Yesterday - a very wet, very wintry Sunday in Delhi... can you imagine? - I was drawn into one of those interminable debates about the purpose of journalism, by a young man who is entering the field himself.
For him, the question was a newly pertinent one. This would be his first tryst with a mainstream media organisation, television news at that, and he was worried about the impact of his work. "Does it really make any difference to individuals... any meaningful difference?"
And of course, I said, "Of course!"
But this guy persisted; he asked me 'how' and 'why' and 'give me concrete examples'...
Do we impact individuals? Does that guy on the tapri where I sit, sipping chai, get impacted by my decision to make my living through journalism? How does my work affect his life?
Having been forced to think hard, I reiterated, "Of course!"
Look at a newspaper... any one of them.
About 40 to 60 percent of the space is taken up by advertisements or advertorials of some kind.
The rest is information.
It may not be about the guy on the tapri, or even be useful to him. It is information, nonetheless; and it is likely that at least half the buyers of any newspaper are interested in a given piece of information, even if they are neither affected by it, nor inspired, nor influenced, nor benefit from it.
The news can basically be good or bad.
If bad, it could be about a natural disaster (like the Tsunami); man-made horrors (like the Iraq war); administrative or political mismanagement (this would include dereliction of duty by government employees, failure to deliver on manifesto promises, failure to complete projects undertaken, scams, bribery, tax evasion); long-term failings (like violation of constitutional and/or human rights and failure to improve living conditions for the poor, oppressed and dispossessed); and finally, individual tragedies that amount to a certain degree of public grief (Amitabh Bachhan's near-fatal accident while shooting Coolie, or the death of MS Subbalakshmi or India not winning the Oscar for Lagaan.)
If good, the news could be about a personal victory that amounts to public celebration (India beating Pakistan during the cricket World Cup or Mike Pandey winning the Green Oscars); administrative or political accomplishment (Manmohan Singh becoming the Prime Minister, or PWD making world-class residential complexes, or the Delhi underground metro being competed); local initiatives by citizens and NGOs (the campaign for water-harvesting, or the formation of mohalla comittees, or the re-greening of a barren stretch of land); scientific inventions and discoveries (vaccines, fancy gadgets, new technology) and so on.
Often, the news is neutral; whether positive or negative, it remains to be seen. There is nothing good or bad about it, but we'd like to know, nevertheless. For instance, a new film is released; elections are held; an ambitious plan is made, to beautify flyovers in the capital; new sources of immigration are discovered; a new university is set up; an old institution closes down; sheep are cloned; bilateral talks are held.
The rest of the news is analysis of given situations - good, bad, ugly, colourless - in the country, the immediate vicinity, or across the globe. Some space is taken up by trivia and history. There are classfieds and there are special supplements, to cater to specific needs of education, career, environment, gadgetry, cars etc.
Other parts of a newspaper are interactive. In newspapers, there are quizzes, letters to the editor, writing contests and so on. On television, there are talk shows and the like.
So, back to the original questions - what are we doing for the average joe on the street?
We, the journalists, we telling him. We are giving him information. Which is tantamount to ammunition, assuming the average joe knows how to use it (even advertisements are information of a kind, and useful at that).
The guy on the tapri wants to know what's happening around him; probably, he realises it is important for his very survival, at some level. It is our job to give him enough information and explanation.
And what is the ultimate impact?
Well, look at the result of the almost-too-extensive media coverage of the Tsunami (there's been more aid than ever before; maybe, there's more than can be used right away)... Look at what happened when the Express carried out a media campaign against petrol pump allotments during the NDA regime.... Look at what happened when Tehelka did their sting operations. Look at what happened when Shwaas was nominated for the Oscars...
Everyone who was interested and could, did his/her bit - whether it was through contributions of time and money or through the casting of a single vote.
Oh yes, we have a job to do.