Filtering the News

NEW DELHI: Indian viewers are conversant with 24 hour television news channels creating news in their daily prime time ‘talk shows’ and turning these into slug fests. Every night viewers tune in, almost as if drugged, to their choice of channel—or ‘flick’ through the dozens–watching seemingly senior academics, politicians, officials, dissolve into hysterical, screaming, almost abusive personalities as they go on the roller coaster ride with opinionated anchors.

The subject seems to be news, and it is usually when an event of some significance has taken place. But often when the top headline is diffused the channels always create news from the available fare. In that a non issue is converted into screaming headlines, totally out of proportion to the significance of the news on the basis of the following:

  1. TRP ratings and advertisements;
  2. Editorial/Corporate interest;

And once the decision is taken, the non event is introduced in each new bulletin as the main or one of the more significant headlines. Through the day the viewer tuning into the channel is made it believe that the newS selected/ created for this treatment is extremely important, with the channel announcing a special discussion by its star anchor on the same theme at prime time. In the evening the big anchors, most of them ‘stars’ come on with invited guests, to drive home the point through aggressive questioning, badgering, opinionated comments where some guests are pushed into a corner, and others given all the space required to bolster the anchors point of view.

A great deal happens along with the way, from when a story is made the news, and is played out finally at night in a discussion. And television news has set into accepted motion a system where unethical practices are seen as legitimate and where recorded statements are played as ‘live’ interactions without the audience or for that matter other panelists even being informed of the same.

In television ‘sim sats’ as these short, recorded interviews are called give the anchors amazing leeway to bend and twist the facts. Depending on the importance of the person being interviewed, the cameraman, or the journalists covering the story, or often the star anchor him or herself carries out the interview. This is done usually when the person cannot come to the studio but allows the interview, and if this is being carried out by the anchor then it is done through audio conversation with the individuals answers being recorded on camera.

One would expect the television channel to first clarify that the person when he or she is brought on air has given a pre-recorded interview; and then carry the answers faithfully in the context the questions were posed. But this is rarely done. In some well known popular shows not directly related with the news of the day, often a guest is missing, and the anchor pretends to pose questions to a blank screen informing the other panelists that the missing parts will be filled in after the recording of the interview comes in. So when the show is aired all the panelists are there, with the viewers having no way of knowing that one, and maybe even two, were not even present at the supposed discussion, and were patched in before the show was telecast. And here it all depends on the acting skills of the anchors to convince the viewers that the entire panel was filmed together, and that the questions and answers were all recorded at the same time.

How is this unethical? Because it is a major lie, and news channel telecasts are not supposed to be fictionalised drama movies. So just as the print media marks photographs as “file photo” if it was taken earlier and archived so that the readers know it is not of the day, news channels are expected to make it very clear the difference between a live interview, a recorded interview, and a pre-recorded interview so that the viewer can make his own assessments.

The same practice is being extended now to live discussions around whatever the channel decides is the news of the day. A case in point involving the channel News X and its anchor as well as editor Rahul Shivshankar illustrates new levels of ‘journalism’ that are unrecognisable. This writer was contacted by the channel for a discussion on bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. Interestingly the guest relations person did not clarify at any stage that this was not a general discussion but limited to what the channel had decided what was its news for the day, a India-Pakistan interaction organised by the Regional peace Institute set up by Pakistans former foreign minister Mahmood Kasuri and India’s former minister Man Shankar Aiyar. Repeated refusals were met with pleas and finally a compromise of a short interview before the night’s discussion was settled upon.

Rahul Shivshankar was interviewing, and his belligerent and highly opinionated line of questioning followed the approach as to why people from the two countries were carrying out this dialogue when the government did not want to talk to Pakistan; and was this not anti-national; and then the last words that “many people are questioning your patriotism.” The questions were countered with vigour and Shivshankar’s ignorance and bias was questioned and criticised roundly.

Interestingly in the midst of it he spoke of his channel having “broken” the story “ten minutes” ago to which this journalist reminded him that the conference had been going on in full public view for two days, and that there was nothing to “break” as invitations for a press conference had been sent out by the organisers earlier in the day themselves.

The channel spent the entire evening carrying mugshots of some of the highly respectable persons attending the conference as if they were ‘terrorists’ and making it clear that the prime time show would expose the meeting between the Indian doves and the Pakistani hawks!

Then came the live primetime discussion with a host of panelists and Shivshankar as the anchor. And along with the rest was this writer as well, with the pre-recorded interview being projected as a live intervention. Just a few odd lines of the interview were used, with the animated anchor asking entirely new questions, and when the responses did not match followed it with interjections to show that one was not answering the question and was being evasive! Other panelists had no idea and tried to counter this writer who was not present, and hence could not intervene, or counter, or clarify! In the process a big lie was perpetrated on all concerned, more so the viewers. When challenged later the anchor insisted that this was “common practice” in all news television channels. And he should know having worked in others including Times Now earlier.