Thursday, July 14, 2011
The medium is the messanger
A look back at how we covered the last Mumbai attacks...
As the media brouhaha about the television coverage of the Mumbai attacks rages, it’s time to stop being defensive and to try and understand just why people are so upset.
The words used – in social discourse, on the Internet and in the print media – to describe the coverage are telling. Over the top, sensationalist, exploitative and melodramatic – these are just some of the adjectives being thrown about.
But the fury of the response and the venom of the attacks suggest that this is not a one-off thing. This resentment over the way television channels cover events has been building for a while. The 26/11 attacks were just a catalyst for people to express grievances of long-standing.
At the root of this anger lurks the resentment of the viewing public about the assumption of journalists that their opinions are the only ones that matter. As offensive is their presumption in inserting their own views into the narrative of whatever story they happen to be covering.
What is under attack here is the constant contamination of the news by the views of those who disseminate it on television.
As the cliché goes, comment may be free but facts are sacred. And when it comes to the news space, they need to be kept apart.
The problem with television is that there is a constant blurring of the lines so that one never quite knows where the news ends and the views begin.
God knows the print media has its own problems and it often gets things wrong. But where it scores is that the dividing line between opinion and fact is always very clear. Opinion belongs on the edit and op-ed page – and in the feature and style sections. The news appears on all the other pages, uncontaminated by the views of those reporting it.
Yes, newspaper columnists can be as self-indulgent and self-obsessed as television reporters (and I’m guilty as charged for my weekly column in Brunch) but on the whole they restrict themselves to the spaces reserved for the venting of opinion.
In television that is hardly ever the case. Newscasters start editorializing in the middle of a news broadcast, anchors of panel discussions are more interested in holding forth than eliciting the opinions of their guests, and interviewers routinely interrupt their subjects in mid-sentence only to insert their own agendas.
And that’s what viewers resent the most: being told how to feel or how to think. We are not imbeciles sitting at home that you have to tell us over and over again that an event is a national tragedy. We can work it out for ourselves.
Is it really surprising then that the viewing public has finally snapped and said: Don’t tell us how to feel about things. Don’t even tell us how you feel about things. Just give us the facts and let us make up our own minds.
But while it is easy to knock television journalists, let’s not forget that some of these problems are inherent in the medium itself. In the print media, when you sit down at a computer terminal to write your story, you are already one step removed from the event. And that in itself lends some distance and hence, some perspective to your report.
Television journalists don’t have that luxury. The nature of their job demands that they report from the thick of things in real time. And when there are flames billowing behind you, grenades exploding, bullets being fired, feelings running high, it is difficult to step back from the event so that you can report it dispassionately.
But it is easy to start to think that you are part of the story. It is easy to con yourself into believing that it’s all happening to you rather than around you. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your emotions, your reactions matter – that your pain, your anger, your anguish are part of the narrative.
Only they’re not. Your job is to tell the story, not become the story. More important, your job is to tell the story as an objective observer in a manner devoid of hyperbole. The event is big enough; you don’t need to magnify it through needless hysteria.
As the post-mortems on the TV coverage of 26/11 get underway, one thing is clear. What people resent most is getting the news through the prism of someone else’s emotions.
A reporter is supposed to be the filter not the funnel between the news and the viewer. A filter helps keep all the extraneous clutter out so that you can concentrate on the essential details of the story. A funnel on the other hand just pushes everything through without bothering about the contents too much.
All of us in the media – both print and television – need to treat the news as a sacred space inviolable by opinion. And just as we exhort the government to keep church and state apart, we need to draw a line between news and views – and make sure that we never violate it.
The message from the public is loud and clear. And we journalists ignore it at our own peril.