From Objectivity to Openness: A Study of Digital Journalism in the 2019 Elections

The easy availability of digital tools, big data analysis, and online social networking platforms have brought about a transformation in India’s public sphere. In this paper, we present our findings from an ongoing research study of primarily non-mainstream journalism, and the use of digital tools in the coverage of elections in 2019. Our main argument is that as the boundaries of professional journalism have withered, a culture of openness, rather than objectivity, has emerged as the defining aspect of political journalism. This shift towards being more transparent, and direct can enrich news-making, particularly in terms of dealing with misinformation, and responding to trolls who often act on behalf of party political agenda. However, as yet, few organisations seem prepared for training journalists in coping with the challenges of abuse and exclusions that are exacerbated during the election period.

The easy availability of digital tools, big data analysis, and online social networking platforms have brought about a transformation in India’s public sphere. While attention has been rightly drawn to the negative impact of digital platforms on democracy, both as modes of unprecedented mass propaganda and hate speech, it is also important to think about the impact of digital technologies on legacy media institutions, as well as on the non-mainstream journalism. The General Elections 2019, presented an opportunity to explore how digital technology can help newer forms of journalism to remain critical and independent, and resist the mediocrity of the more institutionalised mass media system.

In this paper, we present our findings from an ongoing research study of primarily non-mainstream journalism, and the use of digital media in the coverage of elections in 2019. Our findings are to be understood in light of the intense polarisation and use of mass disinformation campaigns during these elections. In theoretical terms, the paper takes a sociological approach to understand the evolving norms of reporting and engagement in journalism and relate these to the ongoing social, technological and demographic transformations. It is at the intersection of cultural and technological change, using the framework of ‘millennial India’ (Udupa et al 2019), that we seek to evaluate the functioning of the press in India during the recent elections.

Our main argument is that the boundaries of professional journalism in India have become even more contested, and a culture of openness, rather than objectivity, has emerged as the defining aspect of journalism in the digital era. There has been a shift in the norms and behaviour of younger journalists who seem to be more open and positive about engaging with digital and online social media, and at the same time, seek to redefine the ethics and politics of truth-telling. This shift away from objectivity should not necessarily mean a decline or a lack of autonomy, in fact, as a new generation of journalists took to reporting on the elections in 2019, it can revive a debate on the issue of what autonomy would mean in the digital era. 

Independent journalism in Millennial India

As surveys of digital media use during the General Elections 2019 confirmed, the youth in India have the highest usage of smart mobile devices in the country (CSDS 2019). The figures show that smartphone usage is over 60% among the “millennial” (especially 18–25) age group, which is twice as high when compared to the older demographics. While several political and media organisations try to use the digital space in a positive way, concerns have also been raised about the misuse of digital technologies by those in power. As one opposition party argued, WhatsApp is an “echo chamber of all unmitigated lies, fakes and crap in India,” in short, “a toxic cesspool”  (Murgia, Findlay and Shchipani 2019).

The technological change, and concomitant shift in social and demographic profile of the internet, makes it imperative to explore how these might enable the press and marginal news organisations to revive the democratic potential of the press in India. In the context of the political and economic globalisation since the 1990s, media scholars have identified a decline in this role, with the malaise ranging from financial and economic corruption in electronic news media (Saeed 2015). Equally serious fallibilities in terms of gender and caste inequities persist across the field of journalism in India (Ashraf 2013, Oxfam 2019). We aim to understand how these exclusions and discursive silences are occurring in the context of millennial India, where WhatsApp and Twitter are increasingly central to day-to-day journalism.

In the context of digitisation and journalism, while the focus has been on the emergence of “interlopers” and “accidental journalists” (Elridge 2016), few have studied the impact of new media and online social networking on non-mainstream journalism in India. In our study, conducted since March 2019, we unpack these transformations in the non-mainstream, and more "independent" digital news media outlets. New media outlets such as Quint, Wire, and have already won awards and accolades, but there is little understanding of the strategies and practices that can allow digital news media to avoid the traps that exist in mainstream press and electronic mass media. 

While the caste and class homogeneity evident in mainstream media is likely to be sustained in the English-language digital press, the elections 2019 did present a vantage point to map the variety that exists within the emerging field, both in terms of ownership and the cultures of news-making. In the course of our study, we came across a range of entrepreneurial as well as activist media websites that managed to become relevant players in the political public sphere. To narrow our search, we interviewed journalists working with digital new media outlets that successfully draw at least 10,00,000 views per month on their websites as well as related YouTube channels.

Our analysis is based on interviews and a survey conducted in all these categories of digital news media, with the survey sample consisting primarily of journalists in three media organisations representing each one the three categories we defined earlier. The survey includes 32 journalists with the average age of 28 years. Of these, a majority were upper-caste Hindus, but several individuals did not self-identify with any religion or caste. More than half of our respondents were women, and one digital news organisation had a woman editor at its helm. Based on the responses with the journalists and news producers who worked in them, we categorised these into three distinct institutional frameworks; each representing a particular iteration of digital news media in millennial India. 

In the first category were the non-mainstream legacy media organisations, which now have active digital media outlets. We found that they maintain highly professional and well-defined norms of social media use, following what we see as a strict "ethical first” code in their use of digital tools and platforms. A second category that we discovered corresponded to the more smaller media organisations, whom we identify as “digital activist” news media organisations, since they defined their independence more in terms of being opposed to corporate ownership besides being actively resisting the agenda pushed by the corporate media that has come to affiliate itself with the Hindutva regime in power in 2019. Finally, we met journalists from organisations that could only be identified as "digital first", given their belief in the novelty of digital technologies, both as a site to develop story ideas as well as a means for connecting with readers online.

Sourcing News Online: Open to New Ideas

The first issue we explored in our research was the sourcing of news, and how digitisation has transformed news gathering, and agenda setting practices for journalists. In fact, it needs to be emphasised that in terms of setting the "news agenda," a distinction indicated by new and old media is not so obvious. We found that traditional newspapers are still valued in the digital era, with most respondents arguing that this was the first thing they read before discussing the issues to cover in their own outlets. As the following graph shows, newspapers with their wide range of news election coverage are ahead of the other media in terms of setting the news agenda, defining "what is news" even for those working in independent, digital media outlets. 

Figure 1: Relevance of different kinds of media in looking for sources for journalists. 

Figure 1: Which media is most important for sourcing news ideas?

The agenda setting role of social media seems equally important. When we asked our respondents if opportunities such as "Direct Messaging" (on WhatsApp or Twitter) enabled news insights unavailable offline, very few agreed that that online media could replace the actual work of sourcing from the ground. Moreover, rather than landing "scoops," online sources are increasingly a source of disinformation. When we asked respondents about their experience online and reliability of news via DMs (direct messages) and other unconventional affordances of social media, a majority of them agreed that misinformation was a “routine” part of their online feeds.  As Figure 2 shows, during the 2019 elections, misinformation features prominently in the social media feed of journalists.

Figure 2: Frequency by which journalists receive misinformation online.

However, in millennial India, digital journalists no longer ignore such trends. Instead, they use social media for exposing the rumour-mongering that is often carried out at the behest of political parties, and passed on uncritically as news in the mainstream media. As one journalist covering general elections in Maharashtra for a digital legacy outlet told us, “Whatsapp we use only for mythbusting (sic)," indicating that rather than a source of news, social media is often a site for evaluating the public discourse. Digital journalists are using WhatsApp to cross-check facts about a story as well as to discredit factually incorrect information. This emphasis on exposing "fake news" was evident across digital media organisations we studied with one newsroom hiring a professional fact-checker who could verify a WhatsApp forward in-house and publicise it to their audiences online. 

From Press Clubs to Social Networks 

Another change that has made journalism culture more open, in terms of demonstrating the process of deciding “what is news,” and in building a culture of solidarity, is the growth of online social networking on public platforms. Traditionally, statutory media institutions like the Press Council of India were meant to keep up “standards” of reporting, and socialise journalists to a culture of objectivity. With the emergence of online socialisation, we witnessed that such clubs are becoming less relevant, with journalists networking on platforms like Twitter to keep track of the work of their peers. Almost everyone we spoke to said older routines have broken down, and that social media is central to their professional life in journalism.

Here again, we notice that hierarchies that defined old media institutions have not entirely vanished, but there is a shift towards more public engagement online. This was particularly the case for digital journalism initiatives by non-mainstream legacy institutions that seeks to gain newer audiences online, which they could not in the print or electronic media. A respondent from one such an organisation told us about the continuation of "Chatham House" style norms that now apply on WhatsApp groups, and the way editors trained in legacy media system hold key "admin" controls over internal discussions. In the case of the more activist and non-legacy digital organisations, however, we found much more openness to experimentation, with fewer controls on individual autonomy in deciding which group to join or whom to follow online. 

When we asked our respondents to identify the reason “they are likely to follow another journalist online,” say on a public platform such as Twitter, the most common answer was personal admiration. In fact, “personal acquaintance” was the second major reason, both these factors coming ahead of concerns such as keeping up to date with competition or track of the latest news. This personalisation marks a further shift in the journalistic field, away from the institutionalised, and often hierarchical norms of socialisation that prevailed in an earlier era. With the growth in online social networks, often visible to the public, hierarchies have become less strict.

To be sure, most of our respondents agreed that some degree of exclusivity still exists online, for instance, on WhatsApp groups formed by reporters covering the “election beat.” But, most felt that such norms are less desirable and feasible in the digital era. With Facebook, “friends” becoming crucial sources for sharing information cues, and WhatsApp increasingly becoming a site for fact-checking, news reporters and editors try and maintain multiple “weak ties” with different groups even as they struggle to develop the in-house capacity to take on the challenge of misinformation. In the election period, digital activist and digital-first sites were, again, more open to use WhatsApp groups, while legacy media sought to maintain exclusivity. “I was a part of a number of them,” a senior editor from a legacy media organisation told us, adding “I now try and intentionally come out of all of them.”

Nonetheless, on an average, a digital journalist or news producer has around 50–100 WhatsApp groups active on their phone numbers. These affordances can transform the field of digital journalism, with interpersonal socialising giving way to more “networked” group interactions within organisations, and even more so beyond it. The openness to joining and quitting WhatsApp groups was a defining feature of journalism in 2019 elections, also making it harder for political party groups to carry out their propaganda. This  could be crucial to maintaining journalistic independence in the age of abusive online trolling. 

Millennial Spirit: Open for Debate, but Not for Abuse

Besides openness in news gathering and social networking, the third important trend we explored was the extent to which journalists were sharing their stories and engaging with their online audiences. This trend was visible across various digital media organisations, including legacy media, as well as the digital first and activist online news media. The primary reason was not just feedback but engagement, and as the following Graph 3 shows, building wider readership was the primary reason cited by digital journalists with a third of all journalists we met. 

Figure 3: Primary reasons why the interviewed journalists post on social media.

However, in a deeply polarising election season, such openness also meant more online abuse. In fact “abusive” comments were cited as the most common form of response by readers by almost half of all our respondents, while “constructive feedback” and “congratulatory comments” were cited by fewer in comparison. So, even as journalists are moving online, and seeking to engage with their audience, they are also likely to be at risk of being abused. Importantly, few journalists working in digital media environment are prepared to deal with the threats that their work raises online. None of the organisations we surveyed formally required journalists to either have separate social media accounts, nor did they  train them to deal with crisis scenarios.

In our study, we found more women working in digital newsrooms than men. Many of them faced routine abuse online. Nonetheless, rather than ignore it, many of them were prepared to take on the challenge of politically motivated trolls, adopting an open strategy, rather than shutting down the debate. While most of them favoured using existing reporting mechanisms provided by various social media platforms (it was cited as the most common response), blocking the abusive person was another option that was adopted by digital journalists. One commonality among the response across the independent digital media we studied was that “not bothered” was not a solution to abuse. Abuse has failed to serve as a deterrence. As women journalists working with the activist digital news site argued, “retaliation” could be the best strategy.

However, not a single one of our respondents spoke of taking “legal action” as a primary response. This corresponds to other studies that look at different strategies adopted by women who have an active presence on social media, and end up receiving a lot of hate and online abuse in the process. 

In conclusion, we can see that while digital technologies have opened news media towards more engagement, with an exception of a few organisations, viz Wire, there is little in terms of offering more support to the younger journalists who traverse social media for sourcing news as well as public engagement. Perhaps as the field of digital media expands, and democratises further with the participation of diverse caste and class of workers, digital media organisations would also evolve norms for public engagement. Newsrooms also need to think about commenting policies enforced for people logging onto their websites.  


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