TV News Channels Need to Introspect – or They Will Perish

Why are news channels trying so hard to sell themselves? Why don’t they allow the viewers to decide who is the best?

6 min read

Indian law has no provision for dealing with fake news.
TV News Channels Need to Introspect – or They Will Perish

A tweet by Dr Subramanian Swamy reads: “So many people & media channels taking credit for making Chandigarh Police arrest the VIP brats; hence now I can work on other issues.”

Indeed, Vikas Barala’s attempt to allegedly harass and kidnap Varnika Kundu in Chandigarh and the police’s attempt to save the accused gave media organisations an issue on which all seemed to be on the same plane. At least for a day or two.

Does Media Really Need to Sell Itself So Hard?

All newspapers and news channels covered the news item with the same angle. The culprit, no matter how powerful, should not be allowed to go scot-free. And the state machinery should not be allowed to help those in power. Having managed to create a public opinion in favour of the victim, once Vikas Barala and his friend were arrested, news channels went back to the same thing they seem to do best, try and take credit for having forced the state to carry out its duty, which it should have done in any case.

Almost all channels were taking credit as if it was their coverage that had forced the police to act. Do they really need to hard-sell themselves?

Just a week after that, ALT News reported: "There was commotion in an English news channel’s studio when a panelist raised concerns on the relevance of debating Vande Mataram on a day when 30 kids died in Gorakhpur.”

The BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra tried to calm down Ghanshyam Tiwari by saying, “This is an issue that is very sensitive but for God’s sake, we are debating about an issue that is also equally sensitive, i.e. Vande Mataram…” The cries of “It is not, it is not, nothing can be more important…” got lost in the chaos that followed.

The anchor, tried to bring in order by saying, “We understand that today is a sad day because 30 children have lost their life in Gorakhpur in a hospital because of certain conditions of lack of oxygen supply, we understand that. Let us not beat our chests in a manner as if something like this has never happened in Akhilesh Yadav’s time. When the debate is on Vande Mataram, you are bringing up this issue because you are running away from the real issue.”

Welcome to the world on Indian TV news channels where the news of children losing their lives is just another distraction from the “real” issue. A world where “real” issues are decided upon going by the decibel levels.

News Channels and TRP Obsession

Week after week, we have both English and Hindi news channels claiming that they are No. 1 in TRP ratings. Competition to claim and counterclaim between channels have reached ridiculous levels.

In the second week of August, a channel was proudly claiming, with bold supers, “The Republic is hooked to Times Now. India’s real No. 1”. At the same time, a rival channel had these supers, “Copycat channel decimated, millions spent but failed. India’s true No. 1”.

Similarly, claims and counterclaims between the Hindi News channels is fierce.

Why are these channels making such claims? Why are they trying so hard to sell themselves? Why don’t they allow the viewers to decide who is the best? 

True that viewers do not have access to BARC’s TRP ratings, but they do understand that all claims made by these channels are not true and can’t be true. They are twisting the truth, using different parameters on BARC viewership numbers to suit their purpose.

So are the channels making tall claims about garnering maximum number of eyeballs to woo advertisers? Unlike viewers, advertisers have access to TRP ratings, so do the channels really need this hard-selling?

Selling Sensationalism as News

So is this overkill? This need to woo viewership, have maximum number of eyeballs, force news channels to go overboard with their content. A few years ago Hindi news channels had started competing with each other to show superstitious stories, sensational YouTube videos, tabloid stuff, saamp-seedhi items to attract viewership.

In fact, they made camera enter bedrooms to bring stories of fights between couples, families and tried to sell it as news.

The result was immediate. People watched these channels for their entertainment value but stopped taking them seriously. And the trend continues. 

Christiane Amanpour of CNN said: “I believe that good journalism, good television, can make our world a better place.”

But what are we trying to do in India? Taking our country and people back into the dark ages?

What Hindi news channels did then, English news channels are replicating now. They have completely given up any kind of news-gathering. There is no reporting from the ground.

Just get eight to ten so called experts in the studio, and get them to debate on an issue.

The anchor is also not neutral in these debates, takes sides, and in most cases, does not let the guest speak who is against his or her belief. 

There is so much of din that viewers can’t hear the discussion. Not that you are missing anything interesting or important on these “jingoistic channels”. What editors and anchors don’t realise is that the channels are losing credibility very fast.

Viewers have started watching these channels for their entertainment value. This could only be bad news for the industry. But it is a choice that almost all channels have opted for. It’s cheap, attracts eyeballs, gets advertisement and rakes in the moolah. What else do we need?

Informing Masses – A Serious Responsibility

But is it only about TRPs? Were their licences granted to do this drama on the idiot box? The genre was supposed to be “news” and if they call people who work there as journalists then the supposed job was to be a “watchdog”.

But most have become mouthpieces of the government. In their keenness to sound more loyal than the king, some of these jingoistic channels get into very dangerous territory. Look at the narrative being sold to the viewers.

If you question the government you are an anti-national! The way a particular ideology being peddled cannot but create chaos and confusion in the country. 

The way issues like Kashmir are dealt with clearly isolates the residents of the state. The aggressive way in which conflicts with Pakistan and China are dealt with could only help increase tempers within the country, which could put undue pressure on the government at times.

News channels have to realise that it suits the government when those working in news lose credibility. Mainstream media is under constant gaze. Words like “fake news”, “presstitutes” “fake media” are doing rounds across the world.

Increasingly, people are choosing to trust social media, which for obvious reasons do not care about fact-checking. 

So the responsibility to inform public falls squarely on the mainstream media, and the media has to take this responsibility seriously.

Media Not Asking Important Questions

Only if high profile anchors could get out of their air-conditioned studios they’ll see problems of the common man. They’ll see farm distress, thousands of farmers committing suicides, they’ll see debilitated education sector, the ever deteriorating health services, rising unemployment, adverse effects of demonetisation on economy, especially on small and medium sectors. But no one is raising any questions on these burning issues.

As Jim Morrison had said about corporate ownership of media, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.” 

Corporates desire to paint a particularly happy picture of India. One which can attract foreign direct investment. If media questions the rising communalisation in the country, foreign investors will get scared and will shy away from investing. Another American journalist Helen Thomas has clearly put down the protocol for working journalists, she said “we don't go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

But are we ready to question and seek answers?

Of late, many channels have been attacking opposition leaders clearly indicating that they are softer targets.

In fact, a news website put up an article about how there had been a 300 percent increase in property of a ruling party’s politician. The article was taken off the website within an hour, obviously, due to undue pressure. 

Well-known American journalist Scott Pelley said, “Democracies succeed or fail based on their journalism.” Looking at what is going on on our airtime, the picture looks particularly bleak. If we don’t introspect and change now, we’ll surely perish!

(The author is the Managing Editor of NDTV Worldwide. The views expressed are the author’s own and The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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