Television has been the dominant form of entertainment in India for over thirty years. Around 850 million people have access to a TV set in India and these numbers not only reflect the large influence of TV in the social and political domains on its viewers but also how it has evolved to become the biggest marketing tool in the media sphere. While many sectors became stagnant with the outbreak of coronavirus, the television industry grabbed the attention of the millions that were confined to their homes during the lockdown. A captive audience celebrated the return of old classics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata in the quarantine period. However, the unethical growth and rising TRP of various channels also received huge backlash during the same time. This gave a reality check for the kind of information that was being sourced and the influence of the same on the viewers.
The Death of Rajiv Tyagi
Digging deeper into the news sector, which is a major contributor to the television domain, we may consider the sudden passing away of the Indian National Congress National spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi on August 12, 2020. He passed away after a heart attack that occurred soon after a heated debate on a Hindi TV channel. This sparked a debate about the toxic debate culture of TV news. Commenting on this tragic incident, Professor Gaurav Vallabh, a Congress spokesperson, explained how titles of the debate show on news channels are divisive. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Nawab Malik commented on the format of the debates and how the anchor or the host of the show denies equal opportunity to each speaker, which turns the entire debate show into a bullfighting spectacle. A senior journalist, Abhisar Sharma, who has been a major critic of television debate culture, mentioned the influence of these meaningless debates on vulnerable minds, especially on younger viewers. The Rajiv Tyagi incident exposed the transition of these news debates from facts to fiction and from a platform to tackle important issues to an arena of verbal bloodshed.
Changing Nature of TV
Pre-decided agendas of talk shows during prime time news often peddle hatred and biased opinions to the viewers. Vilification of particular communities and trial by media have become the new normal in the newsrooms. Airing these opinions during prime time with its massive reach of the audience and fixed timings gives legitimacy to biased news.
Some people are openly targeted in the name of live reporting. Despite the recognition of toxicity on news channels, there seems to be no end to the shows that provoke such negativity in the country. A major reason for this is the benefit of such reporting in terms of the ratings and revenue of the news channels. Leading news reporters and editors fight for the same sensational viewership each day, which is why TRPs have become the game-changer and facts have taken backstage.
While pursuing my Bachelor’s in Journalism, I read about the Propaganda Model of Communication advanced by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky. This model explains media biases and the working of corporate media outlets. I see the relevance of this in today’s times. It also answers the question about the future of broadcast in our country, relating to the five filters that are mentioned under the model - ownership, advertising, sourcing, flack and fear. Each filter creates an inherent conflict of interest that drives the propaganda of the news channel in the pursuit of quality journalism. Commenting on media's “societal purpose,” Chomsky wrote in his book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, “The mass media are interested in attracting audiences with buying power, not audiences per se; it is affluent audiences that spark advertiser interest today, as in the nineteenth century. The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media ‘democratic’ thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income!”
I feel that broadcast is not going to die anytime soon even though it receives massive backlash and hatred especially from independent media organisations and primarily from new media users because it is still the only source of information that people without internet facility have access to. The privilege of access to news sources plays a large role in news consumption in the country. As much as we look forward to the idea of ‘Digital India’, increasing viewership and regional recognition have made television the biggest revenue grabbing medium in the industry, more than the internet. Ideally, the media industry should work upon the regulation of content that it delivers, which has to be more informational than just persuasive. The ethics of journalism need formal regulation because the selective interpretation of this by news channels has majorly contributed to the spread of biased facts. The tragic death of Rajiv Tyagi should be an eye-opener for public discourse compelling the political leaders, anchors, and the creators of the prime time news and TV shows to think of a media strategy that falls within the walls of what journalism truly stands for- objectivity.
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