Posts Tagged ‘blatant inaccuracy’

Is the media’s job to support or to report? – Editorial EPW

In Commentary on September 5, 2011 at 7:02 pm

From: Economic & Political Weekly, September 3, 2011, vol xlvI no 36


Indian Media’s Anna Moment
Is the media’s job to support or to report?

The cameras have been switched off. The microphones have fallen silent. But the cacophony generated by the saturation media coverage accorded to the agitation led by Anna Hazare for a Jan Lokpal Bill continues to ricochet. Questions are being asked, as well they should, not just about the extent of media coverage, especially by the electronic media, but on the content of the coverage. Given the profuse expressions of appreciation by the Anna Hazare group at the end of the protests to the media for its “support”, a key question that the media needs to ask is whether its role in such a situation is to support or to report. By becoming participants in this particular campaign against corruption, has the electronic media forfeited any semblance of professionalism that had survived previous occasions where it had gone overboard? Or will it take the time to pause now and analyse why it decided that the saturation coverage of the campaign, at the cost of scores of other important news developments across India, was justified?

From the coverage of the April fast by Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar, where television anchors were waxing eloquent about how this was India’s Tahrir Square, to August when a leading anchor announced that this was “an inflexion point” in India’s history, it was apparent that the electronic media had bought into the protest, setting aside scepticism or distance essential in the interests of accuracy and balance. The story had been reduced to good and evil – with “civil society” of the Anna brand as good and the government as evil. Even if one argues that some of the coverage was justified, particularly after Hazare’s arrest and the drama of his release that followed, when and how did the media decide to accord the protests non-stop uncritical coverage? One reason could be that the response in April to the fast had alerted news media that this was a story their largely middle class urban viewers would follow. Television revenue is based on viewership. Over the two weeks in August that all news channels, with the exception of Doordarshan, focused exclusively on Ramlila Maidan, news viewership increased while that of sports as well as Hindi movies dropped.

A second factor could be that the people who staff our media come from the same class as those leading the anti-corruption protests. The Anna Hazare group included journalists and technology savvy young people. They knew how to talk to journalists; journalists knew how to relate to them. Such a cosy relationship is not possible with adivasis fighting for their lands, dalits agitating against exclusion, north-easterners and Kashmiris demanding repeal of oppressive laws or anti-nuclear agitators who resist the imposition of a dangerous technology. On the other hand, corruption, particularly someone else’s corruption, is a comfortable cause to support along-side “people like us”. For the electronic media, this story was tailor- made – a fixed location, colourful crowds, a 74-year-old Gandhian-type figure on fast, and a campaign against something as generic as “corruption” that had universal appeal. “Team Anna” provided quotable quotes, considerable drama, and full access at all times. Plus, the protests were concentrated in Delhi and a few large cities, with rural India represented by Anna Hazare’s village, Ralegan Siddhi. So even in terms of logistics, this was an easy story to cover.

It is how the media converted a protest into a “movement”, a few cities and a village into “the nation” and a compromise into a “victory” that is even more worrying than the extent of the coverage. Almost from the start, the protests had been dubbed “a second freedom movement”, “August Kranti”, etc, placing them in a historical context with which they bore little resemblance. Second, the size of the gatherings at various places was vastly exaggerated by media treatment. Close camera shots hid the actual size of the crowds while reporters used terms like “sea of humanity” rather than approximate numbers. As a result, viewers were led to believe that the numbers had grown from thousands to tens of thousands to millions. Anchors were constantly telling viewers that “never before” had so many people gathered for a protest, a blatant inaccuracy that slipped by unquestioned.

The constant repetition of terms like “nation”, “freedom struggle”, “victory” by the media enhanced the size and significance of the protest. As a result, in popular imagination, the Anna-led agitation will be remembered as one consisting of “millions” of people across the “nation” fighting “a second freedom struggle” when in fact it was a popular, largely urban upsurge against corruption and for a law to curb it. None of this should matter if indeed the media helped push an insecure and indecisive government into moving on a law that was long overdue. The danger lies in the precedent it has set. It suggests that as long as a group, regardless of its agenda, knows how to handle the media, brings in viewership, and confines protests to logistically convenient locations, it can get coverage which, given the power of 24 × 7 news television, can be leveraged to negotiate with the government. In a democracy, where media should act as a check on all power – not just government power – such a scenario is worrying in the extreme.

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