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What?s new about the news?

As the media try to outdo one another, the subject becomes victim and the real picture is lost, writes Lina Mathias.

india Updated: Oct 19, 2006 05:12 IST

News reporters must grow a thick skin, advised a handbook on journalism. Not to protect themselves against the trauma and sleaze they see in their working lives, but in order to become impervious to their own ‘insensitivity’, which they are forced to show in the line of duty. Very profound that. Unfortunately, nowadays, it is the readers and television viewers who need to grow a thick skin, so numerous are the pointless sting operations.

There was a time when one had to make do with one official channel and a handful of newspapers and magazines. This was not an ideal situation.  But in terms of value, has the range of choice improved anything? Might it be that the keen competition and deadlines ensure that every news channel is breaking its back to ‘break’ the same story in an untiring slew? Is the race the reason why news pages of most mainstream newspapers look almost the same?

As it were, ‘herd mentality’ often victimises the subject as much as the reader. Last week, this newspaper reported that parents of 11-month old Faisal Sheikh, Mumbai’s second polio case, abruptly left Sion Hospital with their son within hours of admitting him. The hospital authorities (health workers had had a tough time persuading them into the hospital in the first place) could not cajole them into returning and blamed the media for persistent and intrusive quizzing of the parents , who opted to flee. Media attention is double-edged — the desire to get as much ‘human interest’ into the copy usually translates into intrusive questioning.

Of course, there is the other side. The conviction of Priyadarshini Mattoo’s murderer a case in point. That is the impact of a responsible responsive media. What would have gone unpunished gets proper attention. The molestation of demonstrating women students by policemen in Ludhiana a fortnight ago, or the fatal effect that a student protest had on a professor in Ujjain come to mind immediately. But the point here is not the power that the media wields but how it is being wielded at present.

Many senior journalists in the print media blame skewed television news coverage for influencing news selection in newspapers. The coverage of the Abu Salem-Monica Bedi case and the South African model’s rape allegation are two cases in point.

A couple of months after the hysterical TV and print coverage of 6-year old Prince’s entrapment in an abandoned pit, 50 workers in the Bhatdih coal mine in Jharkhand choked to death, charred so badly that their families recognised their remains only by means of the headlamp numbers. The rescue operation went on for more than 20 hours and was hampered by a basic missing link — there were no mine maps to guide the rescue team. How different was this ‘human drama’ that it did not invite extensive coverage? Perhaps it was not a ‘dry day’ with nothing else happening.

The coverage of Gudiya’s case on television provoked critical gnashing of teeth, rightfully so. Gudiya was eight months pregnant with her husband Taufeeq’s child when her first husband Arif ‘returned’ in August 2005. Arif had disappeared and had apparently been held by the Pakistan army as a prisoner of war from the Drass sector in 1999. Gudiya’s parents married her off to a distant relative, Taufeeq, without annulling her earlier marriage. A  news channel held a mock panchayat and a helpless Gudiya, her family and fellow villagers became instant stars of a real soap opera on the channel. She died on January 2 this year, having suffered a miscarriage a few months earlier. Is there any sense in labouring over what impact this insensitive and unethical coverage had on Gudiya or her family?

But television news scaled the height of absurdity when it followed an angry wife into her husband’s rendezvous with a girl student. Viewers were glued, appallingly so, as the entire saga of the lecturer’s love affair played out on TV. We witnessed the wife drag out the girl by her hair and slap her around while her husband’s face was blackened as he was taken to the police station. The coverage continued later in the week when the lecturer and his student went shopping, once they returned to college, to finally seek refuge in the approval of Lalu Prasad Yadav. Competition can make you neurotic and as this case proves, absurd.

Far too often, in the frenzy to keep up or rather stay one step ahead, the real issue is left way behind. In mid-August this year, a TV channel claimed that it had in its possession tapes containing a conversation between union minister of state for home Manikrao Gavit and jailed underworld leader Sundar Singh Bhati. Across party lines, MPs rallied round Gavit refusing to believe the tapes. Many said the voice was definitely not his. Later in the month, the CBI declared that voice tests had ruled out Gavit’s as the voice on the tape. It wanted to know, instead, how the don could access a cellphone in jail. Surely, the checks should have been carried out before the hullah over Gavit. and, secondly, cellphone use in jail is a dangerous trend — shouldn’t that have been the focus instead? Similarly, coverage of farmers’ suicides rarely looks at the entire effect of what liberalisation has done to agriculture and marginal farmers.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once spoke about the “oxygen of publicity”. I love to dream of a day when the entire mainstream media decides to collectively deprive the men and women who go around breaking up Valentine Day display windows and roughing up cooing couples on secluded roads, of this ‘oxygen of publicity’. Would the people still insist on this form of distasteful moral policing if neither print nor visual media persons were following them around?

Last month, at a function at the Chandigarh Press Club, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was uncharacteristically upset at the “hit and run media” especially the financial newspapers. Apparently, many of them had carried reports that Intelligence officials had been summoned for a meeting at the PMO over market matters. The meeting had never taken place, an indignant PMO wrote to the newspapers. Investors gain and lose, markets rise and fall but what happens to those reporters, analysts and editors who move and make the markets, he asked. He added that in the race to capture circulation, journalists are being encouraged to cut corners, take chances and hit and run.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said it best in his essay on ‘The World’s Best Profession’, “In my view, it is the haste and restriction in terms of space that have reduced the stature of reporting…” Haste and the blind worship of circulation figures and TRP ratings, we might add.