The Naive and the Sentimental Journalist

For a long time, I have been thinking about writing this piece, for my other blog, Nothing to Declare, where I write mostly on music,. books, and culture. Though in terms of content, it belongs more to that blog, I did not put it there because of a promise that I had made to myself when I started that blog: that I would not write pure thoughts and reflections there but would highlight less discussed aspects in the above mentioned areas, with information and facts. Something that would help the readers to research further and add to our collective knowledge. This piece, as you will agree, does not exactly satisfy that requirement.

What do I mean by The Naïve and the Sentimental Journalist? Many of you would recognize that the beautiful headline is lifted and paraphrased slightly from the title of the Nobel Prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk’s book, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist. Pamuk himself borrows the words from a famous 18th century German essay by Fredrich Schiller, called Über naïve and sentimentalische Dichtung (On naïve and Sentimental Poetry). “The word Sentimentalisch in German used by Schiller to describe,” Pamuk explains, “the thoughtful, troubled modern poet who has lost his childlike character and naïveté, is somewhat different in meaning from the word sentimental, its counterpart in English.” Adds Pamuk, “Schiller uses the word Sentimentalisch to describe the state of mind which has strayed from nature’s simplicity and power and has become too caught up in its own emotions and thoughts.” The sentimental poet, according to Schiller, is exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses and the artifice involved in his endeavor.

The underlining is mine. Actually, it is this definition of the so-called sentimental—now that we have understood what it really means—poet that I apply to what I would like to call the sentimental journalist. If the English language meaning of that word bothers you too much, you can call him by any name, as long as you appreciate what I am saying: the journalist who is extremely concerned about how his work would be received and is exceedingly aware of the tools and techniques that he uses to influence that.

A journalist, of course, is no poet. And unlike the poet of the nature, he cannot be naïve and innocent. But here, I would urge the readers to equate, in their minds, the fundamental beliefs and values in journalism, to nature. And the journalists I refer to are the ones who are—or are expected to—stray away from these beliefs and values.

There are a very few universal beliefs in journalism, though how they are defined may vary. And they are complete loyalty to the reader, complete loyalty to the facts rather than a journalist’s own thoughts of what is right, and a simple and uncomplicated writing that would not conceal the facts. Every journalist knows these.

Over the years, there have been tools and techniques to beautify journalistic pieces to make them more appealing, to attract more readers and so on. But all along, the reader always remained supreme, even as what should be done with him—entertain, inform, educate, sensitize…—kept getting debated.

But of late, with some fundamental changes in the way information is reported and consumed, that basic belief is getting threatened. Even as the world, by and large, is celebrating the freedom for common people and the diminishing impact of the filters such as traditional media establishments because of the advent of Internet—and there are some very good reasons for that—this has led to dilution in certain basic assumptions about what to expect from media. Credibility is one example of that.

The raison d’être of this piece—however unfashionable, conservative it seems—is to sensitize about that credibility crisis and not at all to argue for the old order. The change Internet has brought about is, by and large, positive but it is not wise to overlook the issues that are/may be there.

The idea of this occurred to me when I heard a “new media” expert urging the young journalists in a training session to “forget the reader and write for the search engine”. Call me by any name, but I am unable to digest that, even after a few months of hearing it, and what with all the new developments happening in Internet and social media all around.

And his entire session was devoted how exactly to do that. To be fair to him, he just put it crudely enough to “shock” me. But increasingly, that is what many media organizations are trying to do, when they are trying to “reinvent themselves”–teaching young journalists to forget the concept of a reader. I remember one of the editors in my early days of journalism telling us to think about a real person while conceptualizing a feature and think how and why it would help that person.

We have drifted 180 degrees away when we say you do NOT need to worry about the reader. In fact, you need not bother who he is. What you should worry about is keywords, headlines, how many links you are putting, how you should have your headline—does not matter if it does not reflect what you are saying in the text below.

Pamuk’s (actually Schiller’s) Sentimentalisch novelist/poet is not doing it with an explicit objective that is anything other than appealing to his reader; but the new journalist is doing it to achieve some other objective—to compete, as many would proudly describe it.

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