What Kind of Journalism Do I Want Now?

On 8 November 2016, the Government of India demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. As a citizen and consumer of news, what kind of journalism am I looking for now? What do I expect of journalists?

In a nutshell, informative reportage, non-speculative commentary, and news-you-can-use.

1. Good reportage

News reports that are informative and factual tell me what is happening beyond my locality. They help me make sense of my country and the world. Here is an example of good reportage on demonetisation: it sketches the changing scene in Tiruppur, a South Indian town known for its thriving garment industry. As a reader, what would I like to know more about?

Impact on different types of citizens

  • Has demonetisation affected different types of citizens differently? For example, how are the elderly meeting their needs? How have women in urban and rural areas changed their behaviour in the economy? Even within a category, are there variations in responding to the shock they have faced? My interest is not merely to know whether someone or some group welcomes demonetisation or not.
  • How are villagers, especially the poor, surviving in a slowed-down economy? What methods have they arranged to buy food? Has it increased their dependence on the rural rich?

Subversion by citizens

  • Are people being paid to stand in queue for others? Is that affecting the government’s efforts?
  • Is there illegal trading, hoarding, profiteering, in any city, town, or village? Who is doing it? Why is the government not clamping down on such transactions?
  • Are banks following RBI guidelines? Are employees under pressure to take shortcuts for key account holders?

The shift to e-payments

  • What do different groups (under-25 earners, elderly, self-employed women, salesmen, young professionals in private and NGO sectors) think of the shift to e-payments? Are people excited, seeing themselves as participants in a revolutionary move (from barter to cash, cash to electronic)? Do citizens fear that they will end up trackable by the government, or are they willing to bear it in the expectation that the entire system will be cleaner? Why are they willing to bear it — faith in the Prime Minister, out of frustration with the inequality they see, or…?
  • In cities and towns, why are people with bank accounts and debit cards standing in queue (to withdraw small denominations of cash) rather than buying from shops that accept card payments?
  • Why are citizens with smartphones and bank accounts not using e-wallets or UPI-based banking apps?
  • Why are small shopkeepers with bank accounts not accepting e-payments? What are their concerns?
  • Are distributors (between wholesale and retail) accepting e-payments? Why (not)?
  • Why are people without bank accounts not creating one now?
  • What are the plans/expectations of those whose trades/professions (e.g. politicians, criminals, jewellers) required black money in the past? Do they favour making all transactions electronic and trackable? What are their concerns for the future?
  • Are small shopkeepers open to shifting to an e-payment regime?
  • Are card and mobile payments kicking off in villages? How (or why not)?
  • In villages or towns, have political parties or youth organisations stepped in to raise awareness about creating bank accounts or using e-payments? Have they taken steps to pump-prime their local economy (e.g. get a few autorickshaw drivers to start accepting mobile payments, and establish forward and backward linkages for drivers [to their spending outlets — a petrol pump for fuel; a local grocer for domestic purchases])

2. Good commentary

With the central government tight-fisted in sharing information, it is understandably difficult to produce meaningful commentary. In these circumstances, good commentary can take the following forms.

  • If you have expertise in monetary economics, gather facts about the current decision (from good reportage, journalists, or reliable individuals), and write your considered opinion. For example, based on the RBI’s advice to the public to use non-cash modes, tell us your opinion on whether and why it is feasible (or not), your estimate of the time required for transition to less-cash economy, whether there is another (better!) way to achieve it, and any silver linings that you see (pressure on SBI to get on the UPI platform, speed up awareness raising by UPI). Write constructively, minimise polemics.
  • Write your independent opinion. Let party loyalists take potshots at, or bat for, any leader, party, or government; stay non-partisan and keep your focus on demonetisation. Monitor leaders and parties that interest you, but publish your judgement after 30 December (end of scheme).
  • Stay away from monetary economics if you do not have expertise in that domain. Instead, raise demands that you believe will help citizens cope with in the next few weeks. For example, demand that the government set up a professional, communication cell to speedily address queries from citizens. (Questions such as ‘How did Urjit Patel sign the new notes if the decision was taken six months earlier?’ probably satisfy only individual curiosity rather than help to curb black money, but promptly answering any query or doubt will allay fears and counter rumours. Also, if the government expects good journalism, it must be reminded that good journalism is not possible without reliable information.)
  • Whether an expert or not, demand that the government share the roadmap and timeline, and the mechanism envisaged, for achieving the stated objectives (‘to contain the rising incidence of fake notes and black money’). If the government refuses to share the details, say for the success of the scheme, please avoid speculating the roadmap, timeline, or mechanisms. Till 30 December (end of scheme), avoid judging or forecasting whether the scheme will succeed or fail. Uninformed evaluations are unhelpful; they can also mislead, spread panic, and make it difficult for the government to carry out the scheme effectively. Most likely, you do not have a quarrel with the government’s stated goals (reduce black money, curb fake currency, shift to cashless/less-cash economy). So, use your privileged access to mass media to help the government achieve its objectives.
  • Congratulate or criticise the central government and RBI after 30 December. The government can be judged not only on the outcomes (whether the objectives were met) but also every other aspect (including the plan, the implementation, and the pain caused). By 30 December, more facts would have come to light (on whether the government was prepared, what the government’s plan was, why it succeeded/failed, etc.) You will be in a better position to judge the actions of individuals or government. Your judgement would be valuable to others then — to reward or punish leaders, parties, and governments.
  • This sudden move (creating friction in the economy) is evidently a painful way to shift people away from cash. People dying in queues, people losing jobs or missing wages for days. Share your thoughts on how, alternatively, India can shift or could have shifted to an e-payment regime. Tell us about the shift to e-payments in other lands — has any country attempted to shift in such a forced manner? How are micropayments made for bus transport in cashless economies? By what process and when did villages in those economies shift to card/e-payments?
  • Tell us about the negative impact on the ground now, but avoid negative forecasts that are purely speculative. When a scheme is in motion (with variables changing every week), and you do not know what the government’s next steps are (i.e., things are unclear to you and the reader), forecasting is best avoided.
  • Avoid unconstructive criticism of government action. If you have a concern, do not create panic by straight away writing about it speculatively in a mass medium (newspaper, TV, website, or social media). If the government sets up a communication cell, pose the query there. Else, contact a journalist friend and request her to gather the facts first. Once you are convinced that the government has erred or overlooked, write an article or comment drawing attention to your solution.

3. Good news-you-can-use

For more than a decade, newspapers and TV have featured news-you-can-use as thinly-veiled promotion of new products from private companies. Demonetisation gives media outlets a chance to carry news-you-can-use for a public cause. Here is a good example, comparing the pros and cons of UPI and e-wallets.

  • Raise public awareness on different methods of e-payment — apps to use, what users should do in case of difficulties.
  • Invite suggestions from readers on how e-payment can be used by those without a mobile phone or smartphone. Also, invite suggestions for speedy implementation in villages and towns.
  • Write about how a village or locality shifted to e-payments this month, and the constructive role played by any political party or youth organisation.
  • Raise public awareness on creating bank accounts.
  • Raise awareness on card swiping — for example, the precautions to be taken regarding PIN.

Perspective

Usually in a democracy, and rightly so, the good journalists are watchdogs and maintain an adversarial relationship with those in power — exposing the corrupt and highlighting the government’s failures — to protect the interests of the weak. There are times when fighting the good fight requires journalists to collaborate with a democratic government temporarily.

Many of us like or dislike a political leader or party. Let that not cloud our perspective when the nation is required to do something collectively for a better future. (We can continue to like or dislike a leader or party after 30 December.)

I too do not know whether the demonetisation is a political gimmick or an economic masterstroke. But I am willing to put my best foot forward for a few weeks. I shall, with a clear conscience, reward or punish leaders and parties after 30 December. Will journalists help me by doing what is required of them now?