India’s union law minister Salman Khurshid’s press conference on Sunday to clarify and refute allegations of misappropriation of funds by his NGO leveled against him by a news channel (Aaj Tak from the TV Today group) ended up being an unsightly affair. The press conference convened by the minister, which could have been a rational and mature exchange between the minister and reporters giving the latter a chance to grill the minister sensibly while giving the minister a chance to put forth his case, was reduced to a raucous shouting match after a reporter from Aaj Tak decided to make it his personal battleground.
The visibly confrontational journalist kept cross questioning Khurshid aggressively, barely giving the minister a chance to answer or other reporters to ask their questions. Khurshid, who had started the briefing in a composed and systematically argued manner, eventually lost his cool.
The credibility of the charges and the truth of the allegations being a different matter altogether, the sense of entitlement and somewhat uncouth persistence of the reporter smacked of the arrogance and superficiality that has come to define the electronic news media in India today. The mushrooming of news channels has defied the theory that competition leads to greater quality, with the news content and presentation in most channels becoming over-the-top, simplistic and shrill. There are several issues plaguing the electronic news media in India today, and this column will focus on some of these gaps in the English language news channels (mainly NDTV, CNN-IBN, Times Now and Headlines Today).
To begin with, the greatest problem with these news channels is the lack of a proper demarcation between editorial views and factual news. Unlike newspapers, which have an editorial page where the publication can take and openly express its stand on any issue, news channels do not have any slots or space where they can articulate the channel’s editorial position. Hence, the channel begins to look for various outlets to indicate its stand and what ends up happening is an unfortunate mix of its own views and other content which ideally should be sacrosanct and purely factual or ‘outside opinion’.
For instance, reporters in their piece to cameras start articulating what they/their channel believes about a particular story; or anchors moderating discussions of experts begin to throw in their own stands and sometimes even favoring those with positions similar to theirs with more airtime. Both these are dangerous and against basic journalistic convention. Reporters should stick to conveying facts in news stories, and news anchors (meant to be neutral) taking stands while moderating a discussion is ethically questionable. In newspapers, on the other hand, most reportage is fairly factual and devoid of opinion (of course, there are exceptions) because all of the publication’s opinion goes in the editorials.
Similarly, the outside views, as presented in columns and op-ed pieces (by both external and in-house experts), are also usually free from the newspaper’s interference and bias. It is nobody’s case that journalism is an absolutely objective field; anywhere that humans are involved, a degree of subjectivity is bound to creep in. However, the difference in India’s print and TV news media is house this subjectivity is put forward.
Further, English news channels seem to have concluded there is only one type of audience. No news channel wants to create a niche or even acknowledge there may be a slightly different, perhaps quieter and more discerning section of viewers that would rather not watch hysterical, jingoistic and breathless news. Though to varying degrees, ‘sensationalism’ has become the key word for news channels.
Hence, when NDTV’s Barkha Dutt became the face of the slightly frenzied, hyper form of journalism (her coverage of the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai being the best example), CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai and his wife Sagarika Ghosh upped the ante to introduce an even greater degree of shrillness. Not to be left behind and wanting to cash in on the ‘same audience’ which apparently wants sensationalism, Times Now’s Arnab Goswami decided to become the news world’s very own version of Big Boss with his histrionics and banality.
While these channels do have a significant viewership and in many cases, such ‘sensationalism’ has indeed driven up TRPs (which can be questionable in their own way), it is hard to believe that a large, socio-culturally and politically diverse country like India has one homogenous audience that has an appetite for the exact same genre of TV news, albeit to different degrees. Newspapers are the best example of that diversity. On one hand, there is the blatantly commercial and ‘out-there’ Times of India and on the other, there are newspapers like the Hindu and Indian Express that stick to hard-hitting and serious journalism. While the TOI is undoubtedly the market leader, both Hindu and Indian Express have their own readerships—mainly the policymaking, political and bureaucratic world along with the intelligentsia. Each has created its own base and Hindu and Express have not upped the ante on sensational and ‘fun’ journalism just because TOI’s frolic-filled journalism has given it a larger base.
Another drawback with news channels is that somewhere down the line, the sanctity of reporters’ beats is compromised at the altar of the ‘TV star’ syndrome. Often, whenever a big story breaks, or a long-drawn affair culminates into an exciting finale, it isn’t the beat reporter who has been on the ground through-out and who has nursed the beat, who is allowed to come to the forefront, especially if it is a relatively young journalist. It is the star/stars of the channel who then take centre-stage, with the beat reporter feeding in information from the background. Often, this means the audience is supplied with news that gives less factual and account-based insights, but more of the star journalist’s opinion, bias and name-throwing.
The media is supposed to be the society/polity’s watchdog. However, what happens when the media is itself unaccountable? If a newspaper publishes an incorrect or shaky story (inadvertently), it is compelled to issue an apology or correction and inform the reader. But ever heard of a news channel publicly apologizing about any incorrect information? If the channel realizes it is broadcasting something erroneous, it simply changes or removes the text/ticker, without once bothering to clarify that it had (even if for a moment) put out something dubious. In the race to be the first to break a story or telecast some news, TV reporters often don’t have enough time to verify the information and the channel ends up conveying incorrect information.
India does not have a media body which has any serious powers of regulation. The Press Council of India is toothless at best. The problem with introducing a body that can regulate media is it may give the state an entry point to curb the media’s freedom. Having worked both in the electronic and print media in India, this columnist believes self-regulation is the best, most effective way to keep a check on the content of both forms of media, while giving it adequate space to operate without any nasty interference. However, while the print media in India seems to have reached a considerable level of maturity and self-introspection, the electronic news media still has a long way to go. When will news channels introduce a greater degree of sobriety, credibility and restraint in their content? As Arnab Goswami would have us believe each night while hyper-ventilating, ‘the nation wants to know’.