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News and the common man

August 01, 2012 15:58 IST
The concern is low-budget coverage, not in-depth. Hype replaces substance, breathlessness providing it the requisite gravamen, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar

Take the power outages across northern and eastern parts of India that affected 60 cr people. It dislocated life and, going by the television coverage, seemed only in urban parts. Stranded trains and grumpy metro commuters make it easy to secure images. Had the media been sensitive enough to say, 'But these power outages, not because of over-drawing but under-supply of power is a reality almost daily.'

That means hard work, more TV crews as well as empathy which seems to surface only when a TRP-yielding event occurs. Rest of the time, the easily available talking heads are brought to the studios to dominate prime time, sometimes meekly allowing the anchor to hold a tribunal. Sometimes five-six of them are on air and get barely two minutes of airtime each. The complete and diverse perspectives don't emerge.

Even here, rail safety becomes ephemeral, surfacing only after each accident and each railway budget. It ceases to find any follow-up when the same talking heads can gather and say much the same thing most of the time. The concern is low-budget coverage, not in-depth. Hype replaces substance, breathlessness providing it the requisite gravamen. Then, the poor souls called viewers have to wait for the next episode to have their adrenaline pumped; it is as interesting as prime time daily soap.

Each development, Kokrajhar and such gory instances, is seen only through the prism of politics, especially partisan politics, the persons mouthing views on behalf of a party often adlibbing because even the anchor strides forward with the catchphrase from the previous talking head. It ends up as a medley of incoherent voices filled between advertisements. The anchor, without fail, has his preconceived line with which he ends it.

If powerless rural areas don't count for much, what does a railway passenger, that too in a sleeper class coach matter when several of them die in a fire on a coach near Nellore? Not much really, because one does not even come to know the identities of the dead. They barely get, if at all, mentioned either on TV, at least as a scroller, or listed on the inside pages of the newspaper. Time was when everyone, at least in print media, scrambled to get it right. Only ETV used to name the dead in accidents in even remote locations.

The refusal of the minister of state – who was promoted to full cabinet charge – to go to an accident sight makes headlines, even 'breaking news' despite the fact that he would be underfoot when poorly equipped personnel struggle to bring the bodies out. Talking heads would find him easy meat later in the day. 'Why did you not go to the spot?' can be a question which a rookie reporter can ask. Big story, you see.

This, to me, amounts to a class thing. The urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, and the rural and the poor don't buy stuff which the advertisers promote. Those who travel on a bus, or a train, are the unwashed that do not yield TRPs and how does it matter if their kith and kin don't know about their fate? If only a TV camera panned the enquiry counters at the stations of origin and destination would the news channel know the agony of the people left out of coverage.

One does not call for Ernie Pyle genre of news coverage where even during war, from the battlefields he reported the worms'-eye view to readers back home: folksy, detailed, about the poor foot soldier who got killed in a war he did not know why it was being fought. But acknowledging by appropriate coverage of the lowest common denominator in society is relevant in a country where nothing gets done properly, bribe or influence notwithstanding.

Let us stick to the Nellore train accident, for to me it is the metaphor for negligent coverage in all categories of media. By now, a drill should have been in place, for hardly has been a year without an accident on the tracks -- gruesome, with loss of lives, and nothing else to change it. In the 1980s, only '83 and '84 were accident-free. In the next decade, not one year passed without one.  The decade since the millennium year has seen accidents every year bar 2007 and 2008. They had been quite a handful.

Compared to train mishaps, air mishaps get more than disproportionate coverage because the travellers – dead or injured or even miraculously alive – are 'somebody'. A business class is sure to yield a prominent bloke, of some repute, wealth or simply awe-inspiring. Then others pale into relative insignificance. All names are flashed, even their families are reached, and sobbing relatives get air time. It is not that the poor don't have emotions.

The Indian Airlines' owned and operated plane crash -- IC- 491 on April 26, 1996 -- barely moments after take-off saw a chief minister scurrying to the site in a special small aircraft and one wondered why. Before the 24x7 breaking news era, it transpired that one of those who perished was a senior businessman from the Dhoot family. He was one of the 56 killed but to me it showed a clear bias. One does not grudge him his splash in the newspapers then, but the mindset is clearly visible.

Here is a parting shot. The newspapers and the television screens are agog with what is called the 'prospect' of drought in India, especially in a dozen states. So far, except for an occasional photograph of a scruffy farmer sitting on his haunches, shading his eyes heavenwards, the only coverage has been of the Met's failure to forecast accurately, the pending decision to declare drought to enable assistance to the afflicted.

It was, however, the Wall Street Journal that woke up the facts and figures about a week ago, travelled to parts of Maharashtra to breast the tape in the coverage of significant happenings. It did so because of its tradition of reporting well. But then, the Indian media was nowhere at the starting line. This perhaps portends how the looming drought would be covered: from TV stations, not from the field though every malady that haunts such calamities -- wrong targeting, misappropriation, corruption, sloth and heavy price people pay for it would be seen this time too.

But then, a drought-stricken region's image would depress the market sentiment, pull down the TRPs and news as business would grievously suffer. After all, how does a common man matter except as a statistic? He only has a fleeting relevance.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs who takes the common man's issues seriously

Mahesh Vijapurkar