Trial by media: How Arnab and Navika spent over 65 percent of their debates on SSR

A new report on identifying media trials hopes to facilitate reform in India’s TV news studios.

WrittenBy:Supriti David
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Based on primetime debates by certain news channels, a recent report by the Institute of Perception Studies, New Delhi, concluded that the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput was misused to conduct a “media trial”.

The report, titled “Media Trials: A Case Study”, was released against the chaotic backdrop of certain news channels being hauled up for “irresponsible reporting” and the TRP scandal. Developed by the institute under its research initiative “Rate the Debate”, the report aimed to define an index for media trials so as to judge whether or not a media trial has occurred.

And in the case of Rajput’s death, the report concluded that it had.

One of the objectives of this report was also to facilitate reform in the media space.

“You need facts to design reforms,” said Dr Kota Nileema, the founder of the Institute of Perception Studies. “And it is not healthy that media reforms at present are based on subjective interpretations of what the media should and should not do. It runs into the danger of being interpreted in various ways. Our research and index focus on facts, which are absolutely objective, that we hope will provide a solid basis for reforms.”

She added: “Trials should not take place in television news studios, nor should the roles of prosecutor, judge and executioner be fulfilled by the anchor...This is the first attempt in Indian media to structuralise how media trials happen. It is easy to just say that there was a media trial, but what is it that actually happens in a media trial? Unless a structure is given to it, how will a viewer know that there is a media trial going on?”

The period of study was June to September, Nileema said, though a few debates from October were included too. “We watched every minute of the debate,” she added, although it was a “painstaking process”.

The research also tried to measure an “extremely difficult variable”, as Nileema described it: the conduct of the anchors, such as how much speaking time was given to panelists, how much time was spent talking about an issue, how many times a panelist was interrupted or intimidated, and so on.

The report analysed 76 debates by Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami, spanning 32 weekdays and 55 hours, and 32 debates by Times Now’s Navika Kumar over 24 days and 20 hours. However, the research was not limited to these two channels. Applying an index and indicators developed by the research team, the report concluded that Rajput’s death was misused as a media trial.

Nileema explained, “We looked at all the main channels and the idea was not to target any particular channel or anchor. In any research, the entire spectrum is looked at and only when it is applied to extreme cases does it prove to be most meaningful. The idea is to bring change in places where there is an absolute need for change and we found that media trials were conducted most in these two cases.”

Indicators and methodology

According to the report, there are four primary indicators that define a media trial, alongside secondary indicators.

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When these indicators were applied to debates by Goswami and Kumar over a period of time, Nileema said, research analysis revealed that they orchestrated a media trial using Rajput’s death.

Between July 31 and September 15, 65 percent of Goswami’s debate topics were devoted to the Rajput case. Between June 16 and October 6, 69 percent of Kumar’s debates were on Rajput, Rhea Chakraborty, and the “drug mafia” angle of the case. The report used “speaking time” to analyse which topics were given more weightage, and the time given to each panelist on these debates.

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As shown in this image, for example, Goswami’s debate on June 16 focused on how Bollywood “drove” Rajput to his death. Twenty percent of the speaking time was taken up by ”crosstalk”.

Nileema clarified that the category of “crosstalk” is different from “interruptions”. “In the latter, the panelist is not allowed to complete a sentence,” she said. “However, crosstalk is essentially intimidation. It’s a show of strength that isolates a particular panelist and thus, by extension, their views.”

She said: “To the viewer, the singled out panelist is isolated and their view is perceived as a minority view. It could be the best view in the world but it still looks like a minority because in that half an hour of debate, the panelist is encircled and isolated, thereby making the unknowing viewer believe that this is generally not the view in the country. It is thus important for these techniques to be separated and understood.”

Speaking time was used to measure how much an anchor dominated a debate. In this debate, for example, Kumar also took up 48 percent of the speaking time in the debate, while 21 percent was taken up by “intimidatory tactics”.

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The report also found, for instance, that in randomly-chosen debates and dates on four different subjects, panelists who endorsed the anchor’s views were interrupted only 22.2 percent of the time, while “anti-anchor” panelists were interrupted 62.1 percent of the time.

Nileema emphasised that they are not trying to “generalise” their research.

“We obviously do not intend to say that this happens all the time. All we want to do is show what happened in a particular debate,” she said. “This is the only way I want to present this research because none of us are coming from a political or an ideological standpoint at all; this is absolutely neutral objective research that in a particular debate, this is what had happened.”

Nileema added that she hopes the research will increase the scope of better structuring a news debate, and bring some order to the chaos in news studios.

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