Television News: An Acid Test Awaits

23 Apr,2021


By Shailesh Kapoor


Shailesh KapoorLast one week has seen deepening of the Covid crisis in India, with a virtual collapse of the health infrastructure under the weight of escalating cases, and enabled in no small measure by the absence of a coherent strategy to fight the pandemic and its inevitable second wave.


I was too young at the time of the Emergency in the 70s to have any memories of it whatsoever. And I gather, from what a generation older than me has narrated, that there was no major impact of the Emergency on the daily life of a large section of India’s working class. The Emergency remains one of the most problematic events in India’s post-Independence history because of it is rooted in constitutional subversion, and the resultant impact, for example on the freedom of the press, does not sit well in history at all.


In my 45 years of living, I do not remember any public-centric issue in India that’s as serious as the current crisis the country face. Unlike wars, elections, political assassinations and other types of challenges India has faced, this one is impacting ordinary citizens in large numbers, which by now we know are much larger than those being officially reported.


The next fortnight will be a crucial one. By all estimates, we are still two weeks (if not more) away from the national peak of the second wave. Which means that the healthcare crisis may escalate further, even take a new shape and form as it develops. We are on the edge, and we don’t know what’s in store next.


It will also be the period of an acid test for our news channels. Over the last few years, most news channels have notoriously towed political lines, and it has been left to digital news platforms to ask the real, hard questions. But in a moment of extreme crisis, existing ‘rules’ of political engagement may not apply anymore. For something as close-to-home as this, the lens the viewer uses to look at news is bound to be different.


As recently as last night, some news channels continue to peddle India-Pakistan stories in the primetime, an unimaginable thing to do in the current situation. Come May 2, you can expect many to shift all attention to the West Bengal elections. None of that surprises us anymore, because we are now immune, no pun intended, to seeing our news channels shirk their social responsibility for way too long.


But times of extreme crisis are also opportunities to change the discourse. Can some of these channels rise above political lines and report, what is essentially, a human crisis the way it should be reported? It will not be easy, because the political pressure will act like headwinds (for example, there is talk of editors being told to go easy on crematorium visuals).


The ethic of media owners and editors will be tested. The question is: Do they have it in them? A couple of weeks from now, we will know the answer.



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