Where Journalists Don’t Make News

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Those who have worked for news channels, especially in the Hindi media, know that your chance of landing a job or getting promoted depends on many factors other than your journalism skills or educational qualification. “Regionalism and favouritism often trump everything else when an editor hires someone,” says an assistant output editor with a national Hindi news channel. “What can you expect from a journalist who joins a big media house not because of his abilities but because someone who calls the shots in that channel wants him?”

But, then, who really needs a trained journalist anymore?

In the case of electronic media, the role of a reporter is reduced to that of a “sound bite collector”. “I can send a cameraperson to get a politician’s sound bite so why have reporters on the payroll?” editors are often heard threatening reporters.

The agenda in early-morning editorial meetings is primarily decided based on newspaper reports. Reporters are assigned to collect sound bites, usually “reaction bites” on a particular report, and asked to do a few live feed-ins from the OB van and their job is done. The news now moves from the field to the newsroom. The guest coordinators are asked to call a few selected “experts”; each channel has its own chosen experts. News might change but experts rarely do and comprise the wasted politician, veteran journalists and a few social workers. Promos for the evening shows are rolled and, with the ubiquitous format of six or eight window graphics, prime time entertainment in the garb of news is served cold to the viewers.

“Reporters are redundant; the desk is allegedly manned by those who don’t have the chutzpah to go out in the field,” says Sadanand. “The skill of writing to pictures? Well, what is that, one may ask! I shall not go into the merits of how an anchor makes it to prime time. Show me one channel that has one who is not the top boss or someone pretty who has to be fed questions from the production control room. There are exceptions but few and far between.”

Another reason for the media getting a beating is lack of enough investment in any good investigation or social report. With most of the channels running in losses, the focus is primarily on collecting as much information as can be done from the office — a practice better known as “armchair journalism” — rather than sending a reporter to the field for exploring and analysing a particular news from all possible angles. Clearly, the credibility of this kind of “reporting” can easily be called in to question. Lack of in-depth reporting is sought to be compensated for by calling in the same old faces to TV studios for messy debates that lead nowhere or to a predictable conclusion.

“It is all about TRPs, you see,” says the editor of a prominent Hindi channel. “We showcase what sells most and brings us up in the trp charts. It is what people want to see. How many viewers now have the patience to watch 30-minute documentary on a social issue?” Coincidentally, this editor holds a dual position in the news channel — apart from managing news he has to take care of revenue generation for the channel as well. “Reporters are slowly losing their significance in electronic media. I can run the 24-hour news channels by using the sound bites provided by the agencies we subscribe to. Isn’t it then a criminal waste to spend money on hiring reporters, who will do no more than get the same bite from the same politicians.”

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Do people outside journalism have a stake in what happens within newsrooms, between journalists and the management? Perhaps, they do as all this certainly affects the quality of the news and views they can access and the manner in which news is gathered and disseminated impacts how well-informed they could be about the world around them and how it impinges on their lives.

Another factor that affects what makes it to news and how it gets represented is the overwhelming sway of some particular perspectives. Any viewer can make out which news channel is toeing the line of which political party or ideology. On issues that involves serious disagreements, news often becomes a means to bolster the interests of one side and misses the role of seeking out the truth by being honest to the facts as one discovers them and joining the dots without anything other than the pursuit of intellectual coherence in storytelling influencing the process. But, in the world of real-time news, Anna Hazare, say, becomes either a reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi or a misguided being leading a band of crooks.

Besides the general decline in the quality of content, the mushrooming of non-serious news channels — fly-by-night operations — have done much harm to the media. Many of these channels are launched in the run-up to elections. After canvassing for a particular party and taking in their share of ad revenue during poll campaigns, they down their shutters overnight, leaving hundreds of employees jobless. A case in point is the Jia news channel, which was launched with much fanfare during the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, but folded up a few months after the results.

Chit-fund operators owning news channels is another blot on media credibility. Take NewsXpress, a national channel. It is owned by a chit-fund group and its editorial policies are decided so as to suit the needs of its owners.

Caught in the midst of winds blowing from all directions and threatening to uproot it from its moorings as a critical institution without which democracy is impossible to imagine, mainstream media in India today is at a crossroads. And every step it takes and every misstep it makes gets both amplified and intensely scrutinised in the social media. As such, it is the journalists, many of whom work in conditions of insecurity akin to workers in unorganised sweatshops, on whom falls the entire onus of making sure that the show goes on. This has been inevitable, perhaps, but is it fair?

anurag@tehelka.com

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