In the book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges talks about the United States, but he might have as well been writing about India, the media, and the complex pathways between celebrity status, media noise, and the chaos of democracy.
“We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level.”
As we step back and look at mainstream news platforms, it becomes difficult to say where entertainment and spectacle end, and news reportage begins. Everything is made out many times more dramatic than it is, way more binary rather than nuanced, and more confrontational. It is almost as if by sowing strife, and reaping misery, news media will increase fleeting attention of the easily distracted consumer.
For the last quarter of century or more, we, the people of the world, have been assailed by news channels – first via satellite, then via digital. It is almost as though mainstream media has turned into paparazzi – feeding off misery, hate, anger, and high drama, all in the relentless quest for eyeballs. And, if there is a celebrity angle, that is definitely an added bonus.
This week saw two vastly different tragedies unfold in front of our screens – both digital and TV. The first was the death by suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, and the second was the violent death of Indian soldiers, in a no-holds-bar hand-to-hand combat with their Chinese counterparts. The rush to be the first to break the news, or the next instalment of it, saw the breaking of the remaining rules governing the Indian news media. For the media, it was festival season come early, with all the speculation, bravado, and innuendo.
What demarcates the media of the past – print, terrestrial TV, national radio – was a certain set of filters that were applied between the time the story broke, and it was published. With the mad chase for being first, those filters are gone. Verification, decency, balance, and an absence of drama – values that are forgotten today.
The first casualty of the war for eyeballs, is the truth. Earlier this week, Times Now, whose sister brand is the Times of India, ran a story that named 30 Chinese soldiers who died in the high-altitude battle. Except that they were all the names of Chinese Generals, picked off Wikipedia, and shared on WhatsApp. And, when objective truth is the first to be sacrificed in the war for ratings, you can be rest assured that remaining values will follow. For example, human decency. Sushant Singh Rajput’s family deserved not to hear about their loved one’s death on news channels. They had the right to grieve in public and not have their homes invaded by a swarm of video cameras, with news anchors and TV reporters hoping to milk the event for that little extra ratings. The need to scoop others on a story has been a long running tradition in news media – but what exactly are you scooping when you ask a grieving father about his son’s death?
We have come to this precipice of news and ethics many times in the past. The kowtowing during emergency, the Radia tapes, the coverage of 26/11, the hounding of celebrities, the spread of fake news as true, the presenting of opinion as news, the causing of damage to the fabric of society though deliberately polarised coverage. The media has got away with all this, claiming freedom of expression and constitutional rights.
But, is lying a Constitutional right? Is spreading of lies a Constitutional right? Is the demonising of communities freedom of expression? Where you and I would face various charges ranging from sedition to causing communal disharmony, for putting out content like this, the news media walks free every time to peddle this over and over again. It has crossed the line so many times, that the line itself has been left a far way behind. And, what the media has done is fallen into an abyss of despicable behaviour that lay beyond that line.
Both broadcast and digital news media must be judged by the same standards as print. And, for that they must follow the same process as print for verifying news, as well as acting as an editorial filter for what is appropriate and what is not. Beaming the images of a corpse, is a violation of privacy, and of basic journalistic ethics. It cannot become normalised as business as usual.
As the impact of COVID-19 hits the economy, and as advertising rupees dry up, it is likely that there will be a major shakeout in the news media. There are already editions shutting down, and journalists being laid off. The onus is on desks to churn out content, repackaged from content streams available online. But unless new platforms offer content of value, beyond sensation, people are unlikely to pay for it on a regular basis. And unless a regular readership subscribes and engages with the content on an ongoing basis, the platform is not going. Most of us pay a rupee a month for a single news channel. That is about 3 paise a day. We get most of our digital news for free. We definitely get more than we pay for from these channels, but is what we get of any value?
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker.