Targeting news channels has become shooting practice, even a business model for some. Politicians abuse us, social media outrages against us, even media watchdog sites love to hang anchors out to dry. Truth is, for television news journalism, these are the best and worst of times. We are still a first information report for news, but also increasingly seen as non-credible. We have seen both sides of the multi-headed ‘monster’ that 24x7 news TV has become in the last week: There is a face of TV news which is ugly, one which can be beneficial.
Let’s examine the darker side first. The coverage of the suicide of Gajendra Singh exposed yet again just how quickly sensation can replace sense on the screen. A man commits suicide at an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rally to protest the land acquisition Bill not far from Parliament. That AAP is a party with a penchant for histrionics is well-established. Its reaction to the Gajendra Singh suicide revealed a mix of arrogance and immaturity, which no amount of tears and apologies can erase. But what of us in the news business?
Without looking to verify the facts, we see in the macabre sight of a man hanging from a tree an opportunity to squeeze a story for television rating points (TRP). Without waiting for a post-mortem report, we have concluded the cause of death. Without finding out just who Gajendra Singh is, or what prompted him to climb a tree, we have instantly determined that he is yet another hapless small farmer who has been driven by debt to commit suicide. The tyranny of TRPs is guiding a flawed narrative. Whether TV takes its cue from social media or it’s the other way around is uncertain, but on social media ‘AAPmurder’ is a number one trend. A tragic human story is allowed to spiral out of control.
In the last two decades, more than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide, in many instances because of agrarian distress. In Maharashtra alone, 60,000 farmers have died in this period, over 250 since the start of the year. Except for a few journalists like Magsaysay award winner P Sainath, very few in the mainstream media have documented the terrifying reality in its multiple dimensions. Maybe there isn’t enough dramatic content in a faceless farmer in distant Beed or Neemuch committing suicide. But the moment the tragedy comes to the doorsteps of Parliament, we emerge from our Kumbhakarna-like slumber to offer some prime time space to the issue.
And yet, very little of the discussion is focused on the underlying causes of the crisis. Instead, we bring in the usual suspects — the hapless party spokespersons — and subject them to a relentless inquisition on Gajendra’s death. The noise has once again replaced the news. The real story isn’t Gajendra: It’s about how anonymous kisans and mazdoors have slipped out from our media consciousness. Labour unrest and farm issues no longer make front pages. Rising urea prices have led to riots in some parts of the country, but you won’t know that if you watch ‘national’ news. Contract labour employment has led to retrenchment in several major companies, yet it won’t be analysed on news shows. Very few news channels and newspapers have full-time agriculture or labour reporters, yet will have large entertainment and lifestyle bureaus. Page Three has come to page one, leaving the farmer and labourer as a sepia-tinted image from the Do Bigha Zameen-Mother India era.
And yet, just as you are losing hope, you press the pause button on the endless self-flagellation. The Nepal earthquake strikes, leaving thousands dead, many homeless. The television cameras beam pictures of the death and destruction within minutes of the quake. The images of the devastation strike an instant chord: State and central governments are galvanised into action, the Air Force and armed forces begin relief operations, NGO groups step up to support. TV screens are buzzing with information of how you can help, distressed families are rung up, human interest stories build an instant connect. Within hours, a tragedy in the neighbourhood becomes a national cause. We saw it in Uttarakhand and Odisha in 2013, then in Kashmir last year, now in Nepal: In each instance, the visual image has bonded people instantly.
It’s this instant response mechanism of 24x7 television — the very system which has broken down in Gajendra’s case — that now provides some comfort in a crisis like an earthquake. I can only contrast it with the Latur earthquake of 1993. Ten thousand people died in the quake, an entire village was flattened but it took us days to piece together the gravity of the situation. There were no satellite OB vans to transmit the scale of the tragedy; instead we had to reach out through crackling phone lines and poor telex machines many hundred miles away to get through to our head office in Mumbai. It took almost a week to bring Latur’s horror to the world; today, it takes a few hours thanks to hard-working OB engineers, video journalists and reporters armed with the latest technology.
This doesn’t mean we still don’t need to self-correct. Even in Nepal, some of the coverage smacks of insensitivity and one-upmanship (should images of destruction be hyped as an ‘exclusive’). And yet, there is much to commend in the wall-to-wall coverage. Just one story of a grieving couple whose children are trapped in the debris is enough to expedite the rescue effort. Who says news TV is only tamasha?
Post-script: A few years ago, I watched the film Peepli Live, which was a satire on television news. The film did make me laugh at times, and yet I wondered then, as I do now: Is mocking the media going to arrest the crisis of content? And was the news whirl before the advent of round-the-clock TV really a better one?
The writer tweets at @sardesairajdeep
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed by the author are personal