Edition : February 2015

Views, Not News, on TV Channels

The entry of private TV news channels has lit up the world of journalism in India. It has also changed the character of the print media in the country which after playing a stellar role during the freedom gave up its staid character post-emergency and is now severly competitive. The arrival of the aggressive private news channels is forcing the print media to adopt new strategies to ward off the new challenges. So far, the print and the electronic media in India seem to exist side by side, without any immediate threat to the existence of the print media. But the prospect of survival has begun to hant both the print and the electronic media, especially with the arrival of the 'new' media or the social media.
The proliferation of the electronic media in India has made competition tough. The channels are trying to be more and more 'lively'. Some would say they are becoming 'sensational', focussed as they are on Television Rating Points (TRPs). TRP is a crucial factor in a TV company because it decides its earning capacity.

The ploys that the TV channels are adopting to be in the race for TRPs is driving them to practices that, to put in mildly, are not in conformity with the standards of fair journalism that does not resort to 'shocking' tactis or things that hurt the sensibilities of people. Recently, a TV channel invited a lot of criticism when it aired pictures of the marks on the body of Sunanda Pushkar who was married to the diplomat-turned-author-turned politician, Shashi Tharoor.
Some of the questions, raised in the social media, was whether it was alright to show the 'disturbing' photographs of a dead woman on a TV channel at prime time? Many think taht it is bad enough that the increasingly intruding TV allows no privacy to living persons, but it is worst to deny it to the dead. Don't the TV channels have any respect for the dead? These are some of the questions that were debated in the public domain.
Not every critic was sympathetic to Tharoor, but they were inclined to denounce the increasing tendency in the media to conduct trial. But it has become a reality today. The media's job is to report, not pass judgement-the job exclusively assigned to the judiciary. In India, there is a very good reason to decry 'media trial' because the major part of the media in the country is controlled by corporate houses or families who often align themselves politically. That raises questions about their impartiality.

One could ask what is wrong with TV channels supporting this or that party or candidate; it happens in almost all countries, whether 'free' or ruled by a dictator. There is, however, one important difference. In 'free' countries TV channels are clearly identified with personal or political interests. It becomes obligatory for such channels to air their predilections. The irony is that almost every TV channel claims to be free of any bias or political alignment.
This is not the platform to discuss the political affiliations of Indian TV channels or the interest of those who run the channels. A more relevant issue is the pronounced bias of the TV anchors and presenters. One media website recently did a survey about the political preferences of some of the top media persnalities. The interesting part is that almost all the familair names and TV personalities were found to have a fair degree of political bias.
The first job of any news dispensing outlet is to provide accurate information that has little room for 'editorialising' of the news. Not that expression of views is outside the purview of the media, print or electronic. But news and views have to be presenetd on two separate platforms.

Indian channels have made this irritating rule that a news programme will be presented loaded with views-of not just the guests (mostly politicians) but also the anchor. A lot of viewers find the format of a news programme-'news show'-rather off putting. First, on most programmes the news anchor hogs more time than the guests and apears keen to transmit his or her biases to the viewer. The anchor ignites the first light by provoking the guests, usually a collection of about six. Thereafter it is a free-for-all; the guests on the show speak simultaneously. If they are not drowning each other's voices, the anchor makes sure with his or her own lung power. It is more like a noisy fish market.
Make no mistake. TV viewers and newspaper readers like nothing more than people in power being given a tough time. But there is no journalism manual that says that the only way to make a guest, especially a politician, squirm with unease is to shout at him or her after throwing a 'difficult' question at him or her.
News programmes on TV are watched by people who are interested in current affairs and by and large they are capable of forming their own opinions on the basis of plain facts, without having to be 'guided' or propped up by news anchors.
The credibility of TV anchors who are in a hurry to pass instant judgement must be under stress when their verdict is rejected after an inquiry or in a court of law. The credibility of most anchors and their channels must have taken a beating after the Lok Sabha polls. Most of the 'trenchent' critics of the present prime minister before the polls apear to be competing for singing his praise! What transpired that made them do a complete U-turn?

The 'shouting' anchors forget that some of their guests are equally capable of exploding. There is one particular 'shouting' anchor who is said to be able to 'terrorise' almost any guest. How true is that? While interviewing an equally 'terrorising' politician of Maharashtra he appeared to be incredibly coy after some tough talk by his guest.
The other day, a guest, exasperated by his repeated needling, showed the anchor her middle finger. Nobody in the studio appeared shocked because the guest was a lady. But it had set another precedent, a bad one, for the 'news shows' that are more about views and personal prejudices. Are we ready to change the style of presenting news in the form of a weekly market in the neighbourhood?

- Atul Cowshish

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