Breathless Media in the age of TRPs 


Patricia Mukhim

It is tough to be a media practitioner in this day and age. Deadlines approach faster since web-based newspapers need to upload news by the hour. But you can only have that much of adrenalin. Beyond a point fatigue sets in and when not much news is forthcoming then they tend to manufacture some or scrape the trivia out of what is an innocuous piece of news and  give it their own spin.

This article comes after the death of the former Director General of Police (DGP) of Assam who committed suicide because he could not take the media heat generated after his house was searched by the CBI because he was alleged to have had links with the Saradha chit fund scam. The gentleman allegedly shot himself after he suffered a bout of depression. The media does not believe in the dictum that any person is innocent unless proven guilty. Taking a cue from some of the anchors of national news channels, the media in Assam has today become the judge, jury and executioner.  And if the persons accused of any scam are top notch society elites then all the more fodder for the media. The top cop is alleged to have been involved directly or indirectly with the infamous Saradha chit fund which has till this date taken over 14 lives in West Bengal. Those who died included agents who had to pay back their clients but could not do so and also poor people who had kept all their life's savings in that Ponzi scheme. The poor die silent deaths but when a big name decides to leave his earthly troubles behind the media goes on overdrive. Well this article is not about the person who died but the fallout of his death which is alleged to have been induced by the media pressure which had also singed his reputation.

News of the top cop's death went viral on social media. The comments were varied but everyone castigated the media, holding it singularly responsible for pushing this man to allegedly commit suicide. One cringed at some of the comments which tarred all media persons as a demonic tribe. Social media affords anonymity and solidarity hence, people are able to vent their feelings openly. Also, since social media networks like Facebook are usually more intimate and the "friends" know each other, the fear of public reprisal, should anyone say anything 'unparliamentary', are remote. At best, an insensible or vulgar comment may get a few raps on the knuckles and people would delete the comment. But rarely does anyone take pot-shots at the media in a public forum or indict the press in writing. People have a morbid fear of the consequences.

It is therefore, left to media persons themselves to reflect on their profession. Has the right to freedom of expression been violated by the practitioners of the fourth estate themselves? What indeed has gone wrong with the profession? Is it true that venality has become the second nature of media professionals? Have all of us sunk so low as to have no moral compass left to guide us? What is it that drives media persons to obsess about people's private lives and to capture in their frames what people do in parks and other public spaces? And how do such footages pass editorial scrutiny? Why has the media today become a platform that titillates the gross and the salacious rather than a medium that informs, educate and provides decent entertainment?

Those who are quick at reprimanding the media quite often forget that we are part of the same eco-system that breeds corrupt bureaucrats, policemen, politicians, doctors, teachers and dishonest corporate honchos whose greed resulted in the 2G and Coalgate scams. To expect media persons to rise above the scum would be to idealise the profession. Of course, there is an ideal we should be striving at, which is to get the news out as it is without adding our own spins to a story. Quite frankly, though, we seemed to have failed in this objective particularly because of the pressures of 24×7 news media which pushes us to manufacture news when there is none. The idea of having to give a breaking news story after every hour and then sensationalising that story to hold the readers' attention is, to my mind, a daunting task. And in the event that we are unable to get those accused of misdemeanours to speak up then we cannot leave the hungry viewer un-satiated. So we use our own unwritten codes of misconduct by trying to ask pointed questions and thereby, planting a seed of doubt in the viewers' minds, by which time the viewers have also made up their minds that the subject in question who is at the receiving end of media inquisition is guilty as charged by the media court.

This scenario is indeed problematic. We see this happening and are appalled that such visages could pass off as "news." And yet we are hamstrung by the fact that there is actually no media regulator that could pass the necessary strictures. And nor do we need any such gags on the media. But are we then capable of self-regulation? Who regulates whom if every media channel and newspaper is in a fierce competition with the other? The media in India is at the crossroads and we don't seem to know which road to take. Cacophony has replaced decent debates and discussions on serious issues. The race for Television Rating Points (TRPs) has overtaken every other ethical standard. The other day, a certain newspaper claimed to have reached a certain readership above its nearest competitor. The very next day, the competitor provides facts and figures to show it is still leading. I can't recall a time when there was need for a media house to boast of its circulation or a news channel to repeatedly claim that it is the leader of the pack as far as viewership is concerned. Can it get more uncouth than this?

The other day someone posted on social media, "The media mind today is so twisted that if you put a nail in its head it will come out in the shape of a screw." Those who have been in this profession long enough have sensed the brewing storm, but have not been able to make the storm clouds disappear. In fact, the stresses have just accumulated and reached a breaking point. They say that self righteousness is an ugly persona. Considering we are all part of a complex universe, where the good and bad float around in equal measure, those who choose to remain in a profession that is respectfully termed as the, "watchdog," would have to take a close look at why we have chosen this profession above others. It does not bode well for the pot to call the kettle black. If we are investigating misdemeanours then our own backs would have to be sufficiently covered by sound moral principles.

The media has grown exponentially in this century, yet the terms of employment are not enviable by any standard. The profession needs trained practitioners, but is also not the best paymaster. Hence, it attracts amateurs whose idea of news is far removed from what is universally defined. Also much of the media today is driven by what the owners want out of it. Do they want a media that continues to uphold the basic tenets of democracy or are they looking at promoting selfish pecuniary or political interests? Usually, media practitioners are at the receiving end of all bad publicity and also the ire of the readers/viewers who accuse us of not being able to differentiate between news and gossip. People forget that some media owners actually bring down the edifice of media propriety.