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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Telly talk

News television has its own lexicon; here’s a ready primer

These days, as I settle down in front of the TV every evening, I am increasingly struck by how news television seems to occupy an alternate reality of its own, completely removed from the world as we know it. Events unfold at a breakneck pace; everything (no matter how trivial) is informed with a certain urgency; and yes, of course, everyone is much, much shriller. There seems to be no place for subtlety; no feel for nuance; and certainly no room for shades of grey – it’s all black and white even if it appears to be depicted in brilliant technicolour.

And in this parallel universe – populated by shouting, hectoring anchors, breathless, sometimes near-hysterical reporters, and guests who yell louder and louder in an attempt to be heard – words and phrases tend to take on a completely different meaning from the ones they have in the real world.

So, in an attempt to help you decipher the workings of your favourite news channel, here’s a ready reckoner of what things mean in the real world – and how they translate when they’re used on TV news.

Breaking News

In the real world: This means news that is of earth-shattering importance. The kind of event, announcement or development you hold the front page for. The key word in this phrase is not ‘breaking’ but ‘news’. What matters is the quality of the ‘news’ and the impact it has on us, not the fact that it is ‘breaking’.

For instance, it may be ‘breaking’ that Rakhi Sawant has had breast implants; but that does not make it ‘Breaking News’. On the other hand, if a bomb attack has been reported, a volcano has erupted, or a minister has been sacked, then the term ‘breaking’ may usefully be employed.

In the world of news TV: However, the term ‘Breaking News’ has come to mean any old bit of news that is coming through on the wires and will provide a welcome break from the tedium of half-hourly updates. So, it doesn’t matter if the news item in question is as frivolous as Deepika Padukone making a dig at her former boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor or as unexciting as the release of the list of candidates for the local municipality elections, it will still be described as ‘Breaking News’ and conveyed to the viewer in a suitably high-pitched tone.

As if this was not enough, one channel has gone even further and titled one of its prime-time shows ‘Breaking News’ – as if genuine ‘news’ would ‘break’ at a time of their choosing – thus making a complete and utter mockery of the phrase.


In the real world: There is no confusion about what the term ‘exclusive’ means. It means something that is available to only some people. In journalistic terms, the meaning is even plainer: an ‘exclusive’ refers to a piece of news, a breaking story, an interview, or some information that only one particular news outlet has access to.

It could be an ‘exclusive’ interview with the Prime Minister (assuming our Prime Minister ever found his voice). It could be the revelation of some documents in the 2G case. It could be a story about Rahul Dravid’s retirement; or even an interview with Shah Rukh Khan about his mid-life crisis.

But no matter what the story, it is only an ‘exclusive’ if nobody else has it. Pretty self-evident, don’t you think? No, not for the denizens of the news telly universe, apparently.

In the world of news TV: The word ‘Exclusive’ seems to mean the complete and exact opposite. Even when a news story is ‘breaking’ simultaneously across several channels, and even when all of them have the exact same information, each channel still insists on branding their story with an ‘Exclusive’ tag. Why do they bother when their viewers – who tend to surf through all news channels – can see for themselves that there is nothing ‘Exclusive’ about their information? Don’t ask me. I am as puzzled by this self-serving mendacity as you are.

First Look

In the real world: This means pretty much what it says. If a magazine says that it is bringing you the ‘first pictures’ of, say, Angelina and Brad’s new baby, then it means that nobody else has access to these pictures. If a newspaper promises you a ‘first look’ at some documents relating to the Adarsh scam, you can rest assured that these will not crop up in a rival publication on the same day.

In the world of news TV: Though, everyone rushes to assure us that they have been the ‘first’ to bring a story to our attention, even when this is patently untrue. But no matter what the event (or how tragic the circumstances), news channels vie with one another to tell us that they are the first to bring us visuals of a bomb blast/an earthquake/a tsunami/insert catastrophe of choice. Not only are these contradictory claims completely baffling but it also begs the question: is it really necessary to insert such an inappropriate note of self-congratulation in the coverage of what is essentially a disaster in human terms?

Spoke to our reporter

In the real world: This old chestnut means that the politician/film star/industrialist/sports star/celebrity actually spoke to the publication in question on a one-on-one basis, answering questions that a reporter put to them.

In the world of news TV: This seems a handy way to describe any press conference, where the channel’s reporter was also wielding a microphone on the grounds, presumably, that the reporter was also being ‘spoken to’. Go figure.


Raja Swaminathan said...

Thank you, Seema. Once again an excellent brunch post on a relevant subject.

You are SO right about the mockery that TV has made of the sanctity of certain terms. And the fact that it is either oblivious to this or shameless about it, is every more shameful.

In this situation, I would think all a reasonably smart editor of a news channel has to do would be to just go back to the basics - and be normal. He/she would straightaway bag millions of viewers.

Btw, this is not only an Indian phenomenon. Years ago (in the 1990s), I could not help sigh when CNN International used to say things like "Be the first to get the weather report". I used to think "WHY?".

The emphasis today is clearly on speed, often at the expense of accuracy. Maybe TV is just reflecting changes in society?

P.S: What annoys me the most is the shrillness everywhere. Is is necessary to shout? Can't people just talk at normal decibel level anymore?

Ramesh Iyer said...

Couldn't agree with you more on the media terms you have interpreted so rightly. Ever since 24x7 news channels have mushroomed unhindered over the years, the quality of dispensing news has gone from bad to worse. Watching the cacophonous TV debates on prime time has become an ordeal. I wish there was at least one news channel which showed ONLY positive developments as 'news', even if for just an hour everyday. It would be a very refreshing change from the cacophony we experience at prime time on popular news channels.
Though I support freedom of expression as everyone's fundamental right, no right can be absolute. Hence, I feel the TV media certainly needs more regulation to bring some decorum to this section. The recent Guwahati incident makes a compelling case for media regulation, and ban TRPs for such channels to prevent unhealthy competition among them.