For an institution that is touted to be upholding the fourth pillar of democracy, the codes of Indian television journalism in recent times have been rather questionable. Newsrooms have transformed into courtrooms that pass verdicts independent of legal judgment, while news debates have ceased to exist in a vacuum of shouting matches and singing competitions.

The only other thing that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the circus that happens inside media offices is all that happens outside. In the breathless pursuit of chasing stories, it has become almost routine for reporters and camerapersons to mob and heckle people in this race for ‘Exclusive’ content. That such behaviour well qualifies as harassment goes unchecked by their news editors that run the show. Because everything’s fair in war, right? And is the juncture Indian journalism is at today anything less than a war? A war of TRPs, of ideologies, of ethics.

Coverage of Rhea Chakraborty -Amid this bloodshed, is there any credibility to TV news anymore? Is there any accountability of truth? Or only the corpse of Indian broadcast journalism remains?

Journalists Question The News Coverage Of Sushant’s Case

The days leading up to Rhea Chakraborty’s arrest witnessed some of the dirtiest, vilest, and most regressive moments of Indian broadcast journalism. This window, during which she will be away from media glare, should serve as a moment of pause for the country. It is an opportunity to recline, look back, and ponder upon all that has transpired in the last few weeks. A good place to start at would be this clever obituary The Hindu carried, in commemoration of the media:

Also Read: Idolising Kangana Ranaut to vilifying Rhea Chakraborty is Misogyny at its Best

The national grief that shrouded actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on June 14 was gradually turned into something very ugly. For instance, we reported how Navika Kumar on Times Now displayed “exclusive” pictures of Rajput’s dead body at prime time. “I call the 9-11 o’clock news prime time the ‘hours of madness’, says award-winning journalist Shantanu Guha Ray.

Select news channels, in open transgression of reporting ethics and objectivity, had already pronounced Chakraborty guilty days before she was actually arrested. This, following an overt media trial they had run against her. Was this case the lowest point of news coverage media experts and industry veterans have seen in India? The journalists we spoke to unanimously agreed.

Also Read: News Debates Or Shouting Matches: Do We Need This Television Sport?

Rituparna Chatterjee, independent journalist and gender rights activist, says, “It’s not debatable that we’ve hit a very low point. But I don’t want to club all media into this – television media is the prime offender, more than any other form. It’s putting out sexist hashtags and basically dog-whistling. The especially horrible point has been the portrayal of this young woman (Chakraborty). As a journalist, I feel ashamed to see how this has been covered.”

Naomi Datta, author and journalist, left broadcast journalism in 2008. She gives us a first-hand picture of how TV media has seen a downward graph. “We didn’t have these many channels back then, and the numbers for English news channels were nothing. They looked at Hindi news channel numbers, and said ‘we need to change the way we’re looking at news, and get the aggression of other channels.’ So English news channels were also getting into bold graphics, and no one was willing to do sedate discussions anymore. That trend had already started. But this year is a low point. We can’t go lower than this because we’ve hit rock bottom.”

“The Country’s Biggest Villain”

But prime time newsroom debates aren’t the only spaces where ethics were abstractly questionable. On September 6, it manifested physically too. Flouting all norms of decency, privacy, and social distancing in a time when it is paramount, cameramen and mic-wielding reporters had jabbed Chakraborty from all sides when she reached the NCB office for questioning.

As a woman, it presented a terrifying sight – to see another woman be touched, manhandled, and jostled around to get the best snap of her, as if she were an exotic animal, as if this kind of physical harassment was justifiable.

Jyoti Yadav, journalist with The Print, tells us, “The media has created such a perception of her that Rhea Chakraborty has been made out as the country’s biggest villain. Justice is one thing, and revenge is another. Taking advantage of public opinion to promote feelings of revenge or toxicity is wrong.”

Also Read: What does Patriarchy have to do with Rhea Chakraborty’s case? Her t-shirt tell us

As evidenced by Ankita Lokhande’s letter, in which she charged Chakraborty for letting a depressed man take drugs, by virtue of having been Rajput’s last girlfriend before his death, Chakraborty is having to shoulder the responsibility of every “bad” thing he ever did. Is a man not capable enough of being answerable to his own actions?

Guilty or not guilty, Chakraborty’s identity has been completely maligned in this case even before the courts have reached a judgment in the case’s murder angle. She has been condemned as a “scheming” Bengali woman, a gold-digger living off her boyfriend’s credit cards, a witch who was doing kala jaadu on him, a promiscuous, unfaithful woman. A prejudice that stemmed from TV news channels.

Expounding upon that toxicity, Datta says, “Some of the things channels have done is just plain disgusting… They’re running campaigns, were celebrating her arrest, and behaving like they were part of the family that had levelled those charges. How can prime time anchors behave like that? It’s clear where their biases are, they want to prove that a certain person is guilty. They’re not channels, they’re lobbyists.”

The “Breaking News” Bug

It was political satirist Jon Stewart who had famously said, “Twenty-four-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that’s 9/11. There are very few events that would justify being covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So in the absence of urgency, they have to create it. You create urgency through conflict.”

We have seen this play out in the coverage of Rajput’s case, peppered with recurring flashes of “breaking news” every day, every development a sensational one. Non-broadcast journalists are relentlessly pointing out that the TV media’s continuous coverage of Rajput’s death is risking neglect to a lot of other pressing issues in the country. Questioning this, Chatterjee asks, “If you think about it, is this a case that justifies 24/7 news coverage at the cost of everything else? There’s COVID, job loss, lives are at stake… TRPs should be driven by talking about issues that matter right now to a lot of people.”

Also Read: Books, Chess, And Faux Pas: A How-NOT-To Guide By Bollywood

But who’s listening? Are anchors and editors partaking in this rat-race sensitive to the pleas of the common public? Is there a way out of this vicious cycle of broadcast news and TRPs? Is digital journalism the answer?

Yadav, a known voice from digital media, points out the difference in the way that opinions are put forth here versus on TV. “As digital media journalists, we try to remain more sensitive in our work. We don’t have the pressure of the TV medium, so we can take the liberty of criticising through our words. Even one article on our platforms is sometimes enough to stand counter to TV news.”

In the TV world, Ray says, “There’s a huge desperation among journalists to be the number one, as a result of which they are trying their level best to outdo one another, and triggering nonsensical news – which is called “breaking news.” The media has been completely polarised, split into two groups. Gossip is turning into news. And television anchors are trying to educate each other on how to talk on television. It is a matter of serious concern.”

Is There Still Hope For Young Reporters In Journalism?

Earlier this week we reported how Shantasree Sarkar quit Republic TV, saying that the channel was running an “aggressive agenda” to “vilify” Chakraborty. She even explicitly claimed that journalism was dead at the said channel. Several senior journalists had lauded her courageous move. But does this phenomenon convey something else? Can young journalists find a footing in the field now? Do they see promise? With people quitting their jobs on “ethical” grounds, notwithstanding a flailing economy, is the future of broadcast bleak? Does it signal the death of TV journalism in India?

“I won’t call it the death of journalism,” Ray says, “but this is a dark phase for Indian media. However, people who love news should definitely remain in the field.”

Given the state of affairs, Datta maintains a stand that right now, “young people shouldn’t even be looking at TV journalism.” However, one of the ways broadcast can change, she says, is if people start paying for the news they want to consume. “As of now, news channels get their ratings by, unfortunately, appealing to the basest instincts of people. But if I want to see a reality show, I’ll watch Bigg Boss na. If I want solid, good news, then I’ll have to pay for it. Only then can I demand full accountability.”

Also Read: Journalist who Quit Republic TV, says it’s Running an ‘Aggressive Agenda’ against Rhea

On the best practices within the industry, Yadav encourages aspiring students to join the field, saying, “TV media has definitely seen a lot of degradation, but new journalists should come and change it. You may have to fight with your editors and institution for your ideas, but believe in your ideas.” Or as Chatterjee points out, another potential way for new reporters to course their way would be to “negotiate two stories you want to do against three that you don’t want to,” per ethical standards of course. “No editor will reject a good story. And at the end of the day, workplaces are transient, your vocation is permanent.”

With so many aspersions cast on the veracity, credibility, and morality of TV news channels today, one naturally questions the future it holds. Will it last? Does hope glimmer?

Those who have known this world from close quarters, and continue to keep its foundations steady in their personal capacities, indicate that a field is made up of its people. Until the values hold, the profession will. As Ray puts it, “Journalism is about an attitude. It is, after all, the only profession in the world where pride is placed over salary.”

Views expressed are the journalists’ own. SheThePeople does not necessarily subscribe to or endorse them. 

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