Just when I thought news trivialisation by a section of Indian media could not get worse, it did. And how.
In a control room somewhere on the French-Swiss border, scientists of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, waited for the first signals to come in from a $9 billion particle collider as they embarked on an experiment to unlock secrets of the universe.
In a town somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, farmer Biharilal’s daughter Chayya sat glued to the TV screen, taking in the graphics and amateur video game imagery put together by vernacular news channels who said the experiment would bring about the end of the world.
The fact that I’m sitting here writing this is proof enough the world did not end. But Chayya, who killed herself fearing what doomsday prophets said would be the experiment’s cataclysmic effects, is not around to see that.
Sensationalism in 24×7 news coverage is relatively new to India — a concept borrowed from the larger and more prolific western media. In India, every road accident, murder and rape makes delightful copy for news channels vying for the attention of elusive viewers with serious commitment issues.
In a country where a sudden media boom led by rapid economic growth and freeing of entertainment and media markets has resulted in a plethora of channels all “bringing news first”, viewers switch loyalties before you can utter the word ‘TRP’.
The viewers have seen it all, they control the remote control and unless you hold them down with the right concoction of sensation, sleaze and news, they just won’t stay.
Which meant that the fear psychosis created by vernacular channels on the biggest scientific experiment of our time spread like wildfire across the country. The rationalists logged on to the internet to know more about the Big Bang project while the religious held prayer sessions.
What shocked me was how ill-informed and factually incorrect some of these channels were on scientific trivia. A channel repeatedly referred to this “big dark hole” in the universe in the same hushed tone little Red Riding Hood’s mother would use to caution her against the big bad wolf.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 to two Indian TV channels asking them to show restraint in the coverage of the Big Bang experiment.
The Big Bang episode brings back flashes from the Aarushi murder case and the murders in Nithari. The media hijacked both of these cases in its tearing hurry to break sensational and gory news.
Doctors say youngsters came in to report nightmares soon after the murder of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar when news media pointed an accusatory finger at the girl’s parents.
Psychiatrist Samir Parikh advocates the judicious use of the power of information that rests with the media.
“Do not give out half information, act responsibly,” he says.
For the impressionable section of India’s uneducated population without access to correct information, speculations based on a colourful imagination could act as a trigger, as in the case of Chayya.
Most vernacular channels and newspapers have realized the untapped marketing potential in the semi-urban and rural populace who in turn are indirectly redefining content by wanting their own spin and refusing to be force-fed news from mainstream English media.
On the whole, media does more good than bad, says Parikh. And I agree. It was the pro-active role by the Indian media that led to the triumph of justice in the murder case of model Jessica Lall.
I could go on about the countless times my brethren saved the day, but among other things, this post is mainly about restraint.