On September 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Jaipur, erected by the Patrika group of newspapers. He said the world was now listening to India with more attention.
That same day, the world was listening to India, by way of reports in the international media, including in the which noted that the country had beaten Brazil in the number of coronavirus positive cases. Only the United States remained ahead of India.
One would have expected the Indian media that Modi exhorted to develop a "global reputation" to frontpage this fact. Yet, it was mostly featured on inside pages of leading newspapers, if at all.
If you survey the frontpages of most newspapers, you will find that the pandemic has slipped off their radar. This, at a time when Dr V K Paul of the Niti Aayog has stated, "Our Covid-19 numbers are rising — we haven't stablised yet. The pandemic is still on...a large population is still vulnerable."
Apart from the absolute numbers, which must be viewed against the size of our population, what is worrying is the rate of the spread. It is far higher than in any other country. In India, it took five months for coronavirus cases to go from zero to 10 lakh; 21 days to increase from 10 to 20 lakh; 16 days to grow from 20 to 30 lakh; and only 13 days to exceed 40 lakh. By any measure, this is a story that ought to have remained a prominent part of news.
What is also significant is that the growth is now seen not in big metros but in smaller towns. While big cities have reasonable health infrastructure, it’s meagre in smaller towns. One can well imagine the havoc the pandemic must be causing there. Yet, our metro-centered media is simply not reaching out to report. Why has it taken its eye off the ball?
The consequences of pushing the pandemic story on the backburner are many. For one, we do not fully know how people in smaller towns are coping with the spread of the virus. Who will record their stories?
Second, the absence of a constant focus on the pandemic allows the authorities to pretend that the situation is under control when it isn’t. In the early months of the pandemic, the media did stories illustrating the shortcomings in the healthcare infrastructure. This helped put pressure on governments and municipal authorities to invest in additional infrastructure such as isolation centres. Despite this, reports about people not reaching medical centres in time appear from time to time, suggesting that last mile connectivity, such as having adequate ambulances, is still a problem even in bigger cities.
Questions about the death rate, the scale of testing and whether the data is truly reflective of the reality still remain. The Ken news website carried useful article on testing, pointing out that the majority of tests being carried out are the antigen tests that really do not capture the extent of the spread of the infection.
Finally, by taking the focus away from the pandemic, the media has possibly contributed to the sense of complacency in the public. We are already witnessing this in cities such as Mumbai, where with the gradual opening up, many people believe the crisis is now behind us. Overcrowding in markets and people walking around without masks are now everyday occurrences. All those messages about prevention being the only cure in the absence of a vaccine, and that physical distancing and face covering were essential, appear to have been forgotten.
Apart from the pandemic, the state of the economy is another big story waiting to be investigated and reported. India’s GDP is shrinking and unemployment is growing — 21 million salaried jobs have been lost during the pandemic, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy — but where are these stories? The sent a reporter to Surat, Gujarat, who gave graphic details of what happens to people when the GDP shrinks.
None of this appears to have any relevance for the majority of TV news channels. They continue to focus obsessively on just one story, that of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June and the subsequent investigations. The way his former girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, has been hounded is now legend. Here, the Indian media has certainly built a "global reputation"; I doubt any other country’s media can match this performance.
While people can choose not to watch TV news, or at least the channels that are doing this kind of coverage, the impact of this trend in TV news has wider repercussions. It is also the culmination of a process that began with the print medium several decades back but has now found its true home in TV news.
And it is this process, of tabloidization, of converting news into a commodity, of making media houses profit centres with no other concern than the bottomline, that is worrying.
Mainstream media is today interested primarily in catering to its "market". The idea that it’s the fourth estate, that it is there to speak truth to power has receded into some distant past. Not all have succumbed to this entirely; as always there are honourable exceptions. But the most popular channels, or the most read newspapers by and large defer to profit over relevant content.
The trend began in the 1990s, led by the Times of India but swiftly followed by several other papers. Apart from calling the newspaper a "brand", a term that was necessarily foreign to many old-school journalists who still worked there, what counted as "news" was over time judged by its marketability.
Not just that, but sections were created that would enhance the sale of the newspaper. These had paid content about celebrities but displayed in a way that readers presumed they were being reported, as was other news. Separate companies were set up to deal with these sections.
Once you erase the line between journalism and paid content, there is only one way you can go, and that is down. Or rather up, if you are interested in profits alone.
As I see it, what began then is now manifesting in the crazy chase for ratings at any cost by television channels, started once again by a channel that belongs to the same group as the Times of India, but which has now become the template for success imitated by all and finessed by the daily performances on Republic TV.
In fact, this recent in the Times of India is truly disingenuous in that it deplores "hysteric TV anchors" when the channel belonging to this group pioneered hysterical anchoring.
When journalism becomes entertainment and performance, you have truly entered a dystopian world.
Perhaps print media, and digital, can still bring back some sanity. But with shrinking revenues, and the lead taken by TV news, it is possible that news sense will be decided by the noise on the channels and not the reality on the ground.
Is there a way out?
I believe there is. Often, the search for an alternative is felt more strongly when you reach an extreme, as the media surely has today. After the Emergency of 1975-77, for instance, the media was compelled to appreciate what freedom of the press really meant. The decade after that was probably one of the best for Indian media in terms of the quality and range of reporting. It was, of course, before the age of 24/7 private TV news channels.
This is an issue that should elicit much greater discussion, not just among journalists or those that still believe that the media has a role to play as the fourth estate in a democracy, but also readers and viewers who look to the media not for entertainment, but for credible news and information.
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