Breaking the Stupidity Barrier

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IN the last decade or two, the Indian TV space has opened to private players. Initially the programming on these new channels mainly revolved around entertainment and movies. With the passage of time, news channels also started to be a part of the plethora of TV channels that a viewer could watch. In fact in the last decade, these news channels have seen an exponential growth with news channels being launched in all languages, national, regional and English language as well. What started off as a revolution in the Indian news media has now turned into a pure commodity business, with each channel and news anchor trying to create their own USP to remain top of the charts. The result of this mad rush for TRPs has been deterioration not only in the quality of the news but its credibility as well.  

India has a huge news market. At present it has more than 80,000 newspapers in circulation. Add to that hundreds of TV channels and over 1500 radio stations. India also has more than 120 million broad band connections. In a country with a population of about 1.25 billion, there is huge upside potential given the size of the market. There is a mad rush out there to capture market share which has directly affected the quality of news and journalism.

Of all the news mediums in India, the TV news has remained in focus since many years. The space has seen increased competition during these years and all channels are doing their best to retain the ratings. This expansion and mushrooming of the TV News channels needs to be seen with the rising urbanisation and an expanding middle class in India. Since this class is also the bigger attraction for advertisers, all news channels are competing for eyeballs and space among this section. Sensing the changing trends in the Indian demography and this expanding news space coupled with an increase in social media consumption, the now ruling BJP revolved its election campaign around this phenomenon and harvested rich benefits.

In their desire to expand and retain their viewership, TV channels have not only used and exploited trends in the social media and resorted to hashtag journalism, but have also increasingly resorted to hyper nationalism, jingoism and outright sensationalism.  At times, journalists and media houses have resorted to unethical practises as well. From Radia Tapes in 2010 to the recent Essar leaks, Indian news media, especially TV News media has been hit by scandals and is struggling for credibility. In 2012, senior editors of Zee News were arrested for allegedly demanding Rs 100 crore from the Jindal Group. The news channel allegedly made this demand in exchange for the channel diluting their campaign against the company in the Coal scam. The Jindal group Chairman Naveen Jindal conducted a reverse sting operation on these editors and hence the news channel was exposed. The floodgates to such unethical practices were actually opened after the economic liberalisation in the early 1990s and have accentuated now due to increased competition among various media houses. News is now just about instant gratification. It is about sensationalism and political spin.

Indian TV news anchors and reporters have also become notorious for their insensitivity and boastfulness while covering natural disasters. During the devastating floods that hit J and K State in Sep 2014, most Indian news channels played to the galleries and converted their coverage into a relentless advertisement for the Indian Army and Air Force rescue efforts. There was much chest thumping involved in their coverage of this tragedy with utter disregard to the dignity and sensibility of the victims. Many TV anchors were seen thrusting their mikes into the face of a victim who had been rescued by Indian Army or NDRF Team and was made to feel obliged and thankful to their efforts for rescuing them. This ugly and shameless coverage of the floods in Kashmir further accentuated a sense of alienation among Kashmiris. Compared to the sensationalism of Indian TV anchors and reporters, most common Kashmiris went about the rescue efforts with utmost calm, grace and dignity. The Indian news channels coverage of the floods turned into an ugly and shameless propaganda.  It looked like the Indian TV channels were competing with each other in encashing the tragedy that had befallen Kashmir.

Their coverage of the recent Nepal earthquake was no different. Nepalese citizens were so annoyed by and angry at Indian media’s coverage of the tragedy that they created the hashtag #IndianMediaGoHome on Twitter. Soon this hashtag started to trend on the social media site and creative memes began floating on social media making fun of Indian media and journalists. The stupidity to which Indian news channels stretched themselves in coverage of these natural disasters was epic. The lesson from the Nepal experience was that even in the age of televised generosity and charity, there are red lines which the media should not cross.

The author of ‘’The Art of Thinking Clearly’’, Rold Dobelli writes that ‘’News reports do not represent the real world. Our brains are wired to pay attention to visible, large, scandalous, sensational, shocking, people related, story-formatted, fast changing, loud, graphic onslaughts of stimuli. Our brains have limited attention to spend on more subtle pieces of intelligence that are small, abstract, ambivalent, complex, slow to develop and quiet, much less silent. News organizations systematically exploit this bias. News media outlets, by and large, focus on the highly visible. They display whatever information they can convey with gripping stories and lurid pictures, and they systematically ignore the subtle and insidious, even if that material is more important. News grabs our attention; that’s how its business model works ‘’. This is true of news media worldwide. It is now upto the viewers of these Indian news channels whether they are happy with the sensational, jingoistic  and below average quality of news they watch or whether they will  force these media houses to come up with more nuanced, credible and relevant news.

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