The transformation of the television news into entertaining information over relevance and objectivity was completed when prime-time bulletins became mini fact-finding commissions.

Voices Thursday, June 05, 2014 - 05:30
By Deepthy Menon Less than a generation ago, television news was mostly sanitised, pro-government news that read like press releases or “Doordarshanese.” What was of interest then were the iconic newsreaders, who spoke to us, sitting in our drawing rooms, in perfect English and Hindi. The stress then, was on how news was delivered – the pronunciation, diction and presentation. English-medium schools encouraged students to watch news and correct their language and diction. That was also the time when a new pair of Bata shoes was a fashion statement. By the time I became a television news journalist, 24/7 had been to Mars and back. Our challenge was figuring out content that kept the target viewership hooked to watching more than one bulletin. News was to be packaged as instant noodles – with salt, without salt, with gluten, without gluten depending on ever-changing weights and measures. New formats thus got discovered – for instance, tic-tacs – in lay terms, they were interviews shot by a journalist on a single camera with the focus panning from the journalist asking the question to the interviewee. This technically un-sound format roared at the box-office. It was so easy to edit and telecast in minimum time that it entered the bible of television journalism’s good practices. Regular sound-bites were now tic-tacs – the journalist’s piece to camera in 2 minutes was a perk. Door-stepping – first introduced in TV journalism in the USA in the 80’s– had Indian competition. What they could do, we could copy and worsen. When there was no official version to a story and a sound bite was “critical” to demonstrate persistence in “uncovering the truth,” we stalked people, camped outside their homes, under their window sills. We even blocked their cars. Did you say necessity is the mother of invention? Often, the only story was a journalist literally chasing a story in full view of the camera and the world. A ‘No Comment’ accompanied by footage of the newsmaker hurrying away was enough to make a headline – “XX Ducks Questions, Leaves in Haste”. When played in a loop with the reporter’s question and the refusal on camera – a meaty television story was ready. From a time when the editor withheld a story for lack of convincing sound bites, we have progressed into a decade where graphic plates with source based information have lowered the threshold of permissibility. The transformation of the television news into entertaining information over relevance and objectivity was completed when prime-time bulletins became mini fact-finding commissions- dissecting, assessing and often passing judgement on the developments of the day. Prime-time is now defined by a summary of the day’s main events, often one or two discussed dissected in minutae with a generous dose of grand-standing , heated tempers and heightened decibels that jam that can scramble airwaves without trying. I have often asked the loyal audience of prime time news why they are loathe to miss these shows. The most frequent reply comes with a laugh, “because they take charge of these politicians, they don’t let them get away with any nonsense”. Should this be what television news offers its loyal viewership? Pull a quote out of context, interpret reluctance to talk as an obvious admission of guilt or the deliberate choice of panellists – whose main qualifications to speak on the issue under debate are often that they are vocal, unabashed about giving their vocal cords a free run and have a clear stand – for or against the premise. 24-hour news wheels have distorted the importance of news. To a seasoned broadcast journalist, news bulletins represent a formula that has changed little in the last decade. In TV parlance, it is called a template. Assignment desks on news scour the net and among their reporters for stories that fit into the best-seller list of fiction – terrorism, political controversies, national security get the top-billing. Routine missives from the home ministry, on a low-news day can get played up to make the entire country appear to be a revolving terror beacon. On other days, the killing of ten labourers in Bihar ends up relegated into a wrap of news stories, quickly mentioned and forgotten. Words used in the news stories subtly suggest a sub-text – an opinion, a colour that are visible to those paying attention. Copy editors rarely strike off bold adjectives from headlines to stories. Visual gimmickry has replaced plain-vanilla reporting, offering not just technical finesse to story-telling but also a slant that offers the newsroom’s opinion to the audience. Dig deeper and the bottom line that editors at TV news channels are forced to chase becomes evident. In the hunt for Total Rating Points or TRPs as they are more popularly known, the big news of the day becomes that what could potentially grab maximum eyeballs. Therefore a Shah Rukh Khan’s minor scrapes or the Indian cricket team’s success or failure gets inordinate amount of air time. Stories that advertisers and sponsors are willing to pay for become sub-conscious benchmarks. Moreover, with the corporate takeover of media houses, ‘sensitive’ topics get sidelined and ‘tamer’ controversies that do not harm interests are preferred. TV journalists can list out long lists of such stories that were sacrificed at the altar of commercial considerations. Reporting a story, as once was taught in schools- of 5Ws and 1H, objective, accurate and with attribution- vintage is long dead. Till the popularity of the new mutant form of reporting, that is obeisant to corporate interests, replete with opinions, debates and controversies raked up for the sake of TRPs wanes, we shall remain the mute audience to news being the daily dose of WWF of infotainment. (Deepthy Menon is a burnt out TV journalist, with no political allegiance, left or right. Her current avatar as a mercenary writer and communication strategist is largely her way of funding her insatiable lust for travel and stories).
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