Uninformed in the Information Age

Where is the good old News bulletin and your paper’s no-nonsense front page? AIR-Doordarshan,The Hindu.Where else? Nowhere.

This is not a work of nostalgia. Any nostalgic tinge is a matter of coincidence.

When I was younger than the young man I am today a glance at morning newspapers or tuning in to AIR, Doordarshan or BBC news bulletins made me feel like an informed soul. I felt secure because I was armed against embarrassing myself on matters of major current developments.

Ironically, now with so many news channels and a lot more pages in bulky newspapers, I do not feel secure. Make no mistake, this insecurity is not about the widening range of information, the insecurity is about lack of information.Isn’t it weird that even after watching news channels for hours, the feeling of  ‘informed soul’eludes me, and what grips me is the fear of slipping into the body of an indulgent couch potato-stuffed but ignorant about the world around? And going through the news pages of obese newspapers I find they have only marginally better nutritional value for information, though there are honourable exceptions.

So who are my saviours now? The same-good old AIR and Doordarshan bulletins, the BBC and the island in print deluge, warts and all- The Hindu. The TRP fanatics crowding the news channels and IRS figures flaunting newspaper heavyweights may not bat an eyelid for my choices, but their numbers do not add to my information either.

24×7 hours News Channels, No hour for a Compact News Bulletin.

Yes, they are beaming images 24 hours, with news thrown in here and there, some passing as exclusives and some as the breaking thing.I sympathise with as well as admire my TV set for surviving the unending barrage of breaking news. But I have illusions that something has to be inclusivein the world of exclusive news – the staple diet, for all channels to report. With these modest expectations, I have switched on the TV set for a ringside view of important developments in – my country, the world, the economy, government policies, diplomacy, sports, science & technology and art,culture & entertainment.

I have chosen prime time – 9 pm in the evening, other time slots I have tried and left ill-informed.

NDTV  kicks off the News at 9 and sets the tone for something that could not be anybody’s idea of a prime time news bulletin. Decadal journalism and debates constituted its 9 pm agenda as anchor Sonia Singh engaged talking heads to discuss ten years of Gujarat communal riots. In the meanwhile we are also reminded that Barkha is going to transform the same theme into ‘comprehensive’ on her The Buck Stops Here show. I was more interested in knowing where the bucks of the day began and yes, I want to know about many bucks from different parts of the country and the world in 30 minutes.So I was talking about the so-called news bulletin. Sonia Singh followed Gujarat discussion with another discussion, and the subject – a metro crime and the related police goof up as talking heads dissected the Noida rape case.

The bulletins ended, adding almost nothing to my information about developments of the day. Forget about the world least of all about different parts of the country. I did not even get to know about major national stories from a news channel, which sees itself as a national channel. I felt shortchanged for my time, which may not be precious, but it is certainly not for the idiot box to waste.

Meanwhile, I had also tried my nimble thumb on the remote to see what other channels are doing with the prime time slot. Rajdeep had chosen to showcase his tour to Gujrat for decadal journalism. Moving through different riot affected localities the ‘bulletin’ could not afford any other news as the Gujarat tour of the editor was such a big story itself!  Arnab was playing his role as the bleeding heart on Times Now, ranting with the theme of politics of Gujarat riots and the Noida case did not miss the metro crime radar of this supposedly national channel either. The only other story that found mention was Wikileaks – Dow Chemicals paying a US firm to spy on Bhopal activists. And how could Headlines Today miss the decadal journalism frenzy on prime time? Rahul Kanwal had ten years of Gujarat riots as the only story to fit in the prime time slot.

Some of the things which none of them did tell me: that day the Supreme Court directed the Centre to constitute a special committee forthwith for inter-linking of rivers in a time-bound manner, the Central government announced its decision to put on hold the launch of National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), all major trade unions called a nationwide strike to protest the Centre’s “anti-labour” policies, Defence Minister described China’s objection to his recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh as “objectionable and unfortunate”, OBC quota hiked in Delhi’s higher education institutions, Phase 6  poll in UP  (covering 13 districts) was to be held the following day, panel on Railways steered clear on fair hikes, debate in Bihar Assembly on Katju’s remarks,SBI slashed education loan rates , EU slapped new set of sanctions on Syria and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum and a lot more.

AIR and Doordarshan bulletins told me all these things in 15 minutes flat, also covering the relevant details of the stories that were the prime focus of 24×7 channels. Yes, agreed, they are public broadcasters, they have a government slant but to give the devilits due one must say that in disseminating information, they still have no substitute.

The desperate efforts of some channels to plug this hole with insanely dumbed down phataphat news, speed news (one channel has a “Bullet News” bulletin) and channels claiming to put news in the jet age, as TV Today’s Tej, have been even more disastrous. They lack the editorial depth, news sense, range of coverage and research and do not come anywhere near the patriarchs, with due apology to feminists.

Heavy Papers, Light News and Some Exceptions

The newspapers are not too high on information either. They have excuses not to be. Their key argument is that television and internet have put them on the back foot as they cannot be seen as providing the instant hard news or first with the news, except some investigative scoops or exclusive stories. They may be partially right but they underestimate two important things, which can be a subject for a separate inquiry.

Market leaders like The Times of India and The Hindustan Times look pregnant with supplements. They have flirted with the sanctity of their front pages and news pages, and are generally low on information quotient. Their front pages are conceived to look inviting to the urban young readership, news and information being the sideshows. Papers with niche readership like Indian Express lean on their forte – “investigative journalism” and “exclusives” to make front-page statements.

In mainstream print journalism, The Hindu is the shining exception and has continued to put credible news, wide coverage and meticulous use of language at the core of its operations. The Hindu with all its leftist slant and South Indian roots (both these things are not bad at all) has continued to give information the importance it deserves in a newspaper. It has been rewarded for this and has a cult readership not only in South India but also among information hungry aspirants of the coveted Civil Services and within academic circles in general.The Hindu has sought to misuse this cult following in murky ways too. But that is an altogether different story, to be told sometime later.

One feels ironically sad for the information age. At no point in human history have we had such diverse and instant sources of information as we have today, yet the information that we are provided is so narrow, so shallow. Before you jump to brand me a Gradgrindsque utilitarian of Dickensian imagination, who echoes “plant facts and facts, root out else”indulge me – analysis, debates, editorial comments and public discourse are the essential building blocksof media culturebut information has to be the foundation. And yes, it is news bulletin time on AIR and I am now switching my radio set on.


Image Source [http://www.flickr.com/photos/fredcamino/4687021999/in/photostream/]

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