The nation is celebrating the fact that “we” finally got the Oscars. Sure, this was and remains a very proud moment—but was this all there was to the news for the day? Everywhere I looked, I only saw, read and heard about Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar glory. This is not the first time Indian media has done a blanket coverage of one news item. During the last one year we saw similar blanket coverage during various terror attacks including the Mumbai ones; the trust vote drama in Parliament, and India’s Olympic medal winners. All these stories got blanket coverage: they accounted for entire news bulletins during prime time and took up almost the entire front pages of most newspapers.
My primary concern is not whether the news actually warrants such blanket coverage, but, more importantly, on whether the numerous media options available actually provide us diverse views and choice that media pundits propagate as essential in a thriving democracy.
Well, as it turns out, even as the world’s biggest democracy prepares for the coming general election, the viewer was deprived of a significant relevant news item on the day of the Oscar euphoria. It was decided that the issue of “negative” voting where a voter is allowed to reject all candidates in the fray be referred to the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court but this significant issue was relegated to some back pages of the leading newspapers. The television channels, of course, did not even consider this newsworthy. The viewer was simply subjected to the same “breaking news” about the Oscars across all channels. At moments such as these, one wonders why we need so many news channels if the news aired is going to be exactly the same.
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Prime time news is usually the most watched, and therefore also the most popular with advertisers. Continuing with the example of the Oscars and Slumdog Millionaire, details of coverage on a single day (22 February) during prime time (7-11pm) show how different channels gave between 50% and 80% coverage to this one single story. Remember, this was news that had broken much earlier the same morning. Regional channels, too, were also not far behind in their coverage: In Telugu channels, for instance, it accounted for 20-30% of the coverage.
The situation has been the same for other news that is important or considered that.
Also See Blanket Coverage (Graphic)
We saw this when we won our first Olympic gold medal and the news channels spent 60-98% of their prime time news on this single story. The Mumbai attacks were treated similarly. Again, I am not questioning the criticality of the news and its importance, but surely there must have been other news that day?
This lack of option or choice for those who would like to see other news of the day is bewildering in the current news media scenario, especially when we have almost 80 news channels and another 120 waiting in the wings. What perplexes me is that in a country such as ours where there are so many important critical issues to do with health, environment, education and governance, there is no dearth of news. However, our news channels (almost all of them) prioritize stories that either have a feel-good factor (awards or sports) or deal with terror attacks or mob clashes.
Television news today is all about breaking news and news as it is happening. But in the long run, the credibility and standing that the television news channels enjoy today may actually become a function of their editorial mix and balance.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphics by Paras Jain / Mint