5 years ago, a movie called Peepli Live was made, which was about the Indian media sensationalizing the suicide attempt of a farmer. The movie ended with the farmer escaping from this media vortex, that had capitalised on his poverty and made it a standing joke amongst the public. Though inaccurate in places, the movie was a live example of what really happens in the news media in India today. Conscientious story-telling has not managed to permeate the news industry, and news channels seem to have been set up without an understanding of what news reporting really means. What is surprising though is the methodology whipped up by news channels- sensationalism. It won’t be unsurprising to say that Indians thrive on sensationalism, we have a society that loves some masala in everything. But sensationalism, in films is very different from an implementation in reality.
Masala in chai isn’t the same as masala in coffee.
A career in news reporting in India is particularly not considered a good career option for most people. One, the crazy working hours, and two, the high amount of risk associated with it. Its not that our reporters are winning Pulitzers for their prize-winning reporting anyways. They are paid menial amounts of money for a job that doesn’t provide job satisfaction. The news media, unfortunately doesn’t train its journalists for conscientious reporting. They rely on the people’s idiosyncracies, but what they don’t realise that they can’t bank on people’s insensitivity.
There was a time when watching the news meant getting information about the world. Parents (particularly fathers), used to switch on news channels much to the disdain of their children, and on the TV the reporter reported the day’s news events, without really breaking into a dance or a sensational dialogue. So, where did Indian news reporting go wrong?
Let’s start at the beginning. NDTV and Barkha Dutt. While I am not doubting the calibre of Prannoy Roy for establishing a big media magnate like the NDTV, what we need to understand is that news channels like Aaj Tak and NDTV have over years transformed into news arenas for news that sells, and that is motivated by factors other than objectivism. Barkha Dutt started off as a young woman journalist, hailed as a pioneer for women in journalism, treated better than our war heroes for her brave reporting during the Kargil War of 1999.
But those who look at Barkha Dutt’s work closely will see a marked change post-1999. The same Barkha Dutt, who took innumerable efforts to report what was happening on the field in Kargil to the Indian populace, that same woman was seen in a completely different avatar in 2008 after the Mumbai bomb attacks. Her sensational treatment of the situation, invoking the terrorist angle again and again, quoting people she had spoken to, but were not willing to come forth, was cringeworthy. It is not that India doesn’t need to be informed that a terrorist attack has happened. But we need proof, reporting doesn’t mean dismissing the security outside the Taj Hotel, it means sending a message to the people that maybe it is an attack unprecedented in scale, not something directly being attributed to a terrorist attack or a military ambush. Even if we tune into ‘We the People’ of Barkha Dutt, her sensational questioning is mind-blowing in its attribute. In one episode (which I unfortunately had the privilege of attending), she asked Priyadarshini Matoo’s father. “Sir, how did you feel after your daughter’s rape?”. Now, I want to understand, does reporting mean insensitive questioning, or do we need to even understand that truthful reporting means there is also a line that we shouldn’t cross?
Not just Barkha Dutt, the whole media industry was in the same boat as her in 2008. Television coverage of the attacks showed dead bodies and hostages trapped in rooms, revealed commando operations and positions and reported the location of hostages at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Senior news editors were accused of playing martial music between updates and providing airtime to Bollywood actors and other members of Mumbai’s chatterati. One station even aired a telephone conversation with one of the 10 gunmen.
It’s been nearly 7 years since this disastrous news reporting that not only got us national shame, but also international criticism. But have we learnt anything? While India prides itself in a media that has exposed the biggest Government scandals, exposed politicians and given air-time to the ‘right’ people- can we also accept that the way news is reported in India isn’t exactly the best? Comparing ourselves to China where there is complete absence of such freedom for media makes no sense. India is a very good example of abuse of free speech. While Tehelka was once considered a bastion for conscientious reporting, who can explain the various allegations of ‘fake reporting’ and Congress funding Tehelka receives? After all, God also has a weakness.
It is not that Indian media hasn’t seen any change. Times of India’s Nirbhaya campaign, where the rape victim’s name wasn’t revealed by the media, but a name was given to the victim which would echo in the hearts of every Indian was a revolutionary move. But it took more than 20 years to get such a campaign in place. Do we need to wait another 20 years to see some sensitivity in news reporting? Especially reporting of terrorist attacks and natural disasters?
India is proud of its free speech, the nation listens to the press and what it has to say about everything. Otherwise we wouldn’t have websites like Kafila.org and Scroll.in slowly garnering followers. Everyone wants to hear the news, but no one wants a soap opera. We do not pay TV channel distributors for insensitive portrayals of impoverished people after an earthquake. We need to dissect and remove the Bollywood “effect” from news. We can’t claim that our news reporters work hard day and night to produce the news we want to hear – our news reporters are struggling young people who are a victim of herd reporting. To ascend the ladder, they have to do what the system demands- let go of their ideals and produce content that gets ratings.
It is also the fault of the people- not just news channels. We like listening to such news, we like sensationalism. The media relies on ratings, which they get from viewers. Otherwise why are channels like India TV still running? That is where we need to learn from Nepal. The Nepalis taught us what we couldn’t learn in a lifetime- that it is time Indian media goes home, and revisits its roots. It is time Indian media revises its approach towards news reporting and realises that getting interviews of earthquake afflicted people isn’t selling news nor are headlines stating things like “OMG, Pakistan sends Beef packets to Nepal, in a country where cows are sacred!”. Modi is image-conscious, and indeed Modi’s help to Nepal in this time of extreme crisis shouldn’t go unnoticed. And nobody is disagreeing to that. But Media “phenomenons” aren’t going to last long anymore because now the people are waking up to the call Nepalis have finally made.
If India needs to be an example for media houses all over the world, as a country that promotes free speech in its highest form through its unrestricted media, then it also needs to realise that it needs a reformation. The old people in power should conquer this ‘supari journalism’, introduce a consciousness that can permeate all levels of the reporting hierarchy. Today Nepal has asked Indian media to go back, tomorrow Indians themselves will make Indian media go home. Its not long before that happens.
I am still proud that India has a free media. Those who believe that freedom of media should be restricted are grossly mistaken. We need reformation. Bans or censorship isn’t the answer.