Political crisis and the role of 24x7 channels

Political crisis and the role of 24x7 channels

The events have highlighted how media, especially omnipresent news channels, have been used, misused, even abused.

Andhra Pradesh is a state that has seen proliferation of both print publications and television channels. The increase in number of print publications has been matched, step for step, by television channels and there are around a dozen 24x7 news channels in Telugu and half a dozen other Telugu channels that air news.

The intense competition between these channels and publications has resulted in provocative and sensational coverage of news.

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The competition is most visible in the television news space. Here, channels have gone all out, to the extent of playing the melodrama card, to stand out.

Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint

It is now becoming clear that most channels exaggerated the intensity of the first phase of the pro-Telangana agitation. Several repeatedly screened the same clip of baton-weilding policemen dispersing a group of protestors. The channels also served as an ideal forum for heated exchanges between pro- and anti-Telangana advocates but the position of each channel was clear.

Every minute of the protests (both pro- and anti-Telangana) were captured by the channels. Live.

They didn’t miss a single immolation, suicide attempt, or student march.

And they repeatedly screened clips of the most violent protests.

All through this period, the news channels hosted continuous studio discussions, and welcomed phone-ins from viewers across the state’s three regions. Many also conducted SMS polls.

It’s important to highlight here that most publications and television channels in Andhra Pradesh are associated or aligned with one party or another, and have business interests that political affiliations can make or break. Not surprisingly, recent months in the state have seen significant misuse of media power to steer the debate.

Politicians and protestors have provoked and at the same time leveraged this coverage to their benefit. Even viewers who cannot understand Telugu would have made out which scenes were being orchestrated for the cameras and which dialogues being spewed to provoke.

The worst infraction by the channels was their reportage (see graph of coverage on 7-8 January by various channels) on a speculative article on a website on the possible hand of an Indian corporate house in Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s death. This resulted in violent protests across the state. The courts had to finally intervene to stop any further media discussions on the subject.

Telugu news channels have been often complimented on their range and depth. Indeed, CMS (Centre for Media Studies) studies have repeatedly pointed out and praised such channels for their innovative programming. For instance, many of them displayed commendable concern and support during their coverage of the recent cyclone in the state. Their energetic coverage of this disaster ensured that the affected got the right kind of assistance from authorities.

However, the ongoing political cyclone is a different matter. Perhaps personal agendas and political affiliations are dictating the priorities of channels. How many deaths, victims and perils do we have to witness before such blatant misuse and abuse of television news channels can be reined in?

What’s happening in Andhra Pradesh is an example of how politically affiliated news channels can destroy the harmony of our society. Such a scenario is already visible in Tamil Nadu and is slowly emerging in other states. It’s time to tighten the internal checks and balances in the media to stem or control the trend.

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 fineprint@livemint.com