Below are excerpts from a long essay by Sandeep Bhushan, a former television journalist. Originally written for and published in Economic and Political Weekly (June 8, 2013 vol xlviII no 20), the writer reflects how the content of the category “news” in Indian television has changed over a period of last two decades. His personal history as an “insider” and insights thus got, enriches his narrative.
With the studio as the site for “manufacturing” news, the reporter has become marginal to the news-gathering operations. Digital technology-driven graphics and visual effects are increasingly replacing pictures across most of the networks (compare the BBC and our networks for a “graphic” understanding of my point). Stories can now be told with graphics and sophisticated animation. Eclipse of the visual element has obviated the need for skilled technicians and even senior journalists, large numbers of whom have been retrenched since 2008. They have been replaced by young reporters who can work long hours at half the salaries of their senior counterparts and are easily manageable. The progressive deskilling of media labour has been accompanied by the scrapping of longer format, investigative reports and in-depth stories. The only skill expected of broadcast journalists is the ability to cover events and uplink sound bites. The reporter has never been as close to redundancy in India as he/she is today.
The wellsprings of the “dumbing down” culture of TV broadcast media lie in the political economy of the contemporary news industry.
Studio as Crucible of News
The privileging of the studio/anchor/editor means “news from the vantage point of a studio”. The very definition of “news” as the “first draft of history” recorded by journalists in the most “objective” manner has been turned on its head. Loosely put, “news” has become the “subjective” fact filtered and processed by the promoter whose complicity is paramount in the very act of airing a particular news. Therefore, the task remains to pin down the definition of news. In other words what constitutes news, post-meltdown?
“News” is largely dramatic and prolonged, live, unmediated footage. This method of news delivery is cost-effective (you only need a skeleton staff) and ensures the centrality of the anchor/studio as the absolute interpreter of sound bites and visuals. Above all, it gets viewers in droves. The Anna Hazare movement in 2011 sent the television rating points (TRP) graph northwards at the expense of the Indian Premier Leage (IPL) cricket and even soaps and serials.
“News” bulletins are also increasingly “wire” fed or news agency driven – largely a consequence of outsourcing of newsgathering operations. The Asia News International (ANI), which also provides feed to Reuters, leads the pack. But smaller wire services like United News of India (UNI) and Network 1 News and Information Syndicate (NNIS), providing multilingual feeds, have recently emerged as competition. A disturbing fallout of this remains homogenising of news content.
Thirdly, digital platforms have emerged as an important “source” for “constructing” news. The trend, which largely began with the Anna Hazare movement, currently boasts of a galaxy of senior politicians (L K Advani, Narendra Modi, Shashi Tharoor, Digvijay Singh and even the Prime Minister’s Offi ce (PMO) are some notable examples) whose posts are regularly followed and integrated within the very defi nition of news. Both Twitter and blogs afford politicians the luxury of commenting only when there is a need to “set the agenda” without the discomfort of counter-questions from pesky reporters.
“News” could also mean sensational footage uplinked by the stringer (they have replaced reporters across large swathes of “non-TRP” states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the entire north-east) from some “obscure” corner. The footage could be genuine or rigged. The Naxalite attack on Central Reserve Police Force jawans in Dantewada, for example, falls in the former category. But the “live” footage of the public molestation of a girl in Guwahati in July last year falls in the latter category. The Guwahati episode was “manufactured” by a local news network and the gut-wrenching unedited footage was fed into the sensation-seeking “national” news networks. Both examples performed one single function – they briefly “mainstreamed” marginal India even though the image was distorted and one-dimensional.
In a scenario where networks are on crutches (i e, minus the foot-slogging reporters), “news” is largely what is being shown on a rival network. To anyone familiar with TV newsrooms, collective shouts of what a rival channel is showing, followed by urgency and anxiety to replicate the same on their network is the most prevalent way to “construct” news. That explains to a great extent the depressing sameness in news prime-time content.
[The complete essay is available here. Sandeep Bhushan can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org ]