Most TV news channels in India can never be accused of subtlety or restraint in their coverage of sensitive issues. But even by those low standards, the coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has been particularly shocking, with some channels airing problematic opinions on mental health and proudly conducting a media trial of actress Rhea Chakraborty even as the case is still being investigated.
Chakraborty’s private WhatsApp chats have been revealed and analysed to draw absurd conclusions, a food delivery person allegedly going to her flat was grilled by mediapersons and her building’s guard said he was attacked by the media.
She has been called a gold-digger, accused of performing black magic on Rajput and even termed as a zeher ki gudiya. Reporters have entered Rajput’s house to show the room his body was found in and splashed “never-seen-before” pictures of his dead body on TV screens.
The coverage of the case has been called a “new low” or the “lowest of the low” for some news channels.
Shashwati Goswami, a professor at the New Delhi-based journalism college Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), told HuffPost India in an email interview that television channels have no business raising the issue incessantly, especially since a CBI investigation is going on.
“It seems they have no faith in the Indian investigative agencies as well as the judiciary. But this way, the TV news has been successful in distracting people from far more pressing issues,” said Goswami, who teaches radio journalism and development journalism at IIMC.
She also underlined the importance of investing in ground reporting.
“The dying breed of reporters is urgently required to be revived for the health of the media. They are the ones who show the mirror to society. Without them, news (television) has become just mindless debates where twenty people share a screen and indulge in a competition of shouting down each other. The loss is not for the media alone, it is a loss for ideals of democracy,” she said.
1. In July, Nepal stopped airing some Indian news channels because they were broadcasting “objectionable” content against PM KP Sharma Oli. TV channels have regularly resorted to sensationalism while reporting on China and Pakistan as well. Should Indian media be more responsible when covering international issues? How do they affect the country’s bilateral relations?
It is not the question of only reporting on China and Pakistan, TV news ideally should never indulge in sensationalism, whatever be the topic. Of course I am referring to the private television news channel here, let me make it clear. News does not remain ‘news’ when it is sensationalised. But the revenue model that the television industry follows makes them hanker after TRPs. More eyeballs, more revenue.
Bilateral relations cannot be destroyed or constructed by TV news alone. It is a far more complex issue than just TV news. The problem with TV news is that they can fuel the deterioration/betterment of bilateral relations by manufacturing issues.
2. The media coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has been virulent even by normal standards. From interrogating entirely unconnected bystanders to obsessing over private WhatsApp conversations, many channels have been carrying out a full-scale media trial with impunity. What are the effects of this on India’s media ecosystem?
We have already seen the effect of the insensitive media trial on the Aarushi Talwar murder case. The same is happening in this case too. CBI enquiry is on and the matter is sub judice, television channels have no business raising the issue incessantly. It seems they have no faith in the Indian investigative agencies as well as the judiciary. But this way, the TV news has been successful in distracting people from far more pressing issues. It is unfortunate.
3. Some TV channels have also begun showing disturbing visuals — the scene of Sridevi’s death was recreated by some and a channel took a tour of Sushant Singh Rajput’s house to show the room his body was found in. What effect do these visuals have on viewers and should they be monitored?
This is a distraction tactic of the media as I have already mentioned. They divert the attention of the viewers from serious issues prevalent in the society and focus on issues which actually matter to very few people. Having said that, this disrespect that they show towards the people who have lost their own is very disturbing. They make a mockery of the loss. It is a sad state of news television (should they rather be called entertainment television? I wonder!). I prefer to refer to this syndrome as a “Nagin serial” syndrome. The television channels have a very poor impression of the viewers. Therefore, they create a population who belongs to the “gallery” and play to them. At the end of the day, television is an industry and TRP is the way they generate resources as I have mentioned and we all know.
There are mechanisms of monitoring the television media, which is self-regulatory under the National Broadcasters Association. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting too has an Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC).
4. Is there a regulatory mechanism in India to monitor how such sensitive cases should be covered by the broadcast media and to check the unproven allegations that the media makes against a person?
As mentioned above, one can lodge a complaint through the website of National Broadcasters Association. Many of the complaints have been resolved, if you see their website. EMMC keeps a watch over the television channels so that they do not violate programme code, advertising code and also adheres to the Cable Television Networks Regulations Act 1995.
There were a few attempts earlier to draft a formal regulatory framework, however nothing has been formalised yet.
5. In the current situation, is it possible to strike a balance between press freedom and sensationalism? How have other countries managed this?
Sensationalism in television news is not peculiar to India. Tabloids are a success in the UK. The USA has its own set of sensational news mongering television channels. The only problem in India is the uninitiated, vulnerable, uneducated population. They are easily impressed. Sometimes I think that these people are more affected adversely through WhatsApp forwards and the television channels only complement those forwards.
I have not studied how the other countries are handling this malaise, but most of the countries in the Northern hemisphere already have media policies in place. We have recently seen a reporter call out the President of the USA. The media culture is very different in those countries. I definitely am a believer of Press Freedom as it keeps the ideals of democracy aloft. But sadly, many a times we see sensationalism squeezing in and hiding behind the principle of self-regulation. This requires a public debate rather than a political decision.
6. TV channels are now competing with OTT platforms and other distractions for viewers’ attention. How has this affected their coverage?
OTT platforms are gaining popularity, but news is still mostly consumed through the traditional platforms. But, even those who use their mobiles or laptops to consume television news, only watch those channels they like to watch. OTT platform is giving entertainment television a challenge, news channels are still enjoying their glorious time.
7. Many news channels have an unhealthy relationship with social media, from making their primetime hashtags trend to situating entire shows around a stray tweet. But social media is also a platform where the excesses of TV anchors can be called out and criticised. How do you read this?
I think we all are still understanding social media. Though using social media to generate news is technically not a forbidden approach, yet there is a palpable tension in the process. I think the dust will settle down soon. But a lot of damage will happen before that. As a researcher of media, I am worried that some damages can be extremely detrimental to the fabric of the society. I think we all should be worried about this, whosoever loves India.
8. Few TV channels invest in ground reporting, especially from underrepresented areas. What has the effect of this been on public discourse?
The TV channels who have reporters at ground level are far too few in numbers when we compare them with the numbers of television channels in the country. As of now, it might look as if these channels are not making any contribution to the public discourse. However, people do watch these channels too. The amount of reaction these channels garner on social media tells you the uneasiness their reportage is creating in the minds of those who are only creating sensations. The dying breed of reporters is urgently required to be revived for the health of the media. They are the ones who show the mirror to society. Without them, news (television) has become just mindless debates where twenty people share a screen and indulge in a competition of shouting down each other. The loss is not for the media alone, it is a loss for ideals of democracy, which requires critical discourse on issues that are of urgent nature for the development of the country.