Sunday, August 19, 2012

Media in popular imagination

The Hoot, August 19, 2012

The apparent ability of the media to make or break movements has generated unreal expectations among the public. Keeping Assam in focus, KALPANA SHARMA says sufferings of the people are no longer considered saleable.
Posted/Updated Sunday, Aug 19 11:10:06, 2012

Why is the public mad at the media? The answer to that is not simple.  Nor does it relate only to the anger and physical attacks on the media as witnessed in Mumbai on August 11. 

Behind that question are a number of issues that we in the media need to unpack and address. First, is the expectation that the media will be fair and balanced, representing all points of view, valid in the new media environment? Second, are people justified in expecting more from the media? And third, how far have the media themselves contributed to a situation where people have unreal expectations followed by disappointment and anger towards the media.

The “media” in popular imagination have now become the electronic media even if newspapers continue to sell. The television has become the visible face of the media for the common person. And for youth, an increasingly important “medium” is social media. Surveys have not yet established this, but it is becoming evident even from random informal surveys that young people do not get their news from newspapers. They depend on the Internet, social media, and perhaps television.

Given this reality of what is perceived as “media” in popular imagination in India, is the expectation of fairness and balance justified? The skew in media coverage, seen in the choice of stories, what is pursued and what is dropped, what is picked as the story of the day to discuss threadbare, what are the stories that never see the time of day, has been driven by television ratings (even if these are now under question). No television channel will deny this. 

In the last five or six years, viewers have watched the gradual transformation of “news” into opinion and entertainment. On most English television channels, the last “news” bulletin comes before 8 p.m. After that, prime time is reserved for opinion, dressed up to be combative and therefore entertaining. Only if something really major happens after 8 p.m. is this routine disrupted with “breaking news”. The choice of what is considered “breaking news” is, of course, another issue that can be debated. But the point remains that “news” as was once known to be a recounting of the important developments in the day, reported with as much impartiality as possible, is now not the norm on the news and current affairs channels. So, if some people accuse the media of not being fair or balanced, there is little with which the media can defend themselves.


The other accusation is that the media are “negative”. The latest to join issue with the media on this is the recently disbanded Team Anna. At the renewed protests against corruption this year, several leading lights of Team Anna openly accused the media of “negative coverage”, claiming that the media were not projecting the real numbers attending their rallies. This is ironical because the same charge was made against the media last year (not by Team Anna but by their critics)--only that time the media were accused of exaggerating the numbers attending the meetings.

In the early days of the anti-corruption movement last year, camera angles were used cleverly to give the impression of a larger number of people than were actually present. Some television channels such as Times Now openly urged viewers to join the anti-corruption crusaders and made an editorial decision to give the campaign blanket coverage. This triggered a similar response from other channels as they saw an increase in the viewership of Times Now. And before you knew it, the anti-corruption campaign had grown larger than life, with all channels proclaiming that “the whole country” was behind the movement. Did the media coverage give the movement a boost?  Without doubt it did.

The difference in the coverage of the Hazare movement this time round to last year is striking. This time too the protests began small. But television channels paid scant attention to them. The one channel that was the chief promoter of the movement seemed to have switched off. Why? How much did this have to do with news judgment and how much to directions from owners who had lost interest? That is a tale that has yet to unravel, but it is obvious that with no channel “backing” the movement, the cascading effect of media coverage seen last time did not happen. 

This apparent ability of the media to make or break movements has generated unreal expectations and the matching disappointment and anger. Once again, it is justified because the decision to either support or ignore a movement does not seem based on objective “news” criteria.  For instance, if the numbers supporting a movement were seen as the critical aspect to ensure coverage, many workers’ rallies and demonstrations by landless people should have received far greater coverage. Yet, how many people even know that there have been very large demonstrations in the heart of the capital that barely get any media attention?

And finally, let us look at the issue of the coverage of the Assam ethnic conflict, the ostensible reason for the attack on the media in Mumbai on August 11.

Humanitarian crisis

By all counts what has happened in Assam since July 19 and especially the recent weeks where lakhs of displaced people have been crammed into relief camps, is one of the biggest humanitarian crises that the country has seen in recent times. Yet you would not believe it if you read the newspapers or watched television channels. NDTV has been an honorable exception and has kept the focus on Assam through on-the-spot reports and studio discussions. Unfortunately, its reporter in Assam does not speak Assamese. As a result, he is able to extract only part of the story from the survivors of the violence and must depend on a handful of Hindi speakers. Could the channel not have found an Assamese journalist to do the reporting?

Just on the merits of the story--the sheer numbers displaced, the kind of ethnic violence, the history of the region--this is the one that should be on front pages as the lead story. There are several reasons why this has not happened.

News channels conveniently trot out the excuse of distance and remoteness. Can this be accepted at a time when communication is possible in so many different ways? Can we really believe that an enterprising news channel could not have found a way of getting footage of the worst of the relief camps? Even at the height of the war in Sri Lanka, the footage of the atrocities taking place during the fighting and the conditions of the refugee camps, was available to news channels and telecast on leading international channels such as Channel 4 in the UK.

The real reason nothing like this happens in India is because the suffering of these poor people in Assam is not a saleable story. Who wants to read or look at the consequences of localized violence on people living in a remote corner of India? Especially when there are so many other “sexy” stories to tell: the return of our athletes from London, the release of the latest Bollywood blockbuster, and the never-ending chatter of politicians on any and every subject that television anchors choose to make their daily focus. 

(To read the original, click here)

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