2020: News Channels’ Year of Shame?

04 Sep,2020


By Shailesh Kapoor


2020 has been a year to forget on many counts. But oddball years such as this are usually the best years for the news business. There is little news value in the routine and the familiar. But in times of disruption and chaos, news acquires much higher significance.


Let this be said: 2020 has been the year of a colossal letdown of a performance by television news channels in India. Let’s just take the last month in specific. There is so much going on in the country. We are still wondering when our Covid peak will eventually arrive, as daily cases cross 80K now. There’s the struggle of the health-workers to fight a pandemic incessantly for six months now. There is still a lot of misinformation floating around regarding C Covid and many myths that need to be busted. The economy is in terrible shape, and it’s not going a short-term impact. There’s an escalating situation on the border with China. Millions of students face uncertainty regarding their career and their future.


In all this, what have our news channel found as their top story? That one Rhea Chakraborty could be involved in Sushant Singh Rajput’s death! Depending on the channel (and barring a couple of exceptions), 50-80% primetime is dedicated to this topic, which is made out to be some kind of a national interest thing, with “new India” being attached to the narrative in a way that’s bizarre and ridiculous in equal measure. That news channels have managed to politicize an inherently-apolitical event is a thought that’s more dangerous than funny.


Surely no one can argue that there is nothing wrong in what’s going on. News is not a medium like films, GECs or cartoons. Its primary social function is to inform, before it entertains, if at all. The idea of “informing” presumes that right choices will be made on what is important information for those consuming news on a particular media. Of course, news channels have this understanding. But they knowingly side-step it. They may be incompetent, but that’s not their bigger failing. There’s moral corruption at the core of what’s happening, and that’s the central issue.


The obvious argument in support of the news channels would go: But this is what gets ratings. Firstly, that’s not entirely tested as a fact in these unusual times. And even if one assumes that argument to be valid, does it really absolve the news genre of all social responsibility? Or have primetime news channels become electronic tabloids officially now? And how does the ratings argument apply to the English news genre, which sells primarily on perception? Can’t these channels see how they may be turning away some advertisers altogether because of the nature of abrasiveness in the content may dissuade some brands from associating with this medium?


In a country where the government is forever busy regulating the price and packaging of TV channels, and censorship of fictional entertainment content is always in discussion, why is news content being given an absolute free hand?


On social media, a section of the urban, educated population suggests that if all this bothers you too much, not watching news could be the solution. Even if it works as a sub-optimal but effective workaround at an individual level, it is an ineffective suggestion from a social perspective in a country where television enjoys a massive reach.


I fear that the current degeneration of news suits the politics of this country. And if that’s the case, then we must prepare ourself for at least a few more years of despicable news coverage on television.

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