#Throwback2020: The year of noise in the news industry

From rebrandings & brave coverage to the alleged TRP scandal & fake news.

NEW DELHI: It would be no exaggeration to describe 2020 as a nightmarish sequence straight out of an apocalyptic film – with a global pandemic throwing the world in turmoil, disturbing footage of numerous coffins being lowered into the ground, a number of beloved celebrities breathing their last, and a sense of uncertainty looming over everyone’s head. Industries across sectors battled production-stoppages, demand changes, cash crunch, and had to make many tough choices for sustenance. It was no different for the Indian news industry. While the year also turned out to be a hot bed of controversies, the businesses also won big on certain levels. It went through its own set of good, bad and ugly moments through the year. 

Innovations, launches & rebrandings

Despite the prevailing state of affairs, 2020 was marked by new beginnings. Several prime media outlets including ABP News Network, Zee Hindustan, Suvarna News, News18 Rajasthan, India Ahead, and Hindustan Times got rebranded. Apart from that, Republic launched its Hindi and Bengali websites, and TV9 and AajTak entered the Bangla digital news market. TV9 also forayed into the business content vertical this year.

In terms of innovation, apart from stellar programming line-ups and marketing for Delhi, Bihar, and the US elections, special programmes for Covid2019 coverage, some media houses experimented in their offerings too. While Republic Bharat and Republic TV started streaming on e-commerce platform Flipkart, TOI launched a unique print-linked digital game called Times Housie Plus. 

The frontline battle with the pandemic

While most of the world went into a work-from-home mode, hundreds of journalists joined the frontline forces battling the pandemic, keeping the 24x7 news cycles running for channels, digital outlets, and the print medium. From doing pathbreaking on-ground coverage from red-zone areas, walking alongside migrant labourers for miles, and brave journalism on cases like Hathras and the farmer’s protests, to holistic reporting on Bihar and the US elections, the Indian news industry tried its best to keep citizens well-informed. In fact, to a large extent the news media played a huge role in helping control the spread of the novel coronavirus by running campaigns advising citizens to stay home, and updating viewers about the latest news on the killer disease’s spread as well as measures being taken to bring it under control. News viewership on TV recorded a staggering 298 per cent growth during the initial 21-day lockdown, as per BARC data, as citizens struggled to stay informed in a world that seemed to be going insane. 

While media outlets were burning the midnight oil with full gusto, the pandemic hit them hard on the ad revenue and subscription front, which in turn led to a number of job losses, pay cuts, and shutdowns.

Outlook Magazine was one of the first to go under a temporary shutdown earlier this year, followed by The Bloomberg Quint shutting down its TV division, Sakal Media Group pulling the plug on Sakal Times and Gomantak Times, India Today network shuttering Delhi AajTak, and Times Group bidding adieu to Pune Mirror and relaunching Mumbai Mirror as a weekly. Several editions and bureaus of leading national newspaper shut down, and journalists once used to fat salaries and comfortable jobs were suddenly evicted from their desks and on to the streets. The cost cutting ran across hundreds of media organisations which suddenly saw advertisers vanishing into the distant horizon and showing very little signs of returning for most of the year. Thousands across media lost their jobs while some in NDTV, Quint, Times Group, India Today, Network18, etc bore the brunt of salary cuts for the major part of the year. 

Controversies galore

News media became a breeding ground for controversies in 2020 with many CEOs getting embroiled in police cases. Sanket Media director PVS Sarma got arrested by the enforcement directorate in a PMLA case. Republic TV and its ringmaster Arnab Goswami found themselves in a soup for their coverage on sensational topics like Palghar lynching, Bandra migrant crisis, Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise and then got accused of rigging the ratings. Goswami was also arrested in an alleged, dismissed abetment to suicide case from 2018, which he maintains is a case of vendetta against him by the Mumbai police chief commissioner ParamBir Singh for his critical reporting against the way Rajput’s case was being handled.  The  Mumbai police also booked the channel’s senior management and editorial staff for airing the news about a “revolt” against commissioner Param Bir Singh by the police force. 

An ABP Majha reporter got ensnared in the Bandra migrant crisis controversy when his name appeared in an FIR, citing that his false reportage played a role in gathering the crowd there. However, he was later released by the Supreme Court, which ruled that no direct connection could be established between his reporting and the people collecting at Bandra railway station.

Additionally, four prominent associations from Bollywood along with 34 leading producers filed a lawsuit against Republic TV and Times Now for irresponsible reporting in the Rajput case and vilifying the film industry. The channels were directed by the Delhi high court to refrain from posting any derogatory content. They were reprimanded by the court thus: “Media can't run a parallel trial. You're a broadcaster... show news. There is less news and more opinion… things are being pre-judged.”

Zee News editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary was named in an FIR registered by Kerala police for presenting “a programme that is offending the Muslim religion.”

“The highlight of the show on 11 March was the ‘jihad chart.’ In his show, he explained to his viewers what the chart detailed: ‘types of jihad,’” the report stated.

Another news channel that faced severe flak and action from the courts was Sudarshan News and its show Bindas Bol that somehow managed to find ‘jihad’ in the UPSC. 

The TRP turmoil

While all the channels worked hard to gain audiences, allegations of TRP manipulationerupted when the Mumbai police commissioner held a press conference stating that channels were paying viewers to say they were watching them.  Amongst those who were accused were the promoters of Fakt Marathi, Box Cinema and Republic TV. The latter had been running a campaign against the Mumbai police commissioner and the Maharashtra government led by Uddhav Thackeray about the Rajput investigation. The channel stated that the empire was fighting back, that ed-in-chief Arnab Goswami had nothing to do with any TRP shenanigans. But the police force picked him forcibly from his home and kept him in custody for seven days. And they kept on arresting more and more Republic TV executives; the harder Arnab cried and yelled unfair on TV, the harder they came down upon him and his team. At the time of writing, 12 arrests had been made, withthe latest being that of  Republic TV CEO Vikas Khanchandani.

In response to the scandal, the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) decided to suspend the measurement of television viewership ratings of all news channels for 12 weeks.

“Besides augmenting current protocols and benchmarking them with global standards, BARC is actively exploring several options to discourage unlawful inducement of its panel home viewers and further strengthening its code of conduct to address viewership malpractice," BARC CEO Sunil Lulla had said in a statement.

Integrity questioned

Probably the worst thing that could have happened to the industry this year was the scathing attacks it faced on its integrity as slew of fake news and “polarised opinions” battered the screens throughout the year. Several advertisers, like Parle and Bajaj, also said they would be forced to pull out monies from “toxic” news channels.

It was in February this year when several leading news channels covering the Jamia violence had falsely claimed that the wallet held in a student’s hands was a stone. Additionally, the students who were sitting in the library covering their faces to protect themselves from tear-gas shelling were called “rioters.” 

The same month, Wall Street Journal found itself mired in controversy as a police complaint was registered against it for spreading ‘fake news’ on the death of IB officer Ankit Sharma. The publication was said to be “defaming a particular religion” as they ran an interview of Sharma’s brother, who later said that he never made such a statement.

Then there was the scrum of fake news and disinformation surrounding the pandemic. It started with running scores of unverified or false reports on the role of Tablighi Jamaat in spreading the virus. A number of officials and city police sources had to clarify many myths, chiefly being peddled by several media outlets.

The Saharanpur police debunked the narrative of publications like Amar Ujala and Rajasthan Patrika that quarantined Tablighis in the city defecated in the open at the facility after being denied non-vegetarian food. 

The Arunachal Pradesh police called out Zee News for spreading false information about Coronavirus cases. The channel had claimed that 11 Tablighi members tested positive in the state, when in fact there was just one reported case of the virus infection there.

Noida police, too, cracked the whip on ANI News for misquoting and misreporting a quarantine exercise.

These are just a handful of the many instances of false reporting against the Jamaat,as well as the false narratives spun by news organisations amid the pandemic. From ABP News inventing a non-existing ICMR report stating how the lockdown lowered the Covid infections below expectations, to News18 misreporting SAARC nations and other countries joining PM Modi’sinitiative of lighting candles as a show of support for frontline warriors, to News 24 sharing old clips of namaz at Jama Masjid to claim that mass gatherings were happening during the lockdown, to the travesty that Bandra railway station became during the migrant crisis, the news industry blaredunwarranted noise this year. 

Most recently, several news channels including AajTak, ABP News, Times Now and Republic Bharat, engaged in high-pitch rhetoric for hours on the evening of 19 November, over a purported airstrike by Indian forces in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Eventually, PIB had to clear the air around this fake news in a tweet. 

Another black chapter that Indian media outlets wrote for themselves was when they started on their own will, a highly dramatised and unseemly media trial in the alleged Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case, which begged the question if there was any integrity or sensitivity left in the news industry

From splashing on screens the disturbing images of the actor’s dead body,shoving microphones into his grieving father’s face, to running a bogus post mortem on live television, news channels hit new lows in their quest for higher TRPs. Given this sorry state of affairs, the Press Council of India had to advise media outlets to adhere to the norms of journalistic conduct in their reportage. 

News outlets went hammer and tongs after Rajput’s paramour Rhea Chakraborty for her alleged, and till now unproven connection to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. From sensational headlines to character shaming, Indian news channels stooped as low as they could to grab every bit of misinformation, they could show the world. Personal privacy went for a toss as they accessed and “investigated” primetime actors’ leaked text messages. Also, Times Now anchors were seen struggling with millennial lingo as they thought “Imma Bounce” meant a check getting bounced. 

So, this was all the noise that newsrooms generatedin 2020. While the industry was lauded for its efforts to deal with the pandemic and keep the news cycle grinding on, it was also questioned for its reportage. No doubt, the TRP scandal has left an indelible blot on its image. However, some channels have told that they are taking this year as a lesson and using the time of TRP suspension to work on their content. Whether or not this year leads to a serious course correction, only time will tell. 

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