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When the story broke, Tejpal made headlines across dailies
When the story broke, Tejpal made headlines across dailies

When every newspaper becomes a tabloid

Why was it necessary for the media to cover the Tarun Tejpal story in this detail?

What is one to make of the Tarun Tejpal story? Why was it necessary for the media to cover it in this detail? How did it come to dominate the news cycle in the middle of an important election blanking out other stories, including that of a prime ministerial candidate’s reported misuse of his police?

The Times of India reported last Sunday that: “Not only was there barely any live coverage of the Modi rally (on Saturday) despite being held in Delhi but it did not receive detailed mention in news bulletins through the day."

It continued: “The Tejpal story on the other hand, despite lacking any development through most of the day by way of dramatic visuals or leaked mails, dragged on as the nation waited for a Goa court to decide if he would be arrested or not." The Times of India is itself not exempt from this and the top story on its website that day was how the Tejpal family chatted noisily and ordered sandwiches on their flight to Goa.

Is the coverage of this story an indicator of something larger? I believe so.

Let’s have a look at media structurally to understand the phenomenon in terms of theory. We can identify and link the media category to the material it is primarily concerned with covering.

At one end of the news spectrum is the report on one individual and one incident. The more famous the person is, the smaller the incident required to qualify it as news (Sachin Tendulkar retires, Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri have a surrogate baby, Tejpal accused of rape). These stories are usually of no concern to the reader and do not affect the world at large.

However, this is a legitimate space for reportage and media that focuses purely on this sort of journalism on one person and one event is what is called “tabloid".

There is a class bias here. Such news is aimed at and consumed by the lower classes, who are not very educated and interested in popular rather than high culture. It is the blue-collar masses who subscribe to tabloids such as The Sun in London, which are the best exponents of such journalism.

At the other end of the spectrum is the report unrelated to the individual, such as on policy or politics or economics. This is the domain of the broadsheet, like The Guardian or The New York Times, and magazines like our Economic & Political Weekly.

The subject of their coverage usually affects more people. Business journalism occupies the same space by default because of its areas of interest. This is why business journalists and business journalism tends to be better than regular media, especially in places like India.

Even in civilized nations, at times all media converge on the tabloid story: We have the examples of O.J. Simpson, an actor and former American football player, Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern who was at the centre of a political sex scandal, and Britain’s Princess Diana.

But these are episodes. The media in the West holds its formation for most stories.

In India, it is not so. The mass media, all of it, descends to the tabloid end of the news spectrum. The resulting news coverage is high intensity but episodic. Delhi rape/Talwar conviction/Tejpal arrest. It is noise without illumination.

After politicians and policemen, the media understands Indians best because it is plugged into audience response through daily sales. This is especially so for television journalists, who receive story-specific data on consumption.

Television has pushed newspapers further this way, meaning towards popular journalism. Till 15 years ago, the news agenda was determined by the main wire service, the Press Trust of India, which fed newspapers national stories and even instructed them on the day’s “lead" stories. That has changed totally and last night’s television determines the morning’s front page.

Things that would have been ignored or underplayed earlier by the brave or stubborn editor are now irresistible national stories because they are made so by Times Now, CNN-IBN and NDTV in English and their corresponding channels in Hindi.

Newspapers feel they have lost control of the direction of news coverage.

There is a second structural issue in India, which affects the media’s output. What is upmarket in the West—high culture, meaning literature, classical music and art—doesn’t exist in our media. Newspapers have been cleansed of such distractions thoroughly. There are almost no pages dedicated to it.

In India what is actually downmarket in the West—celebrity gossip (“Page 3")—is called upmarket in the trade. All editors are familiar with the demand from proprietors and advertising sales executives to make their paper “more upmarket".

It is serious journalism—stories about middle India and its problems—that is called downmarket here.

This inversion, we must accept, comes from audience demand and a lack of audience fragmentation, meaning most Indians are fine with this. That, of course, means things will remain this way.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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