[Essay] Breaking News Syndrome

When Howard Beale at UBS Evening News learnt that he had only a couple of weeks more on the air, due to declining ratings, he would have been envious of his counterparts in the Indian public service broadcaster, Doordarshan. However, that was a different time altogether. Network came out in 1976. Thirty seven years hence, the Indian media industry, has moved on to the world of bytes and breaking news. The pressure of ratings is for all to see. In fact, the transition has been so drastic, particularly in the subcontinent, that media is fast displacing the state and the corporate world as the new fodder for humour and satire even in our popular cinema.

The Breaking News Syndrome

From investigative journalism and unearthing of scams by chasing Tarneja and Ahuja in Jaane Bhi do Yaaro to milking suicide of the poor Natha in Peepli Live, for the sake of TRP’s shows that the fall in standard of the mainstream media has been monumental.

How much, one may despise the Doordarshan for being the mouthpiece of the government in power; the conduct of the so called “free” news channels does not inspire any confidence either. One can understand the compulsion to provide entertainment in the era of twenty-four hour television broadcasting. But doing so at the expense of journalistic ethics and responsibility can hardly be digested.

The desperation to thrust mikes in the mouths of those affected by natural or anthropogenic disasters, for a quick bite, is never a pleasant site to witness. It is very difficult to understand how the dress and shoes of celebrities qualify as “breaking news”. It also makes no sense to intrude in the private life of people and present their most intimate moments, so compulsively, as if they were important to the national narrative.

Things have come to such a pass that there remains hardly any distinction between “news” and “views”. There is almost no attempt to deconstruct the news of the day and present them in an ideologically neutral stance. So much has the situation deteriorated that the personal views of the anchor are presented as breaking news.

The assumption in resorting to this path is that the masses are foolish enough to believe everything that the media intellectuals pour. Thus there is no need felt to present, discuss and debate the issues that are important for our national democratic discourse. Public opinion making has been reduced to cheap gimmicks with standards falling exponentially by the day. Until the rot is contained it is fit that the media continues to be a laughing stock.

Reasons behind the Breaking News Syndrome

It is often argued that the stiff competition between rival media organizations is the prime reason behind the breaking news syndrome. Further, the sponsors give contracts based on TRP’s. Since TRP’s are thought to be proportional to the dramatics that can be created, breaking news has become inevitable. The apologists for the media have tried their best to present it as a business and strategic compulsion in this world of stiff cut throat competition.

Implications

Media is the fourth pillar of democracy. Other than judiciary it is the only institution which cannot function in the absence of democracy, representative or otherwise. It is also supposed to be free of external constraints. To align itself with the vested interests, political, economic or cultural is the end of the road for a free and independent media. It would be extremely difficult to uphold the basic tenets of our Constitution in the absence of an independent media. A representative democracy like ours cannot afford to have serious question marks over the credibility and authenticity of our media. In this context, it would be relevant to remember the role media played during our freedom struggle. It would have been impossible to achieve the same, were it not for the fiercely independent stance adopted by the media. It is the job of the media to hold our representatives and institutions responsible, particularly in the times when there have been serious question marks over our institutions of governance. The discussion of an actor’s choice of dress and sleeping partners can very well be left to some other day.

Remedies

There has been a lot of discussion over the need to have external regulation. It has been argued by eminent people that internal regulation means no regulation. Since other institutions of our democracy are also regulated one way or the other, people have argued that media also needs some type of regulation.

An internal ombudsman or some kind of an institutionalized self-regulatory system can be considered. It may help correct the present focus on breaking news and newsbytes.

The Supreme Court was also mulling over the fact whether certain qualifications be made mandatory to report criminal cases. For instance, for reporters covering court proceedings should a law degree be made mandatory?

Since most media houses are nowadays owned by big business houses, can it be expected that they report fairly, without any bias when an issue related to the owner’s business crops up. Only giving complete independence to the editors over the content can provide a solution.

Further the marketing and the editorial departments must be completely independent of each other. If the marketing department starts dictating or interfering in editorial issues, it plays havoc with the independence of media.

Also, there is a thin line between views and news. It should be made clear whether what is being presented are the views of the anchor or are news based on facts. To trivialize serious issues because of personal ideological leanings is certainly not desirable.

Ownership norms also need to be made stringent and at the same time provisions need to be made to attract long term capital, which would provide some degree of financial stability to the media organization, so that they can focus on real issues without resorting to cheap dramas.

Conclusion

Given the role media plays in the successful functioning of democracies worldwide, the issues discussed demand serious attention. Adequate steps should be taken before the media loses its credibility to such an extent that it becomes irreversible. It needs to be remembered that democracy without free media is not possible. (This essay was originally published in Target 2013 Mains Programme of GKToday.)

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