Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Media bytes and media bites

Predictably, a lot of people are angry and upset and disillusioned and disgruntled at the Indian political class over the attacks in Mumbai. I'm one such in a sea of several millions. However, I'm also part of a smaller section, one that wasn't too pleased at with certain parts of the Indian electronic media's coverage and reporting of the attacks. I'm sure those who've already been outraged by it will understand fully what I'm alluding to, and those whose reactions now are "Eh, what's he talking about?" were quite obviously thrilled by the spectacle brought to them live on their tele.

The three channels that I happened to swap between were CNN-IBN, NDTV and a little bit of Times NOW, probably the three most popular English news channels, not necessarily in the order given, but you get the picture. And from the three channels, 2 journalists who chose to , how do I put this, let go of the journalistic traits ever so slightly every once in a while and became 'just another curious onlooker': Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN) and Barkha Dutt (NDTV), both former colleagues at NDTV, both held in high esteem by and large by large sections of the general English speaking public.
Note: At the time of writing this, I was told that Arnab Goswami of Times NOW had even cried on air, or had tears in his eyes and it was quite visible, but since I didn't watch too much of the coverage on his channel, I wouldn't want to comment on his reporting.

So what exactly did they do that is worth chastising them about, and was it really that bad, because if it were, wouldn't there probably have actually been a lot of hue and cry about it? These are undoubtedly some of the thoughts that would be crisscrossing the neural highways inside your head. Well, take a step back and try to recollect what exactly was done - whether it was just reporting the facts of the crisis while it was unfolding, or did they go beyond, and were theatrics and hysterics part of the reporting, along with personal emotions that were coming out to the fore? Let me clarify that I am not part of any group that is constantly against the media and out to string them up every time I feel like. I am an ordinary guy who wants fair and balanced reporting, and just calls a spade, a spade.

So let's start with Barkha Dutt, who at most times asks the right questions and I've never noticed her being partisan to any one political party. The Mumbai attacks saw her day and night, shuttling between locations of different attacks, in the quest to "break" news to the viewers. Fair enough so far. Then when survivours pour out, she's on the button with the microphone, asking "How do you feel?" [Freakin' relieved, I'd say] "Can you tell us what happened to you in there?"[ Well what do you think happened?] Maybe it's the most obvious and natural question that you'd ask, I know, and I don't have a problem with journalists if they want to talk to survivours, because most of them can directly 'inform' their loved ones that they are safe, but it's the questions asked that are, well, not the most articulate, if I have to put it mildly. There are times when she puts her comforting arm around victims, which is nice, but clearly not something that could have been even imagined if she didn't have a microphone in her hand with the camera running (which isn't in any way to imply she doesn't care). So my point is, why dramatise an already emotionally and physically draining situation? Why try to make the audience connect with the victims, when in fact we already are able to?

On the NDTV site, she has clarified certain things, but has conveniently shrugged off responsibility with her statement "...I am sure we inadvertently made a few (mistakes)- as did every department of government...". Barkha, that kind of a statement is something we associate with our politicians to be saying, not from seasoned and well respected journalists like you. You would have been better off following in the footsteps of your colleague Srinivasan Jain, who never once floundered into an emotional dramatisation of the events unfolding behind him at the Taj Mahal hotel. Even when he was interviewing guests, including Milind Deora, the south-Mumbai MP, he never once lost his cool, and always maintained the same voice control throughout the telecast, and indeed throughout the rescue operation that he was reporting on, and most importantly, stuck to the facts.

Moving over to their former colleague, and editor-in-chief of what he claims to be India's most popular English news channel, Rajdeep Sardesai is an excellent journalist when it comes to asking the tough questions. But sadly, the tough questions come out in flashes, and invariably are directed towards an increasingly (and alarmingly) popular BJP and the right wing. Where does the tough-talking journalist go when it comes to asking the Congress the tough questions is anyones guess. Visibly distraught over the attacks in Mumbai, especially over the death of DIG Hemant Karkare, Rajdeep launched into a tirade against the right wingers who until his (Karkare's) death were branding Karkare a traitor and vilifying him over the investigations into the Malegaon blasts. What was sad was that he (Rajdeep) chose to twist certain facts and cast aspersion on certain politicians (read Narendra Modi). His channel broke the news that Mr Modi had announced a Rs. 1 crore package to be given to the Maharashtra govt. to be distributed to the families of the victims of the attacks (which included the families of the security personnel killed). He, however, chose to state it as Modi announces 1 crore to the family of Hemant Karkare, and attacked Mr Modi for doing something he quite clearly didn't do.
Note: If Modi did indeed announce it to the families of the slain policemen, that wasn't the way it was reported by the media at the time, and since then to the time of writing this, there has been no clarification by the channel, although the BJP spokesperson did say the package was given to the state govt. to distribute.

Also, what we kept hearing was Rajdeep harping on the fact that the BJP was politicising terror. In my previous post, I already pointed out the fact as to why there is nothing wrong with the BJP going around asking why there was an intelligence failure, or making an election issue out of it (to summarise, it's the job of the opposition party to do, just as the Congress did during the Kargil war). What's more, there were several states that were to go in for polls in the coming week (underway currently as I write this), and given the fact that the BJP was always harping on the fact that the UPA was soft on terror, they would have even otherwise said that the govt. cannot ensure safety of the citizens, etc etc. The Mumbai attacks just came as a shot in the arm for the BJP (in terms of raising issues during elections) at the right time. So Mr. Sardesai's vitriol wasn't very professional. Also, as a journalist, why wasn't he asking the center and the state the tough questions? Why wasn't he asking about why there was such a glaring intelligence failure? Why was the focus being shifted to the opposition, rather than towards the ruling parties? What I kept hearing is that this isn't the time to ask such questions, but the time to unite and face the problem. Sounds good, but then when is a good time to ask the tough questions? 5 days after, 10 days after, 2 weeks after? Maybe we ought to come up with a time table for such things: upto x days after an attack, no asking tough questions; from x days to x + 10 days, ask tough questions; beyond x + 10 days, no more talking of topic because media has to cover other interesting topics (where x belongs to I, integers, and x > 0).

Please, for goodness sake, journos, we in the public want the facts reported to us, we do not want a dramatisation of events, for which we already have Ektaa Kapoor and her clutch of serials. We as a progressive society seek facts, not opinions; we seek information, not disinformation; we seek rational discussions, not emotional hysterics; we seek answers from our leaders and so expect you to ask them questions, not just question the role of the opposition. Where I will give you credit is the fact that we did see some restraint on your part, but it would have been better had there been unanimity and uniformity in the coverage across channels. So what if there were no "guidelines" given to you about what could be telecast and what couldn't during this crisis? Wasn't it the media itself who were up in arms against the government when they proposed guidelines to restrict telecasts? (which I too thought was bogus, because I felt the media was responsible enough to decide what should be shown and what shouldn't).

Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State under the Clinton administration, said that Pakistan has everything that gives you an international migraine. Well, to paraphrase Kaveree Bamzai of India Today, 24-hour news channels give us our greatest domestic migraine. I hope they are game enough to admit it, if not publicly, then at least privately, and strive to keep things the way they ought to be.


Tarun said...

They're probably so desensitized to what they see and hear everyday that they overdo it in an effort to compensate for their lack of genuine compassion and empathy. Totally miss those days when channels had robotic news readers who didn't even have teleprompters.

Karthik Shetty said...

I don't know if "desensitised" is the right word, because there is emotion and sympathy (and empathy too, perhaps), oodles of it, it's just that people watching can get carried away and influenced wrongly IF something provocative is said by the reporters who may ramble along emotional lines.

Anonymous said...

Shetty -

Your article in hind sight rakes another issue -"Journalistic ethic"

In the modern day of 24hrs news reports often break the lines and endup trying to be the news.
This is seriously flawed as it affects the outlook of the end user. Journalists are supposed to be impartial , non biased and complete. Increasingly NDTV initially and IBN more prominently tend to make more drama of news reporting. I should say this trend is something I have seen both in the Indian news scene and

I long for the days when the world of news reporting was christened by the likes of John Simpson in a non dramatic - unbiased way.

Karthik Shetty said...

I agree, and as I said, they'd be better off just doing what they're supposed to do - report facts. Usually the argument from their end is that the public wouldn't like a drab show where reports are just read out. True, but the again, young, red-blooded guys like me would also love good looking female anchors to do the show in a bikini, would they if the numbers are big? :)

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