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'Any attempt to gag freedom of media in garb of regulation has to be resisted'

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Television news industry was faced with a dilemma and consequently a huge challenge in the year 2007 - content. Numerous questions were raised on the kind of news that was aired on various news channels. And in some quarters a sense prevailed that television news must regulate itself, as there is a limit to shabby content.



Self-regulation in itself is not bad. But any attempt to gag the freedom of media in the garb of regulation has to be resisted. No doubt, every freedom comes with a sense of responsibility. Barring a few aberrations, media in our country has fulfilled its duty with diligence. Hence any attempt at forced regulation will be counter-productive. As such free press has been the foundation stone of our thriving and vibrant democracy.

No doubt, television news industry has grown at such a frantic pace, that it has created certain pitfalls. All out efforts in the past year were made to grab viewership. In this mad race, at times content was compromised and true journalism took a back seat. Compounding this malady, mushrooming news channels tended to water down the impact of many meaningful news reports.

To buttress my point, I would talk about "Operation Kalank" (Aaj tak-Tehelka exposé on connivance of state administration in sheltering and helping the riot accused in 2002). In a normal news environment this news report would have shaken the foundation of governance in Ahmedabad and Delhi both. But the shelf live of this haunting exposé was hardly a few days. It did shake up the intelligentsia and society for a while, but it was not the topic of discussion in most drawing rooms after even a week. Not much changed either. Even though our channels kept the issue alive for a few days, the story didn't really move forward. And this I presume is largely due to a variety of news being aired by a host of channels.

Not just "Operation Kalank", there was a good story on another channel, portraying a major scandal in UP. That exposé showed how police in UP has surpassed all levels of corruption. For as little as Rs 3,000, police officers were acting as contract killers and shooting down people in the name of 'encounters'. This was not an insignificant story. Rather it was a crucial expose showing the depths of corruption within our police force. Had this story appeared a few years ago, it would have made national headlines and would have been the talking point for a long time. But in today's circumstances, it vanished from the scene within days and couldn't even attract print media's attention.

Mushrooming news channels watering down impact of meaningful news reports

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This has to be attributed to the overcrowding in the TV news space, which has reduced the audience attention span. There are so many news items being dished out that your interest in something of importance vanishes swiftly. Rather to retain audience interest many a times too many stories are being splashed, so that the audience doesn't move away.

This was not the case, when a handful of established papers and news channels were in operation some years ago. For example, the much highlighted Maya Tyagi rape case, was covered extensively two decades ago. But today, such incidents barely make up for sustained coverage. This is the price of viewership/readership being paid by journalism.

But, there have been instances where TV news coverage has led an issue being brought to its logical conclusion. This was highlighted during Jessica Lal murder case and Rizwan ur Rehman suicide case. Such stories found news space on all networks for months together. Increasingly an impression has gained momentum that news reports pertaining to the urban upper middle class finds more space on TV than rural issues like farmers suicide. This can be explained by the logic of market forces. Television audience is mostly urban and news pertaining to urban middle class has greater retention value. Hence to cater to its core audience, television lays more emphasis on urban stories.

Talking of the year 2007, I feel, the audience has changed its choice and appeal. Issues like corruption don't appeal to viewers anymore. Maybe people have accepted it as an integral part of our society. Therefore an exposé featuring corruption doesn't interest the audience, to a large extent.

The problem with television is that it has only one screen and can show only one story at a time. While a newspaper may have more than 30-40 pages and it can publish many news items on one page. Also it has a luxury to have theme based pages like, national, international, sports, business, regional, henceforth. The reader has the choice to read or skip items or even an entire page that does not interest him/her. If a reader doesn't find a news item or even some pages of the newspaper of his/her interest, he/ she may skip the news item or that particular page, but he/she will not change the newspaper only because some stories were not of his/her interest.

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