Ranjona Banerji: Bad journalistic practices here to stay?

15 Sep,2017

​By ​Ranjona Banerji


Are you surprised that the media went into overdrive about Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Gujarat? Are you surprised that so few wondered that the launch of the bullet train project was so close to the Gujarat state assembly elections? Are you surprised that prime minister Narendra Modi’s every step, move, smile and gesture was such a matter of breathless excitement?

Of course, you are not. In fact, you probably didn’t even notice the somewhat bogus little attempt at “secularism” where news channels were all over themselves because Modi visited a mosque! In fact, Modi took his visitors to the heritage site of Sidi Saiyyid ni jali – perhaps they even asked to see the beautiful stone carving that is the logo of Ahmedabad city for some and definitely for IIM, Ahmedabad. They then had lunch at a famous, fashionable Gujarati food restaurant close by. No, Modi did not visit Jama Masjid and change the BJP’s view on minorities completely. But should we sensationalise whatever we can? Definitely!

But herein lies an integral problem which has forever dogged journalism and our viewers and readers. Part of our job as journalists is to bring whatever we tag as news to our readers. Once you accept that, the spectrum of news stretches from a film star’s make-up style to names of rich people who have stashed their money illegally in off-shore accounts.

Some of these will be seen as invasion of privacy. Others will be seen as journalistic overreach. News can be ponderously important and it can be frothy insignificance. But, as long as readers and viewers are interested and want more, it ticks the box. However much it might upset people, there is no doubt that sensationalist news which focuses on the seedy side of life is a crowd-puller. An old complaint from readers is that newspapers will put some film star on the front page but not rural distress. This is true and it is unfortunate. But it is also true that all research shows that more people read about film stars than rural distress. Does it say something about humans that edit pages, the most “serious” pages in any newspaper, are the least read?

The internet and television have shaken some of the old print shibboleths. Opinion gets traction. But they have created problems of their own. Recently, there was much online anger over a fight – shown live by some news channels – between representatives of Republic TV and Times Now and the father of the boy murdered in a Gurgaon school. Times Now had reached the grieving father first and he had been fitted with a mike to speak to the anchor. The representative from Republic TV tried to get rid of Times Now and replace the mike with their own.

Obviously the scenes and the behaviour are shocking and unacceptable. Some amount of professional courtesy is expected, no matter how big the story. But this is the sort of pressure that television newsrooms put on their reporters and that strange term, “guest coordinators”. Rules of acceptable normal behaviour (forget “decency”) are thrown out of the window to be “first”, to get “breaking news” and so on. One might hope that this particular incident is an aberration but as competition gets more intense and as TV anchors misbehave nightly on live television, it is more likely that ugly confrontation on the ground will become the norm as news channels fight for viewers.

If anyone thought the readership battles between the Times of India and Hindustan Times were over the top, the various figures thrown at us by news channels take competitive combativeness to a whole other level.

As long as viewers like this kind of journalism, though, I only see things getting worse.

Makes you almost long for the days when the achievements of Sachin Tendulkar and the bland beauty of Aishwariya Rai dominated the front pages. At least they were less unpleasant on the eye, ear, brain…


By A Correspondent

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