Shailesh Kapoor: Indian News: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

28 May,2021

Shailesh KapoorBy Shailesh Kapoor

 

Five weeks ago, I wrote in this column about how the coverage of the healthcare and humanitarian crisis that has hit us because of the devastating second COVID wave will be an acid test for Indian television news channels. How they manage to report in this period will have a long-term impact on how television news is perceived in this country.

 

The update, I’m afraid, is not good. Almost expectedly, most news channels (barring a couple) have pussyfooted their way through this crisis. From blaming the “system”, to looking for “positivity”, they have tried to create stories around the second COVID wave that do everything but call out the Governments (Centre or State) that have botched up.

 

The ground reportage has been woefully inadequate too. International channels, especially BBC, ran more incisive stories from the ground in India than Indian news channels. Every now and then, the all-too-familiar distraction route has been deployed too, such as doing inconsequential political stories when the healthcare crisis was at its peak early May.

 

Not that this surprises us anymore. Having resigned to the fate that good old Indian television news will not carry anything of weight, I found myself gravitating towards three sources, more than every before: International media, digital video news and print.

 

Print, in particular, has seen some quality work exposing the mismatch between reported and actual mortality figures, a glaring discrepancy than Indian TV news channels have barely glossed over. Most of this investigative work has been done by language publications, and it is difficult to track them all. But in particular, Gujarati newspapers like Sandesh and Divya Bhaskar have been applauded for their stellar reportage, where they have tracked hospitals and crematoriums extensively to conclude that the actual mortality in the state may be as high as 10X the official figures.

 

In a rare gesture of acknowledgement of another medium’s good work, NDTV India’s anchor Ravish Kumar spoke about Sandesh’s coverage extensively in his show last night, even interviewing the publication’s Rajkot editor, and admitting to him that his company has managed what most TV channels and English & Hindi newspapers have not.

 

Language print has never been a hot topic of discussion in mainline media circles in India, simply because unfamiliarity with languages curtails reach, not to speak about the unsaid hierarchy of languages in the Indian news industry. But the current crisis has shown how robust some of these publications are. Not for nothing is print the most credible news media in India.

 

Digital coverage by some Indian platforms, none less than the Barkha Dutt-run Mojo Story, has tried to compensate for the absence of mainline news channels on the ground, especially in mofussil towns and in rural India. Yet, for every such digital platform, there will be another trying to peddle a narrative that suits Government of the day. Unlike TV channels, digital news platforms often run as bootstrapped businesses, and have little means of marketing themselves to expand their reach. They have to rely upon organic referrals, and the good work in the pandemic period should, hopefully, get them plenty of referrals.

 

Another digital platform that’s worth applauding is the TV Today-owned The Lallantop. Even as the much-larger TV channels from the group, including the giant Aaj Tak, play ‘safe’, The Lallantop has done some compelling stories from the ground. It amuses me that it’s the same parent organization after all. With no news ratings for almost nine months now, what stops the organization from taking the same approach for their big TV channels? Some of the video stories run by The Lallantop are more than worthy of being prime-time stories on Aaj Tak.

 

When the Government is obsessed with its image and the narrative, than with reality itself, it’s the media’s job to counter that obsession with hard facts. More power to journalists and mediahouses that have taken on this baton. You may be in a minority, but history will remember that when India’s mainstream media let go of its power to make a difference, you were there!

 

Shailesh Kapoor is CEO, Ormax Media. He writes on MxMIndia every Friday. His views here are personal

 

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