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The future of TV news: A crisis of technology and legitimacy

by FP Staff  Aug 30, 2013 15:54 IST

#Arnab Goswami   #Barkha Dutt   #Headlines Today   #NDTV   #Open magazine   #Television  

There's been plenty of news about television in recent days, and none of it any good. Prominent instances of shoddy coverage of the Mumbai rape coincided with reports of layoffs in Network 18 (Firstpost's parent company), similar to cuts made last year at NDTV and Headlines Today. Open Magazine tackles these events in separate pieces, which taken together spell out the daunting challenge faced by the Indian television media.

"A Tale of Two Exclusives" by Madhavankutty Pillai takes to task two of the biggest names in the business, Arnab Goswami and Barkha Dutt, for shamefully kowtowing to their big-name guests at a time of great tragedy. In his desire to "get" Raj Thackeray on his show, Goswami ceded his right to challenge Thackeray's anti-migrant rhetoric.

Technicians at a TV channel. Reuters

Technicians at a TV channel. Popular respect for the Indian press has been plummeting in recent years, helped along by scandals about crony journalism. Reuters

"Goswami, who usually has 40 exclamations and expostulations for every comment from his guests, was meek as a mouse and mewed like a cat face-to-face with a bigger bully," writes Pilliai, "What became clear is that since the interview, as decided by Thackeray, would not be about the rape in specific, all it was doing was allowing him to foment the xenophobia that runs the blood in his party’s veins."

Goswami's sins of omission were matched by Barkha Dutt's sins of commission, as she turned an supposed interview about the anti-rape protests in Mumbai into a PR vehicle for Bachchan's latest movie, Satyagraha.

"As Bachchan came on screen, you noticed that almost all of Dutt’s questions in the beginning were laced with the word ‘satyagraha’" writes Pillai. “Amitabh Bachchan, as the central protagonist of this movie, you are…” began one question, comically asking Bachchan to weigh in on the protests not as a celebrity but as a character in a movie. Over and again, Dutt strained to connect the rape protests to a Bollywood rendering of the anti-corruption movement

"So what has happened is the clubbing of profit for Satyagraha’s makers with the rape coverage," writes Pillai, summing up the  this shameful spectacle.

Pillai doesn't mention the constant scroll of rape protest images which made this "clubbing" all the more egregious. But you can check out the video here.  Nor does he speak of the equally shameful quality of reporting in print outlets such as The Times of India which, as The Hoot points out, violated basic journalistic ethics by publishing identifying details about the victim.

The incidents gain importance in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy affecting media in general, and television news, in particular. Popular respect for the Indian press has been plummeting in recent years, helped along by scandals such as the Radia tapes that confirmed suspicions about crony journalism. TV news anchors, as the best-known and visible faces of the Indian media, have borne the greater brunt of public scorn.

The only route to redemption is, of course, reform; to embrace with greater vigour the best and most stringent practices of journalism; to prioritise hard and serious reporting over shrill and facile opinion. Daunting as this may be, the task is made Herculean by the tectonic shifts in technology that are transforming the TV landscape.

In the other Open piece, titled "Digitisation and Dumbing Down", Sandeep Bhushan notes that the "carnage" experienced by the industry "is explained broadly by two factors. Its existence at the cutting edge of an emerging-digital-technology, coupled with the continuing aftershocks of the global meltdown, both feeding each other. While the latter forces companies to ‘shed flab’, the former is making it happen."

As digital technology makes certain employees dispensable, so does the move toward an integrated newsroom where its members are now expected to perform multiple roles, including reporter, cameraman, video editor, and even web writer. The emphasis, therefore, shifts from depth and expertise to simplicity and speed. "Beat" reporters become redundant, replaced by multi-tasking generalists. Investigative journalism, which is time-consuming and offers no guaranteed return, is pushed aside in search of the viral, instantly shareable story.

Bhushan, however, doesn't account for the long-term effects of technology. Digitisation will kill certain traditional forms of reporting, but it will inevitably birth new kinds of serious, in-depth journalism, gathered and delivered in an entirely different way. The challenge is to create a news product that is valued by the viewer/reader at a cost a news organisation can afford.

It will also deliver a much-needed wake-up call to a complacent news industry, long used to taking their advertisers and audiences for granted. This is especially true for TV news and its high-decibel, low content template. In a digital era, no news anchor or his guest can out-shout the internet, where a million voices yell right back.  And no guest, however famous or controversial, can compensate for the loss of credibility, which will be recorded and spread in an instant -- and remain forever in archival posterity.

The future of journalism is not bleak, but unclear, but the future of a certain brand of television news is gloomy indeed.

Read The Tale of Two Exclusives here

Read Digitisation and Dumbing Down here

(Disclosure: Network18, publisher of Firstpost, competes with some of the news media discussed in this article).