The Press Council of India Chairman Markandey Katju has the knack of stirring up a controversy every time he says something. The latest being his move to set up a committee that will look into the need for minimum educational qualifications for journalists in the print medium.

A former Judge of the Supreme Court, Katju’s move has drawn the expected reactions from journalists and editors, all of them unanimously condemning the move as being outside the mandate of the Press Council and that if the decision is indeed implemented, it will erode the freedom of the press.

Unfazed, Katju has stood his ground and has called for a debate.

Is there anything wrong in what the Press Council Chairman has said? Coming as it does from the head of a statutory body, it immediately raises concerns about where it will lead to and whether it will result in a closer scrutiny of newspapers. But, Katju definitely has a valid point when he says that increasingly journalism is becoming more specialised and hence minimum educational qualifications are a must.

True, more journalism is learnt hands-on than from textbooks or in classrooms. A journalism qualification can at best provide a framework – teach the students the nuances of reporting, differentiate between what is acceptable and what is not, educate them on the finer aspects of libel and defamation, and make them aware of dealing with numbers in the case of business journalism. You still have to get your hands dirty and learn on the job. The best student may not turn out to be such a good journalist or vice versa.

One instinctively gets a feel for what’s news. That is why we talk about a “nose for news” – simply because whatever be the textbook definition, it is one’s natural instinct that guides one to the news point. It is a skill that is honed on the job, not taught in classrooms.

Editors and a few reputed journalists have pooh-poohed Katju’s idea saying that journalism can never be taught in a classroom, but only learnt on the field. One wonders why then do they flaunt their journalism degrees from international universities.

When a journalist, however well-informed or ill-informed he or she is, passes a judgement on some issue and expects the person or company in question to adhere to the highest possible standards, why should the journalist alone be exempted from any such minimum requirement. How many of the editors, especially in television channels, hire journalists based on their instinct rather than for their connections or for the journalism qualification the journalists flaunt from institutions that have built up a brand? Sadly, the journalists with instinct are those that do all the hard work without any recognition.

The more serious issue is a collective failure – rookie journalists with a degree or a diploma from some of the top institutions not willing to learn from their experienced seniors while in a news organisation and seniors are not prepared to spend time to teach the raw graduates, however unwilling the latter are. This again is due to the problem of expecting a cub reporter to break a major news story on the first day on the job or a trainee sub editor to conjure up a magical heading. Over time, they may prove themselves. But, in this age of instant gratification, does anyone have that time?

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