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Anchors almost killed TV news in 2020. What Indian media must do in 2021

From the frenzy around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death to dwelling on ‘anti-nationals’ & ‘corona jihad’, news appeared more like entertainment in 2020.

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This was the year of a spiked, furry orange tennis ball, hurtling around the Earth with increasing speed and venom, month upon month.

The coronavirus has owned the news since February, in a way perhaps no event has since World War II: not a day passed without the latest infection tally, death toll, or hunt for a vaccine bossing the headlines.

But it can happen only in India that the death of an actor elbowed out what has been arguably the story of a lifetime — a pandemic that has infected more than 80 million worldwide — to become the defining newsmaker of the year.

2020 will be remembered as the year the news (almost) died, at the hands of news channels. Worse, it was the year TV anchors became the message instead of the messengers.

On the cusp of 2021, a few suggestions on how to revive the media.

Don’t turn news into entertainment

Normally, bad news is good news for the media — the worse it gets, the better it is for viewership. Thus, the coronavirus should have been the media’s manna from Wuhan, China.

And it was, in the initial months of 2020. From March to May, news TV went full throttle after Covid-19, dwelling on the Tablighi “corona bomb’’ (ABP News), providing hand-washing instructions and soothing “don’t panic’’ messages, following migrant labourers on their padyatras home, visiting hotspots and hospitals, spending a week at sharaab queues, scolding those wanting a drink. Remember?

But then the Chinese embarked on (military) adventure tourism in Ladakh, Covid numbers spiked, the economy tanked, and life, as we had known it, disappeared. News channels took poet T.S. Eliot’s observation, that “Humankind cannot bear too much reality’’, to heart and seized the opportunity to join the entertainment industry.

We know what followed: a D-grade melodrama with everything — a superstar and his family, a ‘temptress’, a controversial death, drugs, farmhouse parties, Bollywood gang wars, politicians, the police, and even the dead man’s atma (Aaj Tak).

And so began the summer of our disbelief, as reality was adapted into a 24×7 #JusticeForSushant telethon after actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide on June 14. For three and a half months, news channels willfully pursued the “truth” of his “murder’” (‘Who Killed Sushant?’ CNN News18), without one dust particle of evidence. They blindsided facts for WhatsApp messages, letters, fake autopsies, sting operations, hearsay, and a mishmash of medical quackery on depression, psychotropic drugs.

Media coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput's death and controversies around it | YouTube
Media coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and controversies around it | YouTube

They vilified Bollywood with a little help from the likes of Queen Kangana, hounded actor Rhea Chakraborty to jail, dragged others like Deepika Padukone into drug dragnet, and laid out Rajput’s life and body for examination on the autopsy table.

By the end of it, we didn’t care about Rajput’s state of mind but that of news channel editors worried us: in the middle of the biggest story of the century, all they were interested in was the death of an actor. What’s wrong with them?

An acute case of TRPs, that’s what — chasing television viewership ratings harder than they chased Deepika Padukone’s car to Goa’s airport. Viewership soared for news channels that participated in this disgraceful spectacle, led by Republic, Times Now, Aaj Tak, and ABP.

Then, as suddenly as they had picked up Rajput, they dropped him in early October after the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) found suicide as the likely cause of his death. News channels promptly lost interest in ‘justice’, ‘truth’ or his `murder’, and in Rhea Chakraborty.

But there was a heavy price to pay for this.

Also read: The 2020 Hall of Fame: The people who shone in a difficult year

Don’t make the news about yourselves

This ‘anything goes for TRP’ attitude saw news channels become the news. Social and the print media exploded with outrage over their Rajput-Rhea coverage, and on prime time debates, anchors like Navika Kumar (Times Now) took to defending themselves, their channels, and anchored debates on their pursuit of the “truth’’.

The media went on trial. Bollywood celebrities who felt maligned by the coverage filed cases against them; Home Minister Amit Shah, in several TV interviews, called for “balance”; the Supreme Court and the high courts questioned the media’s excesses.

Poetic justice followed: first, Mumbai Police announced an alleged TRP scam in which channels including Republic TV tried to buy viewership, leading to an undignified fratricidal war as channels attacked each other on air—India Today versus Republic—for fixing viewership.

Then came the apotheosis: Arnab Goswami was arrested in November in an abetment to suicide case of a former employee. For the next few weeks, Goswami and Republic TV were the only news broadcast on the two Republic channels — images of Goswami were plastered across the screen like that of a politician, his speeches playing in the background.

A screengrab of Republic TV. | YouTube

The news had come full circle: “Breaking news’’ and heated debates were about the news channel, and its news anchor.

There was a ‘Danger Ahead’ signboard for 2021 though: freedom of the press was challenged as the Supreme Court suggested a regulatory authority and the Narendra Modi government brought online media under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

So, isn’t it time to get back to the news, not make the news?

Also read: 2020 is the worst year since Independence, but not only because of Covid

Make news about the people, not ‘anti-nationals or ‘tukde tukde’ gang

The best thing that happened to the news in 2020 was the people. From the anti-CAA protests and the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh in January to the Delhi riots in February, the heartrending trek home by stranded workers through April and May, to the containment zones, and burial sites; to the Delhi and Bihar elections (the best news coverage of the year) and the farmers’ protests since November – people forced TV news to pay them attention.

Reporters across news channels put a sympathetic ear to the ground, and listened, and then told it like it is. Way to go.

What isn’t the way forward is to discredit people which is, sadly, what has happened. The begums of Shaheen Bagh became anti-nationals, the migrant workers were accused of spreading Covid-19 by crowding bus or railway stations – the gathering at Bandra in Mumbai in April, was deemed a “conspiracy” (India TV), a “Tablighi moment” (Times Now), the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi became “corona jihad” (Sudarshan TV), and the farmers’ protests are being written off as an Opposition-led assault on the government and the nation.

Please, stop seeing conspiracies and ‘anti-nationals’ in every nook and corner?

Also read: Modi govt’s plan to regulate digital media can hobble a growing industry if not done well

Give value to real news

Television news really didn’t do justice to the story of the century. As the lockdown unlocked, they reported on Covid-19 with stark figures and data, like it was financial news. Then came the expert opinions from doctors and scientists or government briefings. India found its own Dr Fauci in Dr Randeep Guleria, who shared his knowledge, answered questions in a calm, clear manner. Doctors in every TV studio, were the real heroes on air as they were on ground.

Apart from reruns of Doordarshan’s Mahabharat, Ramayan, Shaktimaan, Byomkesh Bakshi etc., our favorite show was the afternoon government-ICMR press briefing: who doesn’t remember Lav Agrawal from the health ministry?

And while hospitals, containment zones, and hotspots like Dharavi in Mumbai were duly visited, the coverage was largely clinical. But the coronavirus is a human tragedy besides a scientific race against time. That vital human dimension of life under lockdown, of patients recuperating at home, of the jobless, the bereaved, the essential services staff stretched beyond their limits, was missing.

Let’s value real news in 2021.

Views are personal.

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  1. A good write. Refreshing. Here is my piece – “views are personal”!
    There is no problem with the Indian Media. Indian media is the problem!
    There is a propensity in the India media to repeatedly paint a gloomy picture of the Nation especially on its economy. This may be due to a false sense that being overly critical is being erudite. The result is a plethora of sagacious “advice” to the Governments about policies and right things the right way – as if always only they know what is right for the Nation. In the process the few who follow the media are left confused.
    In the real mainstream media too it is increasingly becoming difficult to distinguish a journalist from an activist. There days a new crop of “experts” also come out with opinions and advice to Governments on all and sundry and the media afford them place with an “views are personal” tag. Ridiculous. The digital media, at least The Print, has afforded us to say our (use any adjective) piece too. As they say in Tennis – “Deuce”. But that does not obviously sustain.
    The trouble here is that, the digital media, affords any one to play any ball on to any court – invasion of “turfs” shall we say? “Free” whatever at its best!!! So thankfully the influence of mainstream media is on the decline – good or bad? The jury is still out.

  2. No mention of the “non-tabloid” NDTV and that self certified”gold standard of journalism” India Today? So even you have stopped watching them? Et tu Brutus?

  3. Just as Ambani, Adani, Tata, Birla and other business houses cannot have the same business strategy the different medias cannot be expected to have a common editorial strategy. Just as all businesses swear by the high ethics but do cut corners, all the media outlets claim to be fair and unbiased but do eventually lean one way or the other. FOR ANY BUSINESS PROFIT IS COMPLUSION FOR SURVIVAL.
    Running strategy, of X or Y down may be a good sales pitch but is beyond the realm of a journalism.
    News and views is what we the readers look for, on events and ideas not on individuals.

  4. I completely agree with the author that for last few years lot of shouting, accusing, screaming has been going on in a few media channels specially Republic Tv. I want to listen to what Arnab Goswami has to say. But I cant watch his channel for more than 2 minutes! Its trash at its worst. Its a tragedy, because he is usually speaking in national interest. Now, in all the rest of things I completely debunk this so called article from this so called journalist. Just because NDTV doesnt shout, makes them the beacon of media? It is the most biased, anti Govt, anti India channel that I have seen. 24 hour cribbing against the Govt, against arguably the most popular PM we have seen is nauseating. NDTV has not presented or reported 1 positive news story about various measures undertaken by this Govt. When Modi built toilets they cribbed about lack of water. When provided Jan Dhan accounts NDTV cried. Schemes like Saubhagya, Ujjwala were blanked out from NDTV studios. When BJP won 303 seats it seemed as if someone had died in NDTV studios. Those people who said India should be broken were hailed as champions of free speech by NDTV. In fact one NDTV reporter even taunted the whole nation after pulwama by asking this grieving country ‘How’s the Jaish’? I am not surprised this this author said not one word about all this. Because You see, this website, these so called ‘journalists’ are from the same pack as NDTV. They might change their names to The Print OR The Wire Or NDTV but they remain the same. Last but not least, You commented about your favourite media channels ‘having their ear to the ground’. I must disagree again. If You lot had Your ear to the fround You would have seen 4 consecutive Gujarat Victories, 2 full majority Gov at centre with 282 and whopping 303 seats. A 2/3rd majority in UP. If You lot have Your ear to the ground (I hope that ‘ground’ extends beyond Shaheen Bagh), can You hear what noises are coming from Bengal? Can You? I have my ear to the ground also and I hear ‘Dilp Ghosh coming…Dilip Ghosh coming….’ Can You hear? Just by writing these nonsensical articles You can do nothing now!

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