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News vs noise

Our television news networks have often been criticised for sensationalism, frenzied debates and biased reportage. Their policies of self-regulation don’t seem to be working either. A close look at India’s TV news industry. By Furquan Ameen Siddiqui.

india Updated: May 27, 2013 16:59 IST
Furquan Ameen Siddiqui

When Sudipta Sen’s chit fund empire, the Saradha group, went bust last month, he wrote an 18-page letter to the CBI accusing TMC politician Kunal Ghosh of using the media to campaign against his group. “I thought I must enter the media business,” Sen wrote, as a possible means to buy political clout.

On April 24, when the story of the leaked letter broke, the alleged involvement of TMC MPs was discussed widely on national news channels. But, page 10 of the letter, where Sen mentions the finance minister’s wife Nalini Chidambaram, went largely uncovered. Headlines Today ran it as a ticker, without any names and it went off air minutes later. Only the next day, after a few print and online publications published the letter, TV channels started carrying the story.

In recent years, news channels have faced accusations of shying away from naming those in power involved in wrongdoing. It is an allegation they vehemently deny. “Where there is adequate supporting information, media usually lays it out in the open. I don’t see any specific ‘powerful or elite’ being able to influence the media,” says Sunil Lulla, MD & CEO, Times Television Network.

TRIAL BY MEDIA
In 2008, when the case of the Talwars, accused of a double murder involving their daughter Aarushi and servant Hemraj was uncovered, the media went overboard to an extent that the Supreme Court said that it would lay down norms for media coverage of on-going criminal investigations. “While one section of media was enthusiastically trying to investigate the case on its own and in the process, was projecting the Talwars as prime suspects, the other section of media was working hard to establish them as innocent victims of media trial by doing 'favourable interviews',” says QW Naqvi, former News Director, Aaj Tak.

“I’d like believe that media coverage doesn’t influence ongoing investigations and the judges are experienced enough to not get swayed,” says KVL Narayan Rao, Executive Vice Chairperson, NDTV and President, News Broadcasters Association (NBA). “A private transgression, unless tantamount to the violation of a criminal law, is not newsworthy. On the other hand, a public servant will be talked about if he hasn’t done the job in certain way. And the media has the right to do it,” he adds.

But media trials aren’t exclusive to Indian shores and their pratfalls are tough to ignore, especially fundamental lapses in ethics. In the summer of 2011, the coverage of Casey Anthony’s six-weeks-long trial for murdering her two-year-old daughter turned into a media frenzy in the US.

“This was just a person in a murder case like many, many, many other murders in the US. Why does this case get such coverage? Answer: Ratings, ratings, ratings.” wrote Lucas Shaw in Reuters.

CNN’s Headline News (HLN) anchor Nancy Grace’s single-minded pursuit of the case put the show in second place during June 2011, the channel’s best month ever in terms of ratings.

Ratings and ultimately advertising, is what runs the media show these days. Ratings data in India are expressed in Television Rating Points (TRPs). The more eyeballs you grab, the higher ratings you get and the more money you can demand from advertisers. The idea is to keep viewers hooked to your channel, to be glued to what we call the 24-hour news cycle.

SENSATIONALISM RULES
This 24-hour news cycle came in with the advent of cable television and brought with it, a much faster pace of news production and reporting, with constant updates. It also led to a move towards ‘sensationalism, entertainment and opinion’, as Bill Kovach (former NYT bureau chief) and Tom Rosenstiel (executive director of American Press Institute), observed in their book ‘Warp Speed’.

The Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 showed both the good and the bad side of TV news media. A Supreme Court bench observed that if channels had covered the events after the operations were over, ‘TV programmes would not have had the same shrill, scintillating and chilling effect and would not have shot up the TRP ratings of the channels’. While the SC lambasted the live coverage of the incident calling it ‘totally wrong and unacceptable’ and saying that it did not serve any national interest or social cause, channels blamed the state machinery for not providing proper guidance. There were 17 different agencies that briefed the media, according to Rao, which made responsible coverage difficult.

A few years ago, news channel Live India carried out a sting operation on a school teacher in Delhi, allegedly running a sex racket. All hell broke loose; angry parents broke into the school and beat up the teacher. The ‘expose’ turned out to be fake, when the police found out that sting operation was a hoax. The reporter involved was arrested and the channel lost its licence for a few months.

In an attempt to be the first to break a piece of news, concerns of privacy and sensitive information are sidelined to the extent of slander. “Sensational, accusatory language is used. When the stories are found to be false, they are quietly dropped. But by then, a person's reputation is destroyed. And the media just moves on without any accountability," says Jehangir S Pocha, editor-in-chief, News X.

MEDIA AND ITS BIASES
Minutes after the Norway attacks in July 2011, security experts were speculating on the BBC that the attack was the work of Islamists. Their Indian counterparts are no different. Amartya Sen, in an opinion piece in The Hindu, blamed media bias – “often implicit — in the choice of what news to cover and what to ignore” -- as one of the barriers to the quality of journalism. When Assam was reeling under ethnic tensions and riots last year, TV cameras chose to look away. Critics contrasted TV media’s Assam coverage to the 24/7 blitz that followed Gujarat riots in 2002, a time when cable news was still in its infancy.

Recently, Indian channels also picked up rumours circulating in the US media which declared a young boy of Indian origin, Sunil Tripathi, a suspect in Boston bombings. CNN’s John King, who was the first to report that law enforcement officials had a suspect in Boston bombings, said he was a ‘dark-skinned man’.

“The incidence of transgressions and liberties is no doubt far higher in India than say, in the US or the UK. But so, let’s face it, is the incidence of tax evasion, of illegal parking, noise pollution, crony capitalism etc. That's in the nature of our society, and the media is a creature of it,” says Chintamani Rao, former CEO of Times Global Broadcasting and founding director of NBA.

According to Vinay Tewari, Managing Editor of CNN IBN, words like bias, proportion and inclination are totally subjective to the core. “The only touchstone on which news should be judged is facts. If I am factual in my reportage, nothing else should matter,” he says.

But does that mean we turn a blind eye to these transgressions? “Media is aggressive in covering political tamashas but less so in covering big business and ‘unsexy’ issues. Who covers agriculture, medical malpractice, and human rights?” asks Pocha. In The State of the News Media 2013 report on American journalism by Pew Research Center it was found that ‘across the three cable channels (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC), coverage of live events, which often require a crew, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take up fewer resources, were up 31%’. A similar trend has gripped India post meltdown, feels Sandeep Bhushan, a former NDTV journalist who currently teaches at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia. “We’re following the US model, with studio discussions, cheaper equipment and letting off reporters. Prime time news has essentially become a theatre and Arnab [Goswami] has single-handedly changed the prime time media-scape,” says Bhushan. Tewari disagrees. “Fact is, more scams and investigations have been reported by media in the last seven years than ever before,” he adds.

DEBATES OR JUST NOISE?
Earlier this year, Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN tweeted: ‘I guess we are truly an era where sense must battle sensationalism, news versus noise…’

Try to recall the last time you saw a debate on a TV news channel that wasn’t shrill or hysterical? Whether it was the military stand-off with China in Laddakh or Sarbjit Singh’s murder in a Pakistani jail or the Italian marines, prime time debates are often rabble-rousing. According to Abhinandan Sekhri, who currently works with media watch website Newslaundry, there are two reasons for this. First, TV channels want to be the voice of the people – even if that voice is jingoistic or loud. They are merely telling people what they want to hear. And the janata likes it is because no one else does it. After the Boston bombings President Barrack Obama said in his address: ‘Make no mistake. We will get to the bottom of this and we will find out who did this and we will find out why they did this.’ Contrast this with a tweet sent out by the PMO after the Hyderabad bombings in February this year, which quoted Manmohan Singh saying, “This is a dastardly attack, the guilty will not go unpunished.” “People want to hear something loud and belligerent. Now when Arnab says what the leaders are supposed to say, people turn to him,” adds Sekhri.

Lulla counters, saying that healthy, engaging and fair view in news debates are reasons behind the channel’s prime time show being the most watched. “We Indians love to speak and express ourselves. So they’re [new debates] entertaining too. The evening debates provide many sides of a story to its viewers, which is why viewers watch them,” he says.

SHAPING VIEWS
Prime times news debates are often credited with shaping public opinion across the country. But a media think-tank in its survey found this opinion to be ‘manufactured’. The survey, undertaken by the Media Studies Group, looks at media from the Emergency days of 1975 to 2011 and highlights how “opinion formulated by media is in one direction. The space of alternative view on any issue and policy matter is negligible.” An analysis of 15 TV debates on corruption in defence deals on channels including NDTV India, IBN 7, Zee News, NDTV 24X7, CNN-IBN and Times Now, revealed that of the 54 people who participated in studio discussions, five were women, 17 were former defence personnel; of which seven personnel went to 24 programmes. A total of 17 representatives of five political parties participated, but Congress and BJP representatives together eclipsed 82% of the representation.

“The speed of the news has sidelined thoughtfulness. You either clap or dismiss, there is no middle ground. And this scarcity of middle ground has become dangerous for the viewers,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. According to Visvanathan, news anchors nowadays have multiple avatars; they’re reporters, talk show hosts, anchors and even columnists. They have become influential thought leaders for an entire generation.

WATCHING OVER THE WATCHDOG
Self-regulation is often cited as the answer to news media’s excesses. But Sekhri believes self- regulation can’t work unless channels and newspaper start taking names and start talking about each other. “If you think Times Now is jingoistic, loud and noisy, then say it,” he says.

In his report investigating the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World’s phone hacking scandal, Justice Brian Leveson stated: “The answer to the question who guards the guardians, should not be 'no-one'.” In 2007, former British PM Tony Blair likened media to a ‘a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits...’

In early April, Delhi High Court quoted Blair’s searing critique, while ruling that a statutory regulatory body is required for media’s compliance with the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. When the NBA was formed in October 2008, the effort evolved into a code of ethics and a complaint redressal mechanism in the form of News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA). However, after almost five years of its existence, the association (a voluntary membership) represents only 20 broadcasters comprising only 45 news and current affairs TV channels, out of the recognised 386 such channels in the country.

In December 2008, India TV became one of the first defaulters of the NBA guidelines. The channel picked up a quote by Farhana Ali, a writer and policy analyst, given to Reuters. The channel ‘deceptively dubbed the quote in Hindi’, and played it along with her picture saying she was a spy of the US government. NBA fined India TV and asked it to run an apology as a running ticker. “Rajat Sharma’s India TV withdrew from the NBA in protest (though he later came back after much cajoling),” says journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. “This revealed the hollowness of NBA’s claim of self-regulation.”

While there is a critical debate on ethical transgression, most large broadcast media houses claim to abide by the code of conduct voluntarily under self-regulation. Alok Aggarwal, CEO, Zee News feels that there are increasing instances of media coming under undue attack and harassment by influential people. “There is no mechanism to protect media from these attacks. There is a need for counter protection of media as well,” he adds.

Zee News in October last year was accused by the Jindal group of an Rs 100 crore extortion bid by Zee staff. Zee in turn called the arrest of its staff as an attempt by the Congress-led government at the Centre to gag the media and cover up the coal scam. “Zee’s attitude still is that of no one can harm the channel, except that Jindals are very powerful. They are afraid of them but not of anybody else. There is no fear among channels,” says PN Vasanti, Director of Centre for Media Studies.

Demands of an independent authority, a constitutionally mandated body, unlike the toothless Press Council of India, have echoed throughout the industry. For Narayan Rao a body like NBSA headed by the (late) Justice Verma can’t be anything but independent. “He made sure that it doesn’t turn out to be a complaints authority but a standards authority. We can even take up cases suo moto that gave it teeth and total independence,” says he.

Like a battle-ready Roman army, critics believe, the broadcast news media tends to retreat into a testudo (tortoise) formation -- shields out to protect themselves from outside forces. But unless they engage with this criticism and change their ways, the chinks in their armour cannot stay hidden for long.