Why readers matter in the age of newspeak

ON December 5 and 6, 2016, except for Chennai, the rest of India didn''t exist on television news. Nor was there anything newsworthy happening elsewhere it seems, except for 24X7 live coverage about late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J.Jayalalithaa’s health updates, following a cardiac arrest and then her eventual demise.

Why readers matter in the age of newspeak

Saturation coverage? The aim of televison news is to grab eyeballs. Fans and party workers gather near the MGR Memorial to get a final glimpse of Jayalalithaa as her mortal remains are carried to her burial place in Chennai on December 6, 2016. AFP

Salil Desai

ON December 5 and 6, 2016, except for Chennai, the rest of India didn't exist on television news. Nor was there anything newsworthy happening elsewhere it seems, except for 24X7 live coverage about late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J.Jayalalithaa’s health updates, following a cardiac arrest and then her eventual demise. The capsising of frigate INS Betwa, that killed two sailors and injured 14, did not make it to Breaking News, nor were there any reports on the continuing demonetisation misery throughout the country. 

Usually, there would have been some coverage of the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition as well as Babasaheb Ambedkar's death anniversary, both of which fall on December 6 but there was none of that this year.  

Instead, every time one switched on television news, one either saw anchors moving through a sea of mourners in Chennai, visuals of various political leaders paying homage to Amma, endless sound-bytes by commentators and obituaries on her life and times. No doubt, Jayalalithaa was an important political leader and immensely popular in Tamil Nadu, but what justifies the blanking out or near exclusion of almost all other news from television channels for two consecutive days? 

Tragic as her demise was, the fact is she passed away after two months of hospitalisation at one of the best medical facilities, closely monitored by expert doctors.The sad event was after all, what is categorised as natural death, not an accident or any other kind of unfortunate mishap that could merit the kind of ceaseless television coverage accorded nationwide, even assuming the whole of Tamil Nadu was prostrate with grief.

Contrast this with press coverage. Clearly, the tragedy was front page headline news, across all major newspapers. It also dominated edit pages and many broadsheets also carried a couple of inside pages full of relevant, associated stories and features. But, and herein lies the main difference, newspapers also carried plenty of other news as always, right from national to regional and local on a variety of subjects ranging from political, social, crime, human interest, business and economics, international bulletins to sports and cultural round-ups. Unlike television news, Jayalalithaa's death did not monopolise the entire content in the print media or squeeze out all other happenings on these days.

Because of this tendency of television news to severely restrict and narrow down focus to just a few major news stories on most days is exactly the reason why we need newspapers more than ever before. Indeed, its TRP-driven model, the requisites and limitations of the audio-visual format as well as the fact that television news plays to the galleries to engage audiences, inevitably leads to disproportionate emphasis on certain "trending" or "sensational" news items only, which grab eyeballs or can be played up to sustain viewer interest or outrage. What gets lost is a whole array of significant, newsworthy happenings, issues and information that is often of far more public interest. Even worse, all nuances, details and analysis of various issues get reduced to just a few talking points. These often mislead or prejudice viewers, making television news a manipulative medium that often airs news and views in a manner that creates misinformation rather than enlightenment. Television news, as practised and presented now, also tends to spoon-feed viewers and homogenise their thinking. It sucks out neutrality and discourages people from mulling or reflecting on things independently. It is no secret that newspapers all over the world are shutting down or facing challenges like shrinking readership. Indeed, reading and writing as a means of gaining and disseminating knowledge, information and analysis, let alone news is facing a huge challenge from a plethora of audio-visual and digital mediums. 

India too is no exception, though it seems to be faring better than most other countries, since newspaper and magazine readership in both English and regional languages, has actually been growing at about 7 per cent annually.  The fact remains that for more and more people, television is becoming the primary medium of news consumption. So how exactly is the print medium preparing to combat it? While it has seriously invested in production values, technology, reader-friendly content innovations, online editions, marketing etc., is it investing enough in people who do the actual writing and content creation — journalists, reporters, editorial staff, columnists and freelance contributors? Has it created conditions wherein, bright youngsters would aspire to be print journalists rather than television reporters, a profession that currently seems far more glamorous and lucrative? 

Television journalism is about 25 years old in India (excluding Doordarshan News), became mainstream about 15 years ago and has started flourishing in the last seven to eight years. While many veteran journalists have migrated from newspapers to television journalism, much of the print medium has continued chugging along and thrived because of very senior journalists or mid-career scribes who entered the profession when television journalism was still nascent and print was dominant or still the first choice. What happens, when they start retiring? Are worthy successors available at all levels? 

The only way newspapers can compete against television news is by playing to their core strengths —  offering facts and depth, wide and varied reportage, critical analysis and insightful opinion — something TV channels in India simply don't have enough of.  

If newspapers begin losing these unique strengths, it is only a matter of time before more readers abandon ship and become viewers. That would be a real tragedy because in the absence of newspapers, television news could well become the perfect tool to furthering the Orwellian concept of “newspeak”, which tightly limits and controls our perspective by restricting and replacing language, idiom and semantics with selected visuals and sound-bytes only.

The writer is a Pune-based film-maker


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