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Be the story you want to tell

December 31, 2012 16:10 IST

2012 marked the shift of the news media becoming the story rather than reporting it, says Mihir S Sharma

Once the processes that India's news media -- politely called "robust" by foreign correspondents -- have set in motion reach their natural end, and this country is reduced to a smoking, post-apocalyptic ruin, historians will sit down to try and pinpoint exactly when the big change came. When did the media stop reporting the story and become the story? Historians being historians, even if hypothetical, they will disagree; but I'm fairly certain that a good number of them would pick 2012.

Three things made the news media part of the story this year.

First, this is the year that the belief among channel heads and newspaper editors that they could create and sustain particular news narratives that would completely dominate India's national conversation -- which received an enormous boost following the creation of the Anna Hazare "movement" one sleepy afternoon last year -- came into its own. As Rahul Bhatia tells us in Caravan magazine, Times Now's Arnab Goswami, JJE*, practically created the Hazare movement out of thin air. Nor is it Times Now alone, now.

Consider how every news channel switched to wholesale wild speculation about the unfortunate death of Subhash Tomar in the Rajpath protests last week, even before anything definite was known. Consider how it has become commonplace for news channels or some newspapers to become locations for social campaigns -- 'Send us SMSes to pass on to Delhi CM', and such like. And I'm not even going to start on the too-young reporters breathlessly declaring from India Gate that a New India was being born, and so on.

The second reason that the media became the story is the slow structural changes to the underlying economics of the news business. More players create smaller margins; declining margins cause established owners to sell out to big businesses. When Mukesh Ambani became a major holder in Network18, enough people woke up to this process. Combine this with point number one, the relentless pushing of a story till it gets on the agenda, and suddenly people start asking uncomfortable questions about motivations.

Does the fact that Naveen Jindal's father-in-law is a substantial shareholder in NDTV affect the Jindals' actions against Zee News? Was the India Today Group's decision to go after Salman Khurshid merely a rivalry between Delhi school boards or something dictated by political associates of India Today's corporate shareholders? Most such questions are, of course, ridiculous. But not only is it understandable that they are being asked, it is right to ask them. Uninformed speculation is harmful; but it provides an incentive to dissipate it with genuine information and disclosures, which are beneficial. Perhaps, with greater and more open corporate ownership, such slants, if any, will be visible up-front, and readers won't feel distrustful and misled.

And the third reason the news media became the story this year was that it tried very hard to. Channel after channel, paper after paper and magazine after magazine tried to insert itself into a story that they should be just telling. I don't mean the various bold and often quite laughable claims about the impact on policy that some report or campaign has had. I mean occasions like the Salman Khurshid press conference when it was obvious to all observers that reporters from the India Today Group wanted to provoke the minister into an angry reaction directed at their organisation. (They didn't have to work too hard to get it.)

So, in 2013, we don't just have to worry about grandstanding television anchors giving us a headache. We have to worry that news organisations are creating the story, for reasons we might not know -- and that they're trying to star in it, too. Individual journalists, too. Gone are the times when a great story could have been broken without a byline, without insistent follow-ups and opinion pieces from the reporter. Instead, they're increasingly trying to create personas for themselves by piggybacking on outrage, particularly online.

Amusingly, the holier-than-thou aura of print – 'oh, we don't chase after outrage like those TV guys!' – is effectively demolished when one sees senior journalists making fools of themselves on Twitter to curry favour with whatever the noisiest online mob of the moment is. This week, for example, Doordarshan's gaffe, in which it sent out the prime minister's speech with his question asking technicians if the recording went off OK ("Theek hai?") still tacked on at the end, caused the phrase #TheekHai to trend on Twitter for days. Amusing, perhaps, and the sort of thing one expects from India's rambunctious online space.

But when, let's say, the former editor of a national news magazine takes this as a serious thing worthy of comment, we are firmly on the path towards the kind of ridiculous gaffe-based journalism that made the US presidential elections painful to read about. And this will happen without the balance of fact-checking and contextualisation the US media provided that electoral process. When, say, the political editor of a major news organisation deliberately sets out to misinterpret the home minister's already pathetic excuse for a statement instead of explaining it, you know that newspersons have decided that cheap popularity is far more rewarding than painful exposition or explanation.

Yes, 2012 was the year when news stories became the news's stories. It's hardly surprising, you know, that the news media's been granted Justice Katju, whose approach to any problem is to talk about himself and his opinions in such a way the story becomes about him. Unfortunately for the rest of the media, at least the good judge is entertaining.

*Judge, jury, executioner

Mihir S Sharma