TRPs vs privacy: Tollywood reporters are forced to walk a tightrope

Since there is acute competition among channels, each reporter or anchor tries to top the other by using graphics, exaggerated modulation, or making ‘revelations’ that others haven’t.
TRPs vs privacy: Tollywood reporters are forced to walk a tightrope
TRPs vs privacy: Tollywood reporters are forced to walk a tightrope
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When Tollywood celebrity couple Samantha and Naga Chaitanya announced their separation, media houses and YouTube channels went to town with speculation over the reason behind the split. “Is THIS the reason for the divorce?” and “Is it Samantha’s mistake?” screamed the headlines, accompanied by pictures of the actor with her stylist Preetham Jukalker. Wild claims about the alimony sum “demanded” by Samantha were also flung in the air, with no official source or confirmation about any of it. It only took a ‘report’ on one site as early as August 2021 for it to mushroom everywhere else. However, this is only a small sample of the kind of invasive and insensitive coverage that entertainment reporters are required to do on their job. 

While routine rumour mongering, such as spreading stories about the ‘impending marriage’ of Baahubali actors Prabhas and Anushka Shetty, is common, much of entertainment journalism also involves a good deal of sexism and misogyny. In the recently held Movie Artists Association elections, for example, issues related to women candidates like Hema, Anasuya and Pragathi were blown out of proportion. 

Reporters on the entertainment beat say that even if they don’t wish to do it, they are under tremendous pressure to grab eyeballs and increase the media house’s digital presence across social media platforms. And nothing sells as much as slander and gossip. 

‘Keep the viewer glued’

An entertainment reporter working in a prominent Telugu channel says, “Earlier, this kind of coverage used to be limited to small YouTube channels. They’d use unrelated or exaggerated thumbnails about the content. But, it has now spread to top Telugu news channels and websites as well, and the strategy seems to be working out.”

When it becomes clear to the channel that the news they’re putting out is of interest to the audience and it will benefit their TRP, the subject is extended from appearing in a scroll to a 20-minute special programme. 

“They will try to get friends or someone related to the actor to speak. If these people are not ready, they will bring in some lawyers or doctors who are already famous and make them comment on the issue,” the reporter adds.

During the divorce saga, while a few Telugu news channels kept away from continuous coverage, a few others like TV9 dedicated a lot of time for the coverage.

“Reporters were under a lot of pressure to keep the story going. Once we knew that the separation was going to happen, it was imperative to keep the story going till the official announcement came. And once the official announcement came, for another week the debate was on why,” an editor of a Telugu news channel told TNM. 

This editor pointed out that reporters were under a lot of pressure to call multiple sources and weed out theories, but since the channels were at the risk of facing wrath from the industry, they deployed another tactic. “So let’s say there is a piece of gossip. It would look irresponsible to air it on the channel, though websites can do it. So instead a guest is brought in, who will put forth this gossip theory and then it takes a life of its own,” the editor explains.

Another TV reporter cites the coverage of actor Sai Dharam Tej’s accident: “For a non-fatal accident of a celebrity, there were two to three reporters along with camera persons from the same channel who went to the spot. They were doing lives from different angles one after the other. They were speculating if Sai Dharam Tej was drunk, analysing his bike, wondering if he was overspeeding and so on. They do this so that the viewer is glued to the channel.”

Since there is acute competition among channels, each reporter or anchor tries to top the other by using graphics, exaggerated modulation, or making ‘revelations’ that others haven’t. 

‘Ask a controversial question’

Finding out more about the love life of celebrities is of great interest to entertainment coverage. “Get something personal” or “get something more about their relationship” is often the brief given to entertainment reporters by their respective organisations, be it print, TV or digital. 

Multiple entertainment reporters whom TNM spoke to said that TRPs or hits for a certain story determine the story leads that they’re given. Controversies are a goldmine for this, and entertainment reporters are encouraged to begin one even if nothing is happening. 

A freelance reporter who previously worked for over two years in a Telugu TV channel, says that when it comes to interviewing celebrities, they’re asked to include controversial questions. 

“There is a lot of pressure to ask about ‘trending’ news stories. We need to get the celebrity on camera, thrust a mic at them and ask some silly question that will tarnish their reputation. Why will that person give us an interview next time? For that matter, why will anyone give us an interview if we become notorious for asking such questions?”

Giving an example, the reporter says, “A famous, top musician in the industry was being trolled on social media. The person was already hurt, but I was made to repeat the same trolling in front of them to get a reaction.”

While some celebrities take such behaviour in their stride, others can very well block the reporter and cut off access entirely. 

“This is the case most of the time. We are given questions from the top that we have to ask depending on the trending topic. If somebody is being trolled on social media, we have to bring it up with them again and ask them about it. If there’s some controversy going on, we have to find out their reaction, especially if it’s not there on other sites and channels yet. Why will celebrities bother coming up with new answers for such things every time?” says the reporter.

‘Dig into their personal life’

Though many of them detest it, entertainment reporters are often required to ask personal questions to celebrities that they’d hesitate to ask even their friends.

A reporter with more than a decade of experience in covering multiple film industries in various organisations, says, “Many of us are simply told ‘Just talk, we need a personal quote from the celeb’. This is what s/he will hear the most in their career.”

Recalling what happened with the Samantha-Naga Chaitanya split, the reporter says, “Actor Samantha recently put up a statement saying that she’s very thankful for people’s support but that she’s really bothered that people are writing all sorts of things about her. I read that and we carried the story. A couple of days later, some portal came up with a story claiming that she was not doing Atlee’s film because she was planning her pregnancy. I got a link from my office, telling me that the story was trending right now and to rewrite it and send it. But, I refused. Just two days ago, the actor had put out a statement that she was emotionally hurt and they wanted me to rehash a story that had no source, no facts and with nobody on record. I was in a position to do so because I have been working in this field for so long and I can afford to say no. But my heart goes out to a cub reporter who wants to make a difference and make a mark for themselves. How can someone junior tell their editor that it’s wrong? They can’t, though everyone knows that it is wrong.”

The public perception of entertainment journalism is also that it’s nothing but gossip. It does not carry the tag of serious journalism, like say, the crime beat.

“There are so many things that we do. We write about cinema, actors and their work, entertainment updates, the film trade and so on. Even my relatives ask me if I have any gossip for them. But I don’t write gossip, I write about cinema. People think film journalism is just sensationalism. While it’s true that many indulge in it, this is not completely right either,” the reporter laments. 

When interviewing someone from the film industry, there is far more emphasis on finding out their relationship status rather than their work in cinema. 

“When I submit an interview, they always ask me if I asked this or that about their personal life. The pressure is always there. I understand that there’s high reader interest in such things, but if somebody is going through a tough time in their personal life, it’s inhuman to ask them such questions. I mean, how do we call and ask things like: how do you feel after your break-up?” asks the reporter.

But yet another TV editor points out that the media cannot be completely blamed for this behavior, the public and even the film industry has to take a share of the blame. “One, there is huge demand for salacious news, and where there is demand, there will be supply. Second, fan clubs of big actors are very powerful. If a negative event happens about another star, these clubs exert a lot of pressure on the media to cover it,” he says.

He also adds that in the Telugu media, channels like TV 9 and NTV are mostly given the contracts to partner for audio release and other events. “Even interviews for a big movie are given only to these channels. For the scores of other channels, pre-recorded interviews with an anchor of their choice is sent by the PR team and channels simply carry it. Moreover, we just cannot write any negative or critical analysis. The film families are strong here- they produce movies and they act in it too. The moment you write something negative, they cut you off. Therefore sometimes it is only these events like a divorce or an accident that can be covered a bit more than a movie release,” he says.

Holding on to ethical standards can be tough when everyone else is profiting from a certain ‘sensational’ news that has broken out. 

“Lots of organisations write fake stories, without any credibility. This puts pressure on people who want to work with certain ethics and are not vultures,” a reporter points out. 

Another reporter who has worked across media platforms points out that the pressure is more in electronic media rather than print. 

“People at the desk working in television, design certain angles to a story and think that it’s easy for reporters on ground to execute it. But it’s easier said than done. It’s not child’s play to get someone for an interview and ask them about a particular issue while the camera is on,” says the reporter.

Sexism in the coverage

Moral policing women celebrities is a common sport in entertainment coverage. A senior reporter who has worked in various news platforms, says, “Entertainment news is mostly women celebrity centric. They put up pictures of female artists in various get-ups and come up with ‘catchy’ captions that will trend. Such things don’t happen even if a male celebrity is shirtless in a photoshoot. There must be women readers who want to read such news about male artists but such events are not blown out of proportion. Why do they limit their ‘lessons’ and ‘classes’ for the women alone?”

Not surprisingly, the nature of entertainment journalism has meant that celebrities are hesitant to open up to the media and are surrounded by a cautious public relations team that tries to protect them 24x7. 

Another reporter, who has more than 15 years of experience in covering the Telugu film industry in print media, says that there’s also a lot of ego clashes between editors of different media organisations. 

“A senior editor from a website is known for writing negative stories and reviews if his ego is hurt. If he is not kept informed prior to any major event, he will write negatively about it. The coverage depends on the whims and fancies of the people at the top,” says the reporter. 

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