Ranjona Banerji: News TV’s ‘how did you feel when the world ended’ question

29 Apr,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


The terrible earthquake that ravaged Nepal on Saturday brought out the worst and the best of Indian news television. On Saturday, since it happened in the morning and most channels get into weekend programming, it took time for the enormity of the event to sink in. We will never, it now seems clear, escape from the tyranny of the breathless ingénue TV reporter who gets into “Wow Awesome” mode. Can there be a sentence more offensive than “The breaking news we are now covering is an earthquake in Nepal”?


As is the norm these days, the internet and Twitter got the news first, so if there has to be one-upmanship in human tragedy, the credit goes to the Net and not to television. And of the channels on offer in India, CNN won hands down on Saturday. The coverage was sober and informative. And the best of all is their met section which explained as much as was known about the earthquake and the weather in the area as the day unfolded.


Soon after the earthquake struck, CNN-IBN had the chance to broadcast the met update for Nepal but chose instead to switch to a press conference given by a minister. In India, when a politician speaks, all attention has to go to him or her, regardless. The minister made some anodyne remarks about a fast unfolding situation that added nothing substantial to the news. How I long for the days when the junior most or most incompetent reporters were sent to press conferences…


While on CNN-IBN, it was painful to watch an anchor pointing to a map of Northern India on Monday evening and saying, “This area has had many many earthquakes” many many times. We got it the first time. We would have been better informed if the many many had been replaced by numbers. We would have been even happier if the Indian plate pushing under the Asian plate had been discussed many many times with many many details.


However, it was not CNN-IBN alone which faltered. NewsX, Headlines Today and Times Now launched into their usual competition of nationalistic triumphalism. Oh India is the greatest, India set the most aid, India sent the best aid and so on. One should get used to this but it remains disgraceful and distasteful.


By Monday, most Indian channels had sent reporters to Nepal and coverage had improved. Sadly, though, whether it is CNN or the BBC or any Indian channel, the “how did you feel when the world ended” question just cannot be replaced or rephrased. They have to ask it, no matter how stupid and senseless they sound. One BBC anchor even asked an eyewitness to describe how people around him reacted after the earthquake. You really desperately want them to reply, “Oh, the people looked around at their broken homes and lives and injured and dead family and friends and went off and ate cucumber sandwiches.”


Surely, surely, there is a better way of doing it?




Incidentally, dear TV-wallahs, “PM chairs expert panel on aid for Nepal” qualifies as a news headline. It provides information. “PM tweets about Nepal earthquake” is not “breaking news”. It is not anything but your own desire to become a PR person being made public for the world to see.


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