No sooner had Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoken to heads and editors of TV news channels about responsible coverage of the coronavirus crisis than anchors rushed in.
“The most potent weapon is information and correct information,” observed the Times Now anchor.
“People get information from the media… correct information is the greatest responsibility today,” said the India Today anchor.
“Media has done its job… we have been fulfilling our duty,” added the NewsX anchor.
And so say all of us?
Television news is normally the butt of our unkindest jokes, sneering disdain or violent outrage—it’s views, not news; it’s a fake take caked in make-up; it’s godi media, gaali media, galat media … so on and so forth.
So can these touching testimonials by the news anchor be true?
At 5 pm Sunday, TV news joined the janata curfew to “salute corona heroes” (CNN News18), clapping enthusiastically in studios, none more so than the entire team at Zee News.
Today, it’s time to recognise that in the time of the coronavirus, TV news has tried to do its “duty” – it has used the enormous reach of the electronic media to urge, plead with viewers in one voice, ‘#Stay Home Stay Safe’.
For a change, TV news got more right than it got wrong in its coverage of how “India battles virus” (India Today).
Well, it reported and reported accurately. It quoted reliable government or World Health Organization (WHO) figures, it gave us regular news of the coronavirus spread through the country—and the world— the actions of governments at all levels. And it got there fast: when Prince Charles tested positive, Wednesday, ‘Prince Charles Covid +ve’ was the Republic TV headline.
It telecast live broadcasts by relevant authorities—from Prime Minister Modi’s two 8 pm speeches, to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s economic briefing (Tuesday), from cabinet briefings (Wednesday) to the daily updates from ICMR.
It interviewed local authorities on the new rules and guidelines on the curfew or lockdown across cities: on Wednesday, CNN cross-questioned the Mumbai Police on what was open in the city and what was shut.
And its reporters, ‘1,200 reporters, on the biggest network’ boasted CNN News18, were swarming like flies, out on the virtually empty streets, monitoring the curfew, the lockdown and the public’s response—telling everyone to stay away, “stay safe” (India Today). They were at ISBT bus station in Delhi (NDTV 24×7), they were at the vegetable market in Kolkata (Aaj Tak), they were at a petrol pump in Mumbai (Zee News).
Some wore masks and gloves, others like Kamaljit Sandhu of India Today strolled around inside a bus, speaking to passengers as if the only thing viral was the news.
Foolhardy? Perhaps. But also a signal that while coronavirus is dangerous, we should not “panic”.
Ah, that’s another plea that played on the lips of the anchors: do not panic. Don’t break the lockdown, break the chain…
Channels also tracked ‘violators’—those who broke the rules and were out on the streets. Times Now and Republic TV denounced them in prime time debates (Monday). “Hero-panti mat dikhao,” warned Rajat Sharma, sternly (India TV).
Reporters and anchors shared advice, freely and generously, sometimes too generously. But if anything bears repetition it is the tragic consequence of not following what the doctor—and the government – have ordered. So hour after hour, anchors spoke about “social distancing” and recited the entire history of the coronavirus. NewsX spent the entire Monday in Q&A mode on coronavirus.
It also showed its studio being sanitised. The only thing channels didn’t do is to show us how to wash our hands – something BBC World did with a lovely graphic.
As to the debates, well, for once, politics was off the agenda. There were doctors, doctors and more doctors, explaining the how and the why of everything related to coronavirus. NDTV 24×7, NewsX were among channels that had viewers call and consult doctors.
They also broadcast positive news, and we don’t mean Covid positive news but stories of generosity and caring: the Jaipur doctor wife and husband team who are making masks (ABP). Zee News even had a show called ‘Corona pe good news’.
While there is all this good news, TV news is still getting somethings wrong.
We could do without the big ‘BREAKING NEWS’ headlines and over-eager voices. You see them, hear them and feel your temperature rising.
And while it’s important to give the latest number of cases, maybe consolidated figures every two hours would do? On Tuesday afternoon, ABP went for ‘BREAKING NEWS’ with ‘2 new cases in MP’. A moment later, ‘3 new cases in Punjab’, one more death…. This can spook those sitting at home.
As for the doctors, there are just too many of them on TV and on each channel. Each day sees a new set — and while they agree on much of what they say, we are getting different, conflicting views and advice. This can cause confusion, it can cause panic, the very thing news channels are trying to avoid.
And while people like Ramdev, Sri Sri and Sadhguru maybe widely admired and therefore listened to, ought they to be dispensing wisdom like hand sanitisers? Sri Sri told us to not consume sugar for better immunity and extolled the virtues of rasam (Zee News); Ramdev advised pranayam (Aaj Tak); Sadhguru said Indian’s immunity system was “far more resilient” (Times Now).
Views are personal.