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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: Saving the face of Indian journalism

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar  |  New Delhi 

A man falls into a ditch with an exposed electric wire. He survives to tell the tale. A television reporter shoves a mike into his face and asks him how he was feeling when the electric current was running through his body. “Bahut acha lag raha tha (I was feeling good),” responds the glamour-struck man as a ‘Breaking News’ ticker runs at the bottom of the TV screen. This is a scene from a critically acclaimed film released earlier this year, A Wednesday.

It is time editors and media owners started getting worried.

Not just A Wednesday but several Hindi films have been adding a television crew and a reporter to their stock of scenes. Often the reporter is a bimbo, asks silly questions and falls for whatever is fed to her. Don’t blame the films, they are just taking popular perception and adding it to the script, as they have for years.

Remember the businessman — till the ’80s he formed the centre of hatred in most films. In the ’60s and ’70s he was a smuggler or a fraudster in most films. In the ’80s and ’90s, as cynicism with the system rose, policemen and politicians got added to this list. Then after the mid-’90s as liberalisation took off businessmen became good.

When TV news took off, in the late ’90s, serious TV reporters were part of the stock scenes in films such as Satya and Company. But as it degenerated (at least large parts of it) into a farce of poor reportage, all cinema did was use the real-life material.

This however is not just about TV news. It is about journalism. The only difference between print and TV is that the mistakes TV reporters make are there for everyone to see, so they get lampooned easily. Print gets away with many more mistakes because of its lower reach and a greater respect for the written word in India.

Take business journalism for example. Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka asked this question at a public forum this year: ‘When was the last corporate scandal that a newspaper or a magazine broke in India?’ As access to companies gets tougher, thanks to PR and corporate communications functions becoming stronger, journalists have stopped trying to get at stories or break them. They just take what is handed out in the name of news, interview a few experts and bung in the copy. If a journalist thinks he has an exclusive, he will happily run with it, without asking why he got it — who is playing him up against whom and why.

In my fifteen years as a business reporter and editor, I have had several cringy moments such as journalists asking the CEO of a listed company for its revenue numbers. Some of my (business) reporters had to be taught basic mathematical skills like calculating percentages or reading a profit and loss statement. How could any of them even hope to catch any discrepancy in those numbers? Most companies in India can get away with blue murder because media simply doesn’t question businesses enough. (With the Lehman Brothers collapse, though, this is a charge the American media too is facing.)

Of course saying that all journalists are incompetent is as sweepingly unfair as saying that all doctors are careless or that all policemen are corrupt. India has several world-class editors, reporters, writers and media brands. But it is the ill-trained reporters on the field who are moulding the perception about the profession today. If we allow them to continue doing that, then content codes and censorship are something that the public will gladly welcome.

The reasons much of this happens is evident — higher dependence on advertising, rising salaries and the inability and (at times) unwillingness of owners to match salaries in other industries, to invest seriously in training and so on. Most owners will gladly pay MNC-like salaries on the marketing and ad sales side of the business, but baulk at doing that on the content side. If TV companies spent on training even a fraction of the money they spend on carriage fees (Rs 30 crore a year a channel), their content could improve ten-fold.

If content is the heart of the news business, then media owners and editors need to start worrying about what they should be doing to fix the reputation of the people generating it. It took businessmen three decades to move out of the frame as villains. God knows how long journalists will take.

The author is a media consultant and author of The Indian Media Business. She can be reached at  

First Published: Tue, December 30 2008. 00:00 IST