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CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

 

FROM THE DIRECTOR'S DESK
SEEMA MUSTAFA | 12 MAY, 2015

MAKING THE NEWS: THE TRANSGRESSIONS OF INDIAN MEDIA

The law catches up. At least it should. And cine idol Salman Khan is facing the heat, 12 years after in a clear case of drunk driving he ran across pavement dwellers, killing one and injuring four. He sought to escape the dragnet, by making his driver say that he was behind the wheel, but this did not convince the lower courts in Mumbai with Khan being convicted to five years of rigorous imprisonment.Khan is no stranger to the law, having behind bars in a poaching case earlier as well. He is a popular actor, and this in a way is a curse as it bring high voltage publicity to the case. As was visible this time around, when the world stopped for the television channels for whom it was Salman and more Salman, as if nothing else was happening in India or the rest of the world.

This obsession, does not work well for the target, with every movement by Khan and his family being recorded, commented upon, with cub reporters being turned into psychologists overnight and giving details about what a particular gesture meant, or could have meant. The reporting was bizarre to say the least.But this is how it is all the time with television channels. Life is dramatic, and news larger than life most of the time. There is an obsessive competition visible in the coverage, with reporters and anchors screaming into the microphones as they seek to make their views heard. News is views on television, and views that come at the viewer like a sledgehammer of a half informed, often over the top presentation. The anchor, particularly if he or she is of celebrity status, acts as the lawyer, jury and hangman ‘executing’ the victim before the courts have even started hearing the case.

There is this certain righteousness, a certain ‘I am more nationalist than any of you’, in the anchors who take a position and badger those on the other side in language that is rude and insulting. This was on display during the coverage of Khan’s trial, and is on display on a daily basis.Nepal, in fact, turned around and asked the Indian media displaying conquering zeal in the coverage of the devastating earthquake to get out. Go Home was the slogan that had Nepalese signing in thousands, with even friends of India like reputed journalist Kanak Dixit joining the outpour on the social media to ask the Indian scribes to go back home.

Television was following Prime Minister Narendra Modi in its usual overzealous fashion, with the coverage of the earthquake obsessively focused on the Indian rescue efforts. For the rest, there was the usual insensitivity that had the television reporters sticking mikes into the face of survivors and asking them how they felt in what was yet another gross display of what becomes vulgar coverage in more ways than one. The entire message was that make place, India has arrived, and the big brother will handle the calamity that the Nepalese clearly cannot even start doing so. Push became shove, and finally the traumatized Nepalese had enough and came together to tell the Indian media—and India per se—to get out of their country. Surely, this should be sufficient for introspection here in Delhi to understand what went wrong, and what correctives are required when covering disaster, and that too disaster in a foreign land.

Any and every one can become a reporter. That has been the beauty of journalism that does not look for academic qualifications, but throws a reporter into the field and assesses his or her prowess from there. But the difference is that before television, newspapers were run by solid editors, professionals who introduced that young reporter to a strict string of do’s and don’ts, a sort of code of ethics, that enveloped the learning on the ground. There was a beat system, starting with the general city reporting that honed the skills, and made the reporter conversant with the acceptable and the forbidden. After all journalism is all about compassion and sensitivity, just as it is about being ahead in the news, honesty, courage and a meticulous respect for facts.

Today in television the editors are chasing TRPs, and are first to violate the code, turning from the watchdog into a rabid dog at amazing speed.This has to change for the powerful medium to be responsive and informative, without being the jury and the hangman. This over fascination with talk shows every day, into the night, is extremely worrisome as it is pedaled as news but is little more than an ego massage for the anchor, who uses the show to demonstrate his or her ‘questioning’ (read screaming) skills on a daily basis. Short news documentaries, field coverage of social issues, and the like are not television fare with the ‘news’ as it is called bringing alive the ‘idiot box’ euphemism.

Watching television news should not be like, as the American satirist Bill Hicks said, “taking black spray paint to your third eye.”

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