Shailesh Kapoor: News Television in Covid-19: FAILED!

17 Apr,2020

By Shailesh Kapoor


Covid-19 has been the predominant mental occupation for large number of Indians, especially those with the privilege of staying securely at their homes. It is also the only topic that makes it to the news these days, especially on television and print. While digital news always has some room for other types of news, the nature traditional media consumption doesn’t allow for much width of coverage.


In such times, when news is the go-to category on television, with more than 200% growth in viewership compared to pre-COVID times, the much-maligned genre could have aimed at setting new editorial benchmarks for itself. Unfortunately, though not very surprisingly, the news television genre in India (barring a few exceptions) has let itself down spectacularly. It’s one thing to operate with mediocrity under normal circumstances, but quite another to let go of an evident potential ability to make a difference in the times of crisis, when everyone’s watching you all the time.


There’s so much to question about how Indian news channels have handled Covid-19. To begin with, there’s been very little programming innovation. If anything, the studio portions have increased, and field reportage, has been marginalised. You can see WhatsApp videos being used as the primary field material on many news channels. Even as some of the digital journalists, such as Mojo’s Barkha Dutt, do extensive coverage from the ground, our top TV journalists are happy to sit in their studios and debate. Perhaps they have got too comfortable with this format over the last few years, and being on ground is not their idea of journalism at a senior level anymore.


Even if one learns to live with the dominant absence of ground reportage, one cannot fathom why the in-studio content is what it is. Why are we seeing spiritual leaders like Jaggi Vasudev and Ravi Shankar on news channels in the times of a health crisis? Why is there is no specialised programming on the impact on the economy? Why are numbers and trends not being analysed with more depth? One has to invariably turn to the Internet for anything meaningful and insightful.


Evidently, news channels are happy playing the populist game, relying on political rhetoric and nationalist sentiments to play to a larger audience base, than to a smaller section that’s looking for more heft in the news. The numbers come from the former, and a large part of the latter is online-friendly anyway.


The argument above may apply to Hindi and regional news channels, but does not hold much ground for the English news genre. The real issue with the populist approach taken by news channels across languages, however, is that it comes with a political stance. The PM can’t say or do anything wrong. The Opposition can’t say or do anything right. These lines are drawn clearly. There’s not even a pretense anymore of trying to camouflage one’s political ideology.


Along with that comes the urge to handle stories with a dangerously communal lens. This is the most damaging of the various types of incompetence news channels are guilty of. In times of 200%+ viewership growth, this narrative can shape the mindset of a country for years, if not decades.


It’s said that times of crisis test and reveal your true character. This was a great opportunity, bigger than anything else before, for news channels in India to prove their detractors wrong and attach a higher purpose to their existence. They are “essential services” after all. But they have failed. And they will be judged for this failure for a long time to come.



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