When A Celebrity’s Death Led To The Sad Demise Of Indian TV News

TRPs matter but to what end?

Updated
Hot Take
5 min read
Sushant Singh Rajput died on 14 June.
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I have hazy (but specific) memories of the media coverage that followed the murder of Aarushi Talwar in 2008. I was merely 11 years old and forced to consume dinner at the designated dinner table, while my parents, with their eyes glued to the screen, discussed the freshly unearthed details of the case on multiple occasions. In retrospect, those TV nights (only a few, I'm sure) seem to stretch over a long period of time. It would take me a few years to reach a mature understanding of how unabashedly the Indian media made a mockery of a young girl's death. Much has been written about irresponsible journalism ever since then. In the aftermath of late actor Sridevi's death, we witnessed a similar chaos.

But 12 years later - has anything changed?

In the (almost) three months since Sushant Singh Rajput's sudden death, we've seen the television news narrative make giant leaps from one conspiracy theory to another. There's been a clear violation of laws, privacy, ethics and morality.

As an audience, I’m appalled every day, and as a young journalist who has barely dipped her toes into the water, I’m conflicted about the ethical implications of what I see on TV.

Because, as far as I can tell, Indian media channels seem to enjoy a bizarre kind of impunity.

'Investigative Journalism' But At What Cost?

It's clear that even before an official CBI investigation came into the picture, a media trial was already on its way. Its culmination is what we're witnessing today. Actor Rhea Chakraborty's (Sushant's partner at the time of his death) personal life has been wrecked. With journalists harassing her family members and her building security guards, her private text messages being dissected on prime time television, incessant trolling with hashtags like #ArrestRheaChakraborty - makes you wonder, how far can journalists go under the garb of 'investigation'?

We've already watched journalists like Arnab Goswami screaming and shutting up guests on his show if they express an opinion that's not in accordance with his agenda.

From ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ we’ve shifted to ‘guilty until proven innocent’- but how far will this go?

In an extremely insightful YouTube chat hosted by journalist Faye D'Souza, lawyer Sanjay Hegde talks about how suspicions related to SSR case are being taken to the media before agencies equipped to handle the matter. He follows it up with a great observation about the role of a journalist, "Journalists think they have a right to be answered. No [they don't]."

In fact, in the present situation, it’s Rhea who has the constitutional right to remain silent - something she has been unfairly criticised for exercising.

According to Hegde, Rhea's family can also try to get a gag order against certain media outlets. But considering the scale of things right now, is it a practical approach?

The Blame Game

It's impossible to hold one media channel responsible for the deliberate and vile character assassination of Rhea Chakraborty. It's also not just multiple channels, it's an entire eco-system. In the recent past, Times Now reported Rhea's call logs as well as her personal text messages. While it's perfectly okay to report the fact that an investigative agency has found a new lead, what's unsettling is that Times Now somehow got access to the evidence. Evidence that is also extremely private information that only someone who is investigating the case should have access to, and not media outlets vying for daily TRPs.

But TRPs matter, don’t they?

As a Gen Z journalist who pretty much grew up with the internet, I have little respect for mainstream TV news. Though, I find myself conflicted about my parent's love-hate relationship with the same. They truly believe that the SSR media coverage has crossed all boundaries and needs to stop, but they still somehow gravitate towards it.

In Faye's YouTube talk, comedian Daniel Fernandez says that the "audience is stupid." Speaking from personal experience, I know they're not and that's something journalist Manisha Pande actually counters brilliantly.

Busting the myth, she says that the 24-hour news cycle is just not a good enough excuse anymore because there’s so much happening in the country - COVID, floods, the NEET-JEE issue etc. So if there is news, why are journalists hell-bent on creating fiction?

Ramifications of Reckless Reporting

Mental health/illness has been a constant topic of discussion since day one but it wasn't until Sushant's therapist Susan Walker, in an interview with Barkha Dutt, revealed his bipolar disorder diagnosis that I started wondering about the ethical dilemma in this one. Some celebrated how this would bring an end to speculations about SSR's state of mind, others (including myself) weren't comfortable with this public revelation.

Dr Harish Shetty clarifies that this isn't limited to news channels.

Previously, print journalists have also violated the WHO's guidelines on mental health reporting, formulated to make sure that irresponsible reporting does not lead to copycat suicides or trigger those already suffering.

His question to journalists - “If your close relative was mentally ill, would you report in that manner?”

More recently, Times Now shared photos of Sushant's dead body on national television. In the past, they've also tried to graphically recreate his bedroom to backtrack and understand if his death was really a suicide. This unnecessarily clinical and thoughtless approach shows that there's something fundamentally wrong in Indian journalists approach to news. Is it desperation? Is it overconfidence?

When your audience is bound to your 9 PM news show by habit, it's easy to package reckless reporting as a sincere, enthusiastic effort. Who cares about consequences beyond that one hour, right?

In the conversation with Faye D'Souza, one of the guest speakers mentions that, unlike other countries, Indian media houses don't fear heavy payouts in response to defamation suits.

A reality I find difficult to digest because on one hand you have the SSR circus ready for viewing with a new angle every night, and on the other, there are organisations like Scroll getting legally targeted for covering ground reality.

The Way Ahead?

After almost three months of this blatant misuse of resources, the Press Council of India has released an official advisory to media houses.

Having said that, I don't know if anything can stop Arnab Goswami from screaming at his guests or Navika Kumar from walking into a live telecast with a bag full of evidence. Fact-checking, the crux of journalism, is clearly not a priority anymore. Sadly, the onus of fixing this mess seems to be on the audiences watching these media channels - whether or not to make fun of it is irrelevant at this point. As lawyer Sanjay Hegde puts it, "Switch off from push television" and empower journalism that's true to itself.

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