or certification the way to raise the quality of journalists?

    Highly debatable.

    Bala Murali Krishna 
  • Shagorika Easwar, who was my colleague at Khaleej Times, and who now runs two popular magazines (Desi News and Canada-Bound Immigrant) in Toronto, Canada, also commented via e-mail:
I concur! Totally! You know I learnt on the job, too, but then I had you to run to with doubts. It was also a slower, gentler pace when we didn't feel compelled to project a know-it-all attitude. It was okay to ask questions and have a senior journalist guide you. Unlike today, when the competition is so fierce that no one wants to risk saying they don't know something. In the process, they forget that they risk displaying their ignorance to a much larger audience. Case in point: Sunetra Choudhury reading the news on NDTV the other day described a meeting as "inclusive". The word she was looking for was inconclusive! But then there are journalism schools and then there are journalism schools. Also, to be fair, the onus is on the student to actually learn and benefit from what is being taught. I get e-mails and submissions from recent journalism grads with the most bizarre sentence construction and grammar.


  1. Thank you for posting this, Sir.

    It's such a controversial topic among journalists.

    You and I constantly talk of even journalism profs are ridiculed in our newsrooms.

    The truth is... I'm appalled by the atrocious questions in any given press conference these days. There's no depth, no preparation, and it scares you at how the press is being taken for a royal ride by large corporations because of the lack of good quality, good journalists.

  2. At a time when everything is dumbed down, they want to dilute journalism, too?
    Even professional writers make mistakes. What would happen to journalism if the unsung breed of copy editors didn’t painstakingly correct stories and make them fit for publication? They are already an endangered species. What would happen if untrained media persons who can easily be manipulated were let loose on TV channels?

  3. Í agree that it is no longer possible to learn on the job. You are absolutely required to possess at least some skills that will help you make sense of the madness that is part of journalism these days and help you cope with spontaneity that is so important to all working professionals. But it is definitely possible to improvise on the job.


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