Noting that "all is not well with the media", former President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday pointed to "orchestrated, out-of-context and motivated reporting for partisan agendas" and called for self-correcting measures to check such irregularities as well as paid news.
Delivering the annual "Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture" organised by Editor's Guild of India, he said in times when distinction between views and news, opinions and objectivity is fast blurring, media organisations cannot compromise in their basic role of being watchdogs of society as they must not criticise for the sake of doing so and should not become "mouthpiece" of the government.
He said it is the responsibility of the media to ensure that ideas are debated dispassionately and thoughts articulated without fear or favour so that opinion is always well informed.
The former president said it is "incumbent upon you as a society of newspapers, periodicals and media organisations to weed out such aberrations" that might have crept into the functioning of the media.
"It is distressing how some publications these days have resorted to 'paid news' and other such marketing strategies to drive their revenues. There is need for self-correcting mechanisms to check such irregularities. The temptation to 'dumb down' news should also be resisted.
"Today, the nation faces critical challenges that go well beyond the pressure of 'breaking news' and immediate headlines in a discourse alternatively dominated by social media. While you must continue to be effective raconteurs, you must never ever lose sight of the singular talisman of truth and nothing but facts. You are after all the crystal ball that millions of Indians gaze at," he said.
Mukherjee suggested that the media must be keepers of the conscience of the country, it should be active participants in continuing endeavour to nurture a democratic republic committed to achieving justice and fundamental freedoms for all citizens with journalists bringing to public notice the array of ills and deprivations that continue to beset large numbers of the people - be it malnourishment, continuance of discriminatory practices against sections of society, or the ongoing crisis, or the burdens and tragic consequences of indebtedness.
They must shape and influence public opinion even as they provide objective and balanced coverage of news, he said.
"I will be failing in my duties as an Indian citizen, if I do not point out that all is not well in the media industry. Selective, orchestrated, one-sided, out-of-context, or motivated reporting and display, aimed at pushing the partisan agendas of one group or the other, cannot or should not ever be the nature and character of journalism. Whatever is one's personal belief, or ideological positioning, Journalist, like civil servants can never let their biases colour the news that is being reported," he noted.
"We are living in times when the essential distinction between views and news, opinions and objectivity is fast blurring. While media organisations cannot compromise in their basic role of watchdogs of our society, polity and economy, at the same time they cannot criticize just for the sake of criticizing. Similarly, in the name of highlighting 'positive news', they cannot become the mouthpiece of the government or a corporate house," he said.
Mukherjee said the media has an important role to play in cleansing public life, but to undertake this role, the conduct of media itself should be above board.
"It must be always be kept in mind that ends and means are both important. The highest standards of ethics must be maintained at all times. Sensationalism should never become a substitute for objective assessment and truthful reporting. Gossip and speculation should not replace hard facts. Every effort should be made to ensure that political or commercial interests are not passed off as legitimate and independent opinion," he said.
He said if the media believes in the freedom of expression, a free and a fearless independent media, it must choose to reflect a "plurality of opinions" for that is what breathes life into our democracy and has defined us as Indians.
Mukherjee said India is not just a landmass of 3.3 million square kms, a population of 1.3 billion, a land of seven major religions and 122 languages, but one under one Constitution, one system and with one identity.
"That identity can never be lost, can never be allowed to be destroyed and if we destroy it, there will be nothing left of what is known as India," he said.