Back to the field from studios: Time to reclaim English TV journalism from star anchors

Television news today is less about the stories that need to be told or the voices that need to be heard
Back to the field from studios: Time to reclaim English TV journalism from star anchors
Back to the field from studios: Time to reclaim English TV journalism from star anchors
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Beyond the glaring lights of television studios, a debate is growing among journalists – veterans and cubs – over the state of the industry.  Introspection, perhaps, is the need of the hour when two of the biggest stars of Indian news TV -- Barkha Dutt and Arnab Goswami -- are engaging in an all-out war in full public view. You can read about their tiff here.  

Several TV journalists, reporters and editors, have since pitched in and lamented the worsening standards of English TV journalism in India.

The chief target has been the man whose primetime show overshadows every other, Arnab Goswami. While he is credited with the falling standards of television journalism in India, there is a larger problem at play in the English-language news space – the reportage is dwindling, and star reporters and editors are becoming the story.

“What we were taught in journalism school or the early years of our career was that the reporter is not the story. The problem is that, of late, the reporter, star anchor or editor has become the story. The fact that we are discussing Barkha vs Arnab today shows that there is something rotten about TV journalism today,” says senior journalist TS Sudhir, who has spent several years at NDTV and later at India Today.

And it isn’t just these two people, there is a huge systemic problem, several journalists admit. “Rajdeep Sardesai used to boast that CNN-IBN was the only reporter-driven channel back in 2007. But the tide changed following the 26/11 attacks when there was a sudden realisation that it’s cheaper to call people to the studio. That’s when things started to go south,” says HR Venkatesh, Founder-Editor, Neta Data and formerly Senior Anchor at CNN-IBN.

Sudhir points to the 2008 financial meltdown as the beginning of the change. He says, “TV studios decided that they can make the same revenue by doing debate shows and covering the same subjects with talking heads, which is cheaper than sending people out for real stories. TV has become a radio largely.”

Television news today is less about the stories that need to be told or the voices that need to be heard. While channels pride themselves in being 24/7, the challenge, it appears, is no longer about filling in space with quality reportage. “TV reporters have become byte collectors or standing talkers required to fill up air time,” concedes Venkatesh, pointing to the vacuity of live reportage. Two-minute news packages, the industry standard, are a rarity during the evening primetime band when star anchors and their talking heads take over.

Promotional ads for the biggest channels are telling giveaways when it comes to the reorientation of news coverage. Across all five channels, promos feature anchors, making them the faces to watch out for on TV.  

“It’s the death of the reporter,” sums up Pallavi Ghosh, Senior Editor covering politics for CNN-News18. Much of the focus for editors is building the day up to primetime – when a large chunk of viewers tune-in. Pallavi dryly notes, “During the day, reporters run around giving all the elements for primetime. But there is no space for the reporter at 9pm. TV is all about the faces and TRPs. News has become anchor-driven.”      

But Pallavi isn’t alone in her disillusionment. Another reporter working for an English news channel highlights the tyranny of distance in the newsroom. “Earlier, the tendency was for channels to showcase their depth in reporters who are far and wide – that you have someone in Jammu and Kashmir or Thiruvananthapuram or the North East. But now the minute you move to the outpost, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he laments.  Unlike their colleagues at the headquarters, bureau reporters have to deal with resource crunches like faulty cameras or payment of bills to stringers. And when a “big story” does break in any of these outposts, bureau reporters very often have to fight for air-time as star anchors are parachuted-in to cover disasters or elections.

Venkatesh argues that the problem is with the way the business model of English news channels is structured, revolving around advertising. “Anchors are getting shriller and news more sensational and provocative to retain the audience. The fear is that people won’t stick around for a plain vanilla kind of debate,” the former anchor says.  Venkatesh’s argument is echoed by Pallavi as well, who observes that the marketing department has a big say in editorial content, which was not the case earlier. “First they wanted campaign-driven coverage. Now they want faces to go with the campaign. It’s become a business model,” confesses Pallavi.

And although Arnab Goswami may have cracked the code for Times Now, former anchors like Venkatesh say, “He has done a disservice to journalists.”  

But it isn’t just the absence of reporting that is plaguing TV journalism, it is also a distinct lack of sensitivity, says former TV journalist B Jayashree, and that’s been happening for a while.

“I have worked with UNICEF in the past, and one of my colleagues there told me how a popular reporter from an English news channel came to cover the 2004 tsunami, and made survivors cry for the camera after they had taken a lot of effort to calm them down,” narrates Jayashree, who is now the head of the Media Resource Centre at MSSRF.

“I don’t want to generalise here, but in the race for TRPs and histrionics, people forget the primary purpose of news media,” says Jayashree, “and with their work sets back actual change.”

And the state of TV media is having a disastrous impact on the upcoming generation of TV journalists.

“Youngster who get into TV journalism come with the wrong idea of wanting to be star,” says Sudhir. “We need some heroes, like Sam Mankeshaw for the Army or Amitabh Bachchan for acting. There have been journalists who have been inspired by journalists, but they have to be the exception.”

“For us, it was never wanting to be a celebrity. We wanted to change the world, to whatever extent,” reminisces Jayashree, “You can’t be bigger than the news, you cannot be bigger than the medium. Telling the tale is more important than showing my face on camera.”

As a result of this, people don’t trust journalists anymore, she adds.

While the need of the hour is a reboot, Venkatesh and Pallavi say television journalism can be reclaimed through the digital medium. While reporters are constantly vying for airtime, the digital platform gives those like Pallavi the space and time to analyse a story or share her thoughts on the subject. “A reboot can happen when there is a big crisis. Maybe version 2.0 is around the corner,” says Venkatesh who points to the falling number of English viewers.  

Meanwhile, as far as the ongoing mud-slinging between Barkha and Arnab goes, it’s time for some responsible behavior from both, says former BBC editor Sanjeev Srivastava, writing for IANS.

He writes,

“The Barkha-Arnab slugfest is now not just about clashing egos and contrasting styles, it's about who is on which side of our sharply polarised polity. Both are free to choose which side they want to battle for, but as someone who has genuine admiration for both of them – one may agree or disagree with them on different issues but there's no denying their success and spunk – is it too much to ask for some restraint from both these fellow journalists? For a majority of our young journalists, these two are role models.

At a time when this country is losing faith in most institutions, including journalism, it's the responsibility of both of you – idolised and hero worshipped by so many – to uphold the dignity of our profession.”

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