Keep in mind an old Indian road safety sign while watching the latest Indian television news.
“Speed thrills but kills.”
Yes, speed is killing some of the most basic tenets of journalism on television, such as accuracy and challenging power. Being wrong is pardonable, but being late, absolutely not. Viewers have many choices today, so keeping it fresh draws more immediate benefits than keeping it honest. That’s why Indian television news has competed in one rapid race, but to the bottom. And viewers are insulted.
The double murders in Noida have become a lightning rod for viewer criticism of this trend. The media’s split personality is under scrutiny. It is a crusader, but also a moral leper. It is a watchdog, but also a vulture. It is high-minded, but also hypocritical. And competition, which is normally a good thing for the consumer, is driving such extreme behaviour. Competition has killed critical thinking, so, dear editors, do something about it.
For instance, 24-hour news places immense pressure on reporters and editors. So, if the police make a new statement theorizing about extra-marital affairs or honour killings, it is dutifully reported “as it happens”, since wall-to-wall coverage requires that things move forward. Newsrooms do not debate the merits of a police statement. That responsibility has been abdicated. Besides, there is no time to grapple with such professional and ethical niceties because the competition has already put it on air. It’s up to the viewer to think and evaluate.
But anyone who justifies this blind reporting is making a very self-serving argument. An editor of a Hindi channel recently defended his channel’s actions in the Noida murder coverage as merely “reporting what the police was saying”. Yet, the same channel has also started a parallel investigation by hiring private detectives. Clearly, it doesn’t believe the police, so why report it?
Also, take a closer look at the cast of characters who appear on the screen when there are such stories of investigations into murders, frauds, scams or controversies. Usually, the most vulnerable are on air as in this case — a grieving family and friends. Rarely will you see the policeman or politician involved turn up in a studio for the evening news, open to being grilled.
Jayalalithaa had nearly 44 corruption cases against her. But be sure you’ll never see her in a studio.
The bureaucratic and political establishment has learnt how to game the system by feeding the news machinery with a meaningless and quick sound byte while entering or exiting a building. Yet, you would imagine that if 25 reporters decided they weren’t going to budge till they got an interview, corrupt government servants would eventually have to answer some tough questions. They are duty-bound to. But that seemingly simple option doesn’t happen because of the pressure to produce. The 24-hour hungry beast waits for no one and people such as Jayalalithaa have figured it out. Dodge the media a couple of times and they give up. Grieving families and poor folks don’t know that and are made to believe they are obliged to talk to the press.
There is a sub-culture even among reporters. Better to sink together than stand alone. For instance, to avoid getting into trouble with each others’ editors, reporters may decide to collectively abandon a painful wait for a politician. Dodge-them-and-they-go-home works exceptionally well. Thus, competition has given us some variety but also more of the same.
Who will break this vicious cycle? Who will show the courage to construct a fiercely independent style? Who will endeavour to cultivate an intelligent audience? The decision has to be made at the top and the foot soldiers on the field will follow. Whoever decides that things need to change will show leadership, courage and critical thinking — qualities television news can profit from.
Published in Mint on June 5th 2008.