Man’s craving for news is always as great as the desire to listen to stories. Both arise from a common desire to know what is novel. Perhaps for this reason there is always a tendency to make facts stimulate fiction and for fiction to disguise itself as fact.
The men who meet together in the market-place, the women who gather at the village fair are all actuated by a secondary motive,—that of collecting news through gossip and hearsay. Editing them suitably we get news. In the dark pre-newspaper period of human history, the pilgrims from a distant region, or the carriers of government orders, men whose duties compelled them to pass from one village to another,—were courier or bearers of news, and sometimes they were very quick and efficient at that.
The invention of the printing press created conditions that could satisfy this primitive affection for news in a more systematic way. With the wonderful improvement of the mean6 of communication, the countries and messengers of news also have become prompt and news agencies, like the Reuter, France-Press, the Havas, Tass, Domei, Stefano, Tanjug. Etc. are now instant sources and suppliers of news items. News began to be printed and sold forthwith. And with news also views.
You cannot disseminate an item of information without expressing directly or by implication, your views thereon. And so newspapers became not news-carriers only, but creators and instructors of public opinion also. As democracy developed, the need for this became paramount.
We can measure the importance of newspapers in the modern world if we realise the mechanical speed of a newspaper-production. At the close of the 19th century the average circulation of a newspaper was near about a thousand; today a popular Indian newspaper is subscribed by more than a lakh of readers; in America and Russia a newspaper is read by millions daily and what they daily read, they naturally come to believe and accept. In this way, opinions are formed and movements are created silently but irresistibly.
A newspaper today plays a vital role in the society. For it furnishes information in terms of which not only are democratic nations governed but the vast majority of the people regulate their thoughts and mould their opinions.
A newspaper today is a potpourri of many things, carrying all necessary information for the busy man ready at hand. It is a daily guidebook. “It is a book, pulpit, a platform, a forum—all in one. And there is not an interest — religions, literary, commercial, scientific, agricultural or mechanical—that is not within its grasp.” It may be described as “the people’s university”, for most people have little leisure to read anything else.
And it is, for many, the one medium that gives daily recreation. For a hard-worked man, after a day’s toil, there is nothing like reading an entertaining newspaper. It relieves his home of its dullness and monotony. It brings him in touch with livelier scenes. At the same time, it gives him something to think of and discuss, besides the mechanical drudgery of his work-a-day life.
Few things create a greater sense of vacuum in a day than a newspaper that could not be read. Yet a newspaper has its bad side as well. Because it serves a not-too-educated public and must seek their patronage, it may develop a tendency to serve unenlightened tastes. Furthermore, keen competition and rivalry lead to a desire to be breezy and sensational at the sacrifice of higher moral and intellectual qualities.
In this way yellow journalism, including in scandalous gossips, developed. It fosters in the average reader unhealthy desire for startling and sensational information. It thrives on social scandals, back stage intrigues, spicy gossips, and even sordid anecdotes from private lives that are in bad taste to relish.
A newspaper is bound to be superficial in all matters and deal with every thing under the sun with a show of authority. This does not help deep thinking. It has been well said that “to have to think about forty things in fragmentation in ten minutes is bound to be bad for the mind”, for it creates an inability to concentrate, and is “inimical to poise, self-control, sustained reading.” And when these “forty things” are culled from the by-ways of life, the result can be imagined. Unfortunately, Television programmes today are catering to such low and superficial taste and trivialization.
A more serious defect for a newspaper is to suppress news, car to display tendentious headlines, or to edit reports with suitable omissions and suppressions in support of either a line of policy or the interest of a party. It is the sacred duty of editors to try to be as factual as possible, to give due representation to all aspects of news and views.
The editors may doctor views only in the interest of truth. Informed and reasoned articles and discussion on either side of a question should be published, leaving the reader to form his own judgement. But why the views of one man, or of a board or a corporation, offered as ‘editorials’ should enjoy a privileged position is not very clear.
Of course, a prosperous newspaper can counteract these to a large extent because it has the competence to later to a higher and broader treatment of social values—of literature and art, or scientific discovery and personal adventure, of social improvement and political exposure. Its very reputation should enable it to be impartial and selective but as things are constituted, every newspaper is the organ not of a people but of a class, and a judicial impartiality is not possible.
An educated, critical body of readers alone can enforce certain standards of taste, decency and impartiality on newspapers. ‘A good newspaper is always sensitive to enlightened opinion’ and the ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns are meant to gauge the public mind in prism through the opinions as expressed by readers.