Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fine, let's debate content, not the bias...

In reply to a tweet, Sagarika Ghose says:

"Judge us by the quality of our news..."

We often hear of complaints of bias in the English TV news media. Those who raise this question of bias (in a decent manner too) are dismissed brazenly. At times, we even get to hear things like - Judge us by the content etc. In the above tweet, Sagarika meant her channel, CNN-IBN, but let's extend the scope and discuss the "quality" of content (and not bias) on English TV news channels. 

Media needs to focus on real issues during campaigning. 

No no, that is not my arm-chair and keyboard punditry. In May 2009, in an online chat, I asked Dr. Prannoy Roy this -

What do you think the media has learned from this election?". 

"Dr Prannoy Roy: Interesting question, Sudhir. I think the media has learnt or should have learnt not to sensationalise small events.. serious issues like hunger or unemployment do not come into focus because these are hard to sensationalise. But tiny events like shoe throwing or a bollywood candidate are blown up beyond proportion. So media needs to learn to focus on real issues during campaigning. "

The man who runs NDTV himself admits that they dish out non-serious issues to the viewer. His own words - "So media needs to learn to focus on real issues during campaigning". 

The answer is so depressing to read. "Serious issues are hard to sensationalize" - this is how the english news media is run in our country!

Now, how do these people decide what news is good and viewable? What is their basis to "sensationalize" news? What comprehensive studies have been done to decide that "so and so is what the viewer wants"? Before getting into that question, let's debate "quality" further.

We will first talk about 2 interviews.

On February 10, 2012, NDTV interviewed Sushma Swaraj in a bizzarely titled program called "Truth vs Hype". The video and the transcript are here.

I wish to draw your attention to the last part of this interview:

NDTV: Are you still as strongly opposed to Sonia Gandhi becoming PM as you were?
Sushma Swaraj: As strong as ever. 
NDTV: And the famous three vows that you'd sworn you'd take if she became PM at that time?
Sushma Swaraj: I've no regrets for that. 
NDTV: That you will shave your head, that you will take sanyas?
Sushma Swaraj: I have no regrets for those vows because it still touches my sensibilities.
NDTV: It does?
Sushma Swaraj: It does.
NDTV: And tomorrow in the unlikelihood it was to arise again, would you take the same three vows?
Sushma Swaraj: Same vows and the same movement.  

On March 26, 2011 (about 10 months back), NDTV had another exhaustive interview with Sushma Swaraj . And in this interview too - Sushma Swaraj gets asked the same question

Barkha Dutt: Now, two questions. You say you are the same Sushma Swaraj. You were always like this. But the country also remembers the Sushma Swaraj who said she would shave off her head if Sonia Gandhi ever became the Prime Minister.

Sushma Swaraj made these comments in 2004. 8 years ago. She again gets asked about it in 2011 and then again in 2012. Same question, they get the same answer. 

Leave the gap between 2004 and 2012. Just between March 2011 and Feb 2012, so much water has flowed. Sushma Swaraj was praised by the media for her fiery and content based speeches in Lok Sabha. Show me one interview on english TV news where she was questioned about the issues and content in those speeches?

Take a look at the content of both the interviews - different people are interviewing her. In the 2012 interview, notice how the interviewer repeats the questions. Sushma says she felt ashamed (about the Karnataka episode), the interviewer wants to know if she felt terrible also! I mean, why? Watch the interview - you will see how the interviewer just does not want to divert from the topic. Later, he first asks her about the "famous three vows". Then after she answers, he tells us what those three words are! I mean, why?

Also notice, how little of *actual issues* of election are discussed in the interview. Three years after Dr. Prannoy Roy's wisdom filled words (that don't match actions), *this* is what we get? This is not unique to NDTV alone. Rajdeep Sardesai gets to interview BJP's national President about a week back. Instead of asking about real issues, he concentrates excessively on why Narendra Modi is not campaigning in UP. When asked why the manifesto of BJP was not discussed (full interview yet to be uploaded), he says:

Modi, UP campaign and Karnataka were today's issues! other issues can be discussed on other days

I was curious as to how one can discuss UP campaign without discussing manifesto and agenda of the party, but then...

Anyways, let's get back to the 2011 interview of NDTV. The interviewer is not happy with her straight answer on the CVC controversy. She goes on and on - 11 questions/interventions. Sample these two at different instances:

Barkha Dutt: Did you feel put down and snubbed in public, when he said that?
Sushma Swaraj: No, not at all.

couple of minutes later:

Barkha Dutt: But the fact is you were publicly contradicted by your party president on this issue.
Sushma Swaraj: I am saying I am admitting it that I was overruled.
Barkha Dutt: Did that make you feel that you wish he had said it to you in private instead of saying it in public?
Barkha Dutt: But the fact is you were publicly contradicted by your party president on this issue.

Sushma Swaraj: I am saying I am admitting it that I was overruled.

Barkha Dutt: Did that make you feel that you wish he had said it to you in private instead of saying it in public?

Why should the same question be re-worded and asked again and again. These journalists take umbrage when follow-up questions are asked on twitter - and they go about doing this repetitive stuff. There are some meaningful questions in both the interviews, but the repetitiveness and the desire to obtain some form of sound byte or the other has seeped into the TV system very badly. 

These interviews are just an example. Most interviews happen in this mould only - interviews of Karan Thapar are another prime example of wanting to cover multiple topics within a short time frame. 

Or let's consider their debate formats. Take a look at the snapshot below. 

This is pretty much the format followed across all tv channels. In this particular example, 8 people debating the Lokpal bill, and the debate ends in 20 minutes! The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha discussed this bill for about 12-13 hours each

What quality can you expect from such "debates"? 8 people shouting over each other's arguments. Some get only about a minute to make their case. Add to this - the moderation by the anchor. Do we really expect that such debates will be content based? These debates only mis-lead the viewer to the maximum possible extent. I personally experienced even how alert folks mis-interpreted stances by watching these debates. Doesn't the viewer deserve better?

IBN Live also runs a 30 minute show at 10pm - "Face the nation". 7-8 minutes go into advertisements. Another 7-8 minutes go into the anchor trying to pose queries/interrupt the panel. So what we are left with is 15 minutes. Believe it or not - in these 15 minutes, topics as serious as reservation, corruption and as mundane as book reviews are debated! How exactly do we ensure detailed content in such a short time? 

Speaking about names of the shows -

Prime time on english news channels is 8pm to 11 pm. NDTV runs a debate at 8 pm, 9 pm and 10 pm. Often times the same topic is debated, with different panelists (who offer no new perspective). I grabbed a couple of screen shots, when the same topic was debated on all three slots. 

You might argue that the specific topic above is very important - but the above example is the rule, not an exception! On another day - we had 

  • The 9 pm show is pompously titled "India decides at 9". I had a debate with the CEO on how they can run a show with that name, given that they don't represent entire India. He scoffed at me, and later tells that since he is also not a big fan of that name, it will be changed. It hasn't happened till date.
  • The 10 pm show is pompously titled "The Buck Stops here". I don't recall a single episode where the buck actually stopped somewhere. People debate; everyone shouts their views; and the shows ends. Why should such names be tolerated?
  • Atleast the 8pm show is named better - Left, Right and Centre. And more often than not, all three shows debate the same issues. 

Times NOW calls it's primetime show as "Newshour" and more often than not, the show ends up running for hours! On this particular show, more than the nomenclature, the content is again very distracting to the viewer! The anchor plays judge jury witness lawyer and what not! 

I haven't watched Headlines Today much...not because of any aversion but just never found the time. But I am pretty sure nothing is drastically different on that channel either. 

Essentially, either the same topic is debated with same points being made by different panelists or too little time is devoted to debate important issues. 

Take the example of any big ticket item - 2G scam for example. How many of us have become better informed on this by just watching the news channels? My bet - none! There's only sensation all around (sample this interaction with Bhupendra Chaube). Contrast that to print - read this timeline by the journalist who exposed it. Can anyone find such a link on any english TV channel? 

Let's take the hottest topic right now (no, not the Karnataka porn thing). The elections to the five states. Here's another challenge - Ask any ardent viewer of any english TV channel the names of all the five states that went/are going to the polls! How many will be able to name all of them? Why blame the hapless viewer? He/she is being fed with an overdose of UP elections. 

Fine, then does the viewer know what the main parties stand for in UP elections? No - that's because again the concentration is on "small events" (as is evident from a couple of samples above).

Then you might ask me - why should you care? 

You might say (and many anchors actually say this too) - If you don't like them, don't watch them. The point is not about liking, but being scared about the influence these journos hold. Where do they hold this influence? 

1. This issue was addressed in earlier blog on Mr. Ghulam Fai, written in CRI. Many of these journalists are part of, what is called Track-2 diplomacy with Pakistan! But we never know what exactly happens there! Most of the invitees from both sides of the border are retired officials, journalists and analysts. What qualifications do they have to run "diplomacy" between the two countries? Does the "qualification" depend on their airtime? The amount of shrieking on TV? Sagarika Ghose was part of track-2 once - how exactly is she qualified to hold talks? Isn't it disturbing to note that these people wield such kind of power?

2. These english TV news channels have some reach. According to a survey - 0.4% of total viewership - which roughly translates to ~25 lakh people. But I would imagine the viewership will be much higher than that. Maybe in ~1 crore ball park. That's quite a significant amount of population lapping up mis-informed views on a daily basis. 

In my opinion, an ignorant voter is worse than those who don't vote. This ignorance stems from watching such ill-informed debates/programs. Why should any voter be mis-guided and mis-informed? One might like the "style" of presentation by an anchor and watch the program - now what if the content is zilch in it? Doesn't it become our responsibility to call this bluff? 

3. English news channels are the ones watched outside India. The impression of certain sections of the world is formed by looking at these channels and their programs. Do we really want such bizarre content going out to the world out there?

So, coming back to the first question - What is their basis to "sensationalize" news? At times, we hear this argument that the news channels are just giving what the viewer wants. We are yet to find one comprehensive study that actually says that this what the viewer wants! What is this TRP rating system that everyone rants about? We do not even know how the system works, that everyone puts out ratings like the one below! 

On a lighter note, if you feel this blog has concentrated more on NDTV, then you have your answer above ;) 

Feedback mechanism

What is the feedback mechanism available? Very limited! NDTV does not even have a "editor@ndtv.com" mail ID !! You can write directly to their anchors/editors/CEO but I think you know the chances of getting a reply back are bleak ( though I must mention that I came to know their mail ID's recently only and sent 3 mails on different topics, 2 were responded back to. earlier mails to feedback@ndtv.com were a waste of time)! 

Rajdeep Sardesai is very good at replying back to mails. He makes it a point to address the points raised in the mail. But then one cannot expect to write to him about every small thing, right? Atleast for me, the editor@ibnlive.com mail ID bounces back each time I sent a mail! 

I never wrote to TIMES NOW, but don't recall anyone saying they wrote to them and were replied to. 

The other feedback mechanism is twitter. Some anchors reply mostly to praise tweets. Some seldom interact. Some spit and scoot. Plus twitter is not an official medium to obtain feedback! 

This one time, Sagarika Ghose of IBN even blatantly lied to the viewers on her show. It snowballed into a big controversy - IBN apologised for the mistake but she was brazening it out on twitter. Only after a full 2 days, did she fully accept the mistake. 

Any discussion on TV media is incomplete without Radia tapes. Leave aside the rantings of bloggers, even journalists were appalled as to how the whole thing was handled by the media!

So then, What is the solution? 

Journalism needs to rediscover its soul.

Again, not my keyboard punditry. Rajdeep Sardesai said so, just a couple of days back. 

Or Barkha Dutt who had this to say last week - 

If you believe Twitter or TV, every issue in India is trapped in a Liberal Left vs Conservative Right polarised debate. These labels boring

The point she quite obviously misses here is that no one person can control the debate on twitter, but she can atleast control the debate on her TV! 

These kind of occasional sanctimonious utterings have become normal for us viewers/readers/tweeters. CNN-IBN atleast has a few positive programs in their kitty - their Citizen Journalists, India Positive, Real Heroes capture positive and inspiring news from across India. 

The point I was trying to make here is this - the very guys that run this medium are disenchanted with how it is being run, and yet somehow don't make an attempt to change it! 

As a small attempt, I have tried to write to the editors and interact with journos on twitter, to try and see if I can get my point across. A series of 8 letters to Editors Guild regarding coverage issues etc, a series of 18 different interactions with these folks on twitter (these are just the documented ones), letters to the editor, multiple blog posts that discuss the coverage in the TV media (some full, some in part - totalling more than 100). There is actually nothing new for me to add to the already existing documentation. Suffice it to say - we need better quality of news delivered to us on TV. They need to stop their brazen craving for generalization and sensationalism. 

I have one more appeal to make. There are some folks online who make some excellent arguments on media - but unfortunately tend to use derogatory language to make some points. Though the anguish is understandable, the argument is lost in that din. Please resist from using such language. There are some (very very few) who always use abusive language. This blogpost is not for them! 

Fine, but when will this blogpost end? 

Now! :)

Thanks for reading! 


Pardha said...

another GEM :)

Sunesh said...

Brilliant!! The best Post i ever read about the media morons

Anonymous said...

Perfect Valentines gift to Jurno

Ramesh RB said...

Good article.Need more such!

Santosh said...

As Rajdeep said that Journalism needs to rediscover its soul,I would advise the people funding NDTV to rediscover their anchors.
Lucid post again ripping apart the shoddy content on TV that we are fed with.Kudos Sudhir.

SysErr said...

Saaar.. autograph saaar....

Shreyans said...

Media is trying to become another power center, trying to jump in the league of the elected and the electorate. Hence they have to sensationalize to attract more eyeballs.
Urban animals make policies and media wants to capture them and in all fairness has captured them.

That, my dear friend is the solution to every query of yours!

Balaji said...

Excellent post Sudhir... Spot on. Meticulously analyses with details and logic. Sensationalizing and feeding misinformation has unfortunately become the basic norms of most of Indian MSM...

Gauthama said...

Dear Sudhir, Fantastic article. I hope the media reads and digests the wealth of info to improve the quality of content and presentation. May be you should send this piece to Justice Katju.

Anonymous said...

Very brave article.

Anonymous said...

we need a FOX news type channel in India. I think the space is ripe for the market to accept the same. But do not know why no such news channel catering to the 'Right' thinking is coming up at least in the english news channel space..

Anonymous said...

Left is dying yet left leaning media is thriving.

A S Raghunath said...

Brilliantly written post. Exhaustive but with interesting in-puts, clarity as crystal and hard hitting but gracious in tone. Never knew, consumption of Biryani once-a-week brings out not just a huge burp but also the quality post from you.

Keep it up Sudhir and what next?

Nitin Jain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nitin Jain said...

wow I really appreciate your memory and ability to recollect the anecdotes, events...connecting the dots to showcase the hypocrisy, the mindless and contradictions which are not easy to capture. The politicians and the media has been taking advantage of this ever prevailing ignorance of we the people and our inability to ask correct, relevant questions on an ongoing basis.

Anonymous said...

I really like this article......makes arthings a lot clear....its a good reference for journo students.

Khoty Mathur said...

People indulge in "screeching on television" - unfortunately a very apt term - or on not letting others have their say, when they don't want attention focused on issues. Wish these anchors learnt to handle such crude tactics better. There is one thing we can do - switch channels when there is sensationalism. Do it consistently and they will soon learn to have more respect for their audience. Great article.

Sundara Raman said...

A really well-intentioned and a well-written article !

Kudos !!

Sundara Raman

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