BHARAT KI KHOJ
NATION WANTS TO KNOW
“For how long we should keep quiet?”; “It is time that a lesson is taught!”; “INDIA should prepare for surgical strike”; #terrorstrikes #heroreturns; “Call Toll free number to send your condolences to martyrs”; “Vote, SMS W for War!” These were the voices that screamed across the nation in the late weeks of February and in early March of 2019.
Voices not from the streets; not from the people but from television screens of news channels anchored by experts and curated by self-proclaimed oracles of the country.
Is this about jingoism? Well, that is the apparent lens of debate but the larger question here is in fact about journalism. And it is more about the nature of news channels (and anchors) who operate not to bring to us news but deliver opinions across all fields – politics, sports, movies, culture, society and at times even household matters!
In the 1980’s classic movie – Ijaazat, the protagonist (played by Naseeruddin Shah) jokingly tells his wife (played by Rekha) how once he had been thrown out of a news anchor job because he delivered a news of a train accident, in a mournful manner.
Two decades down the line, the joke has really turned on us. For today the only element that these news anchors strive upon are their panache for the theatrics. Appearing almost like a stagecraft that has been rehearsed for public display.
The voices scream, eyes roll, hands flair, eyes turn mournful, and with great disdain they even discontinue in between as it suits them. All of this while the bottom and the top of the screen are decorated with flashes of ‘by lines’, pop-ups of photo clippings, sentences rolling as banners and within all that even an advertisement of which is the best educational college in the country. Most at times supported by a loud background score.A cursory look at a frame of any news channel is a direct reflection on how the idea of journalism and the notion of news have transformed so dramatically over the years in our country.
It was 1965, when television (then under AIR) first broadcasted a daily one-hour program with a news bulletin. The channel was called Doordarshan. And its news viewership - a nationwide ritual. However, as a public broadcaster it was often criticised for presenting news in a naturalised manner, with the ruling government having a strong hold on what was presented as news in the country. The news presented was also through secondary source, as Doordarshan never had the infrastructure of live coverage.
The monopoly only ended in the early 1990’s; and the next decade and half, with the advent of satellite television, saw an uprising of news rooms across different languages, dedicated to sectors, eventually becoming 24x7 channels. As it stands today - this youngest form of journalism in the country – media journalism has a foothold of about 400+ channels across 9 languages that are aired daily, all day along.
Such staggering numbers obviously reflect that the country has been able to break free from monopolised broadcasting as well as is able to bring a lot more coverage in the form of ‘live’ reportage.
But, such numbers are also revealing many versions of the same event that are being displayed to the citizens of the country. Is that an indicator of diversified opinions? May be. But more than that, it hints towards manipulation that is pursued to create preferred perspectives...
Why? Look carefully, today’s news channels are like any other industry supplemented by investors and business partners. In some cases, even have affiliations with political parties. And, each one of them have their own vested interests of what should be projected, narrated and displayed. The news anchors then following suit of these interests coupled with personal biases – (after all they are also humans) craft a story to best represent a given situation.
And as a viewer what do we do? We chose the version that matches closest to our personal sensibilities and make that our reality. The ‘only’ reality and our ‘only’ opinion. The opinion that we then use to counter everyone around. Not realising for once that what we opine is not really our judgement or our own judicious thinking but an injected version of a ‘happening’ that we are being made to believe into.
“Do you know they are actually not married but just living in?”; “Think twice about joining the company, the director’s cousin was my classmate and is very cunning; The uncle who lives down this road, his daughter just bought another property, I don’t know how!”. Whose voices are these? Someone you know, yours or mine?
These are voices of almost everyone who sit across a table and discuss. Where discussions are a name to camouflage gossips. Just not gossip, but even topics that are then forwarded and annexed by personal stories, presumptions and assumptions and importantly a deliberate enquiry! So, when these voices are mirrored on news channels in the name of debates, why do you get so agitated. Is it okay to be irrelevant in personal lives and not on camera? Slightly unfair isn’t it?
This individual trait (multiply that with a population of a billion people), the lust to gather pieces of ‘information’ and then find the suitable audience – is the same tendency in which news is fed to us today. We are not just fed in fact we are also feeding.
Whenever we witness, anything that seems like an event contrary to normal scenario such as a road accident, a flame from a nearby house or even a blooming flower – we quickly capture to share. We have also learnt the art to go ‘live’.
Today, channels are not giving us information, but we ourselves our making news; turning ourselves as a source to supply news. Hence many media houses pay a token amount if one can share ‘fresh and exciting’ updates at the fastest pace from the very place. An absolute mockery of the very profession of media journalism that was based on reporting, investigating, validating and then voicing. Now all this has reduced down to just collecting and forwarding information.
As viewers, and most importantly as a democracy, we are as much responsible of this deterioration as the media houses themselves. Does this absolve the responsibility of those who are in the profession? No, of course not. But the next time you jump off your sofa seat complaining about what is being passed as news – just remember that you yourself are curating it. They are just making money.
One thing that we should not lose sight off, is that eventually all news channels are being played on television. On television, apart from the revenue that is garnered through advertisements, the success is usually determined by viewership and the other new age lingo – TRP (Television Rating Points). Thereby, in this scenario a news channel is not only competing with other news channels by what news they present, but more so with other channels viz. entertainment, movies, sports, knowledge etc to find its foothold. And in this race the mentality of news channels is like that of the others – to create ‘shows’.
Within the Indian audience if one were to trace the successful aired shows that have become popular, it comes as no surprise that the common denominator of all would be a drama - a genre that is expected to enthral and captivate. Yes, it is true, and it is us who have collectively made this phenomenon a reality. The news channels follow the same mantra – they amuse us to keep us occupied; create suspense by revealing stories on the other side of the advert and even projects a face that best represents the image of the channel.
So, we never go back to Doordarshan – for it does not fulfil credibly our desire for ‘drama’. This also remains the only channel that broadcasts news for the visually impaired - a lesser percentage of viewership, and not masses alone.
News channels operating within this realm of ‘sensationalism’ now push the envelope to focus specifically on the idea of creating content. Which figuratively means to pick up any piece of base information, whatever maybe it – they have telecast the channel for 24hrs – and then co create it in a way that is presented to the viewer in the most appealing manner. Here the brilliance is such that the same information collected is just packaged differently for it to be aired every hour and in repeat mode.
When the news channel fails to gather news, it even makes up the news. A new age creative art to generate viewership. Imagine a hundred channels ‘making up’ news and spreading viewers and in turn they distributing to the rest of the population. If this is not a catastrophe, nothing is. To add to that just like media, we do not even think for a moment to validate information. We just pass it on in the name of ‘tazaa khabar.’
The history of broadcasting journalism in India, has indeed come a long way from the initial days of experimental viewing. It has also seen some healthy discussions between psephologists, economists and other experts in respective fields. Importantly it has allowed citizens in the country to have a greater coverage of international news and exposed them to current affairs from within and outside the country.
This is all about news and what broadcasting journalism should be known for. But today, the same has become a field that undertakes trials, condemns, attempts to be a messiah and even passes judgement on people, communities and societies.
Will this ever change? Well it should and its dependency does not lie on the television being consumed by the internet. That will only change the screen size not the attitude and identity of news channels.
It may change by going back to how it began – specific hours; limited screen time and coupled with technology of live coverage not ‘instant’ leading to delivery of news that is focused and accountable.
Importantly the onus also lies on the audience, basically the democracy who lend passive support to this form of broadcast. The support is just not by supplying them with information or being attracted to watch them every fortnight.It is by becoming like the channels by forming prejudices and thrusting opinions onto the next without understanding the essence of a ‘news’.
If the recent reportage of the Pulwama attack is anything to go by, then it is just a testimony of how journalism – whose role is to inform people justly was also able to create a divide between people within the same nation – as patriots and traitors. To allow to create the divide rests in our own hands and as a responsible democracy we ought to find a way through it. The way perhaps lies in the fundamentals of journalism – of being objective.
“Aeto tuku lojja kor lo na” (You did not feel even a little shame) is what Manikdas Gupta, asks his reporters when they print an article to show Gurukant Desai, the businessman in good light (Guru, the movie, 2007). In the context, Manikdas refers the statement to print media, but it is a question that can be and should be asked unanimously to all media channels today. And to this simple question, the nation wants to know the answer.
Illustrations by Ganesh RK
Content and authorship – PULP Crew